Vanderbilt has been to three consecutive bowl games for the first time in school history and is breaking in a new head coach. Derek Mason is possibly the only first-year head coach in school history who is faced with expectations and pressure to win right out the gate.
This, from a traditional bottom feeder in the nation’s toughest league. Yes, times have certainly changed in Nashville.
That said, the fans’ optimism about the Dores chances at reaching the postseason is justified. Mason returns arguably the most talented roster in school history with a great backfield and excellent front seven on defense. And those two strengths set up perfectly for what Mason wants his program to be. His identity at Stanford was about being physical up front on both sides of the ball, running the rock and playing sound defense. This roster sets up nicely to quickly develop a personality similar to that of the Cardinal.
It helps, of course, that there are a lot of wins to be had on the 2014 schedule as well.
2014 Vanderbilt Schedule Analysis
The first thing about the Commodores schedule to point out is the non-conference schedule. Vanderbilt is a team and Mason is a coach who needs to pick up wins out of the SEC the ’14 slate provides that opportunity. Temple, UMass, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion are as easy a non-con slate as there is in the SEC and Vandy should easily be 4-0. Any loss in that group would be considered a tremendous disappointment.
Early swing games at home
Vandy won’t leave the friendly confines of Nashville until a trip to Kentucky in Week 5. Two of those four home tilts, however, will come against SEC title contenders in South Carolina (Week 4) and Ole Miss (Week 2 - at LP Field). The Dores have played very well against these two programs at home but have lost to both in Nashville the last two visits. Expect a lot of fans dressed in some shade of red to be at both games. An 0-2 start to the SEC schedule is very possible.
On the road in October
The trip to Lexington on Sept. 27 will be tough as the Wildcats are improving and may be the only SEC win Vandy can pencil in during the first two months of the season. The game against Kentucky marks a tough road stretch that will feature three road SEC games in a four-game span, including trips to East Division frontrunner Georgia (Week 6) and defending division champ Missouri (Week 9) during the month of October. The good news is what amounts to back-to-back off weekends in between. Vandy hosts Charleston Southern and gets an off weekend between games with the Dawgs and Tigers.
Finishing strong is a must
Three of the last four games in 2014 will come at home and will feature a must-win (ODU), a rivalry swing game (Tennessee) and best chance for an upset (Florida). Vandy beat both Tennessee and Florida last year but both expect to be much improved, so wins are not locks this year. Mix in a very difficult trip to Starkville to face Mississippi State between the Gators (Week 11) and Vols (Week 14). Again, the good news is a bye week falls on Week 12, giving Mason and his staff two weeks to prepare for the important final two week stretch.
The non-conference slate all but assures that Vandy will return to a bowl game. A 2-6 record is likely all Mason will need to get to the postseason. That said, the East Division continues to improve around Vanderbilt and the crossover slate is really tough with both Magnolia State schools showing marked improvement. Another nine wins seems like a long shot but there is no reason to think Vandy can’t have another winning season.