The wifey and I just bought our first tickets to a Commodores game since the Stadium In The 'Hood Bowl of early 2014. Yep, we'll be breathing the rarefied air of Section F Saturday evening as the 'Dores take on Southwest Conference foe Texas A&M. That makes this my first game of the Derek Mason Era. (In my own defense, we live near Knoxville [aka Murvul, aka home of The General], so being regular home-game attendees isn't exactly a plan.)
I have to admit that I've gone back and forth these past two seasons in my evaluations of Derek Mason's suitability for his job. I was excited about the hire, then grossly discouraged by the abysmal lack of results in 2014 (as we all were) but then gradually encouraged as this season has worn on.
Right now, I would characterize this team as Schrodinger's Commodores.
It's hard to be certain where this team is right now. I think that at any given moment, it can simultaneously be considered to both be alive and dead. The differing opinions I read weekly on AoG illustrate the opposing viewpoints. The problem is that we likely won't really know the answer until we open the box on this team next season and see what having key players healthy again and having another year of experience under the players' (and coaches') belts will do to take the offense (and then, presumably, the team overall) to the next level.
A lot of what we find in the box next season depends on Derek Mason. I tend to lean toward giving a guy a chance, and in the case of a head coach, the consensus definition of first chance seems to average around three years. And consider: Just as Mason's players have been young and had to adapt to new schemes (and college football in general), we musn't forget that first-time head coaches have to learn too. No one steps into that job and immediately earns nicknames like Old Ball Coach (or Head Ball Coach. Which is it again?).
As OBP might have said, Derek Mason "has a ways to go" as a head coach. Has he made some head-scratch-inducing decisions? Yes. But perhaps the litmus test should be: Has CDM shown that he's at least learning and growing? Without inundating you with statistics (I have none), my contention is that he is. See firing Kotulski and stepping in as DC. See firing Dorrell and hiring Ludwig. See realizing that McCrary was not only not a long-term solution for the program but also not a solution to finish this season. See reducing his arsenal of "Uhs" and "You knows" in press conferences by at least 37 percent.
There will always be Pitchforkers and nay-sayers. But in true Sunshine Pump-ite manner, I will say that Mason at least has the defensive end of the equation balanced. In a huge way. In his second year. I think we can all agree on that. And as much as people hate burning red shirts, what was the alternative? Let McCrary INT the team into another 3-9 record and then have Shurmur come in next season with zero game experience? Perhaps slightly less wobbly than a newborn foal, The Shurminator is 2-1 as a starter, both wins coming in the SEC (the game he lost, he was removed from with a concussion). Think how much better he'll be prepared for next year.
But facts be damned. On just a gut level, I'm starting to believe again. Just watching Shurmur fire an on-target pass, via Trent Sherfield's or Nathan Marcus's hands/chest, to the turf is still encouraging. Seeing this patchwork O line give Shurmur some time to throw is encouraging. Seeing Ralph Webb on his way to eclipsing rushing records is encouraging. And needless to say, watching Black Death absolutely shut down SEC offenses on a weekly basis is flat-out orgasmic.
So maybe what seemed early on as just hollow talk of a Process by CDM was more than that. Maybe we're starting to see The Process reap dividends (hell, we already have defensively). Maybe if we're patient and give it more time, the offense will follow suit. The alternative? Hit the Reset button, hire the devil we don't know and give next year's team their fourth offensive coordinator and scheme in four years.
All that being said, I still think that right now, this is Schrodinger's Commodores. Will we win out and make a bowl this year? Possibly. Perhaps more likely not. I'm mentally prepared to drive to Nashville Saturday and help give the seniors a proper send-off but watch the team walk off the field with bowl-eligibility scenarios exhausted. But I'm not assuming that will be the case. We'll be in the game fo' sho'.
For the first time since 2013, I'm at least willing to fully invest in this team again, not just financially but with an even rarer commodity – belief. Make no mistake; I'm no fair-weather fan. I've been anguishing over this franchise for 35 years now. But regardless of how the rest of this season turns out, I can't help but believe that we're going to like what we see when we open that box in 2016.