Is Derek Mason on the hot seat? Our overlords at SB Nation don't seem to think so. The second-year Commodore coach escaped a mention in their examination of FBS heads that could be fired unless they make major gains in 2015.
But while Mason's chair won't ignite this fall, he'll still be under plenty of scrutiny. Expectations are low in Nashville. ESPN has made the Commodores their default #14 pick for nearly every SEC ranking they can come up with. If they fail to exceed the incredibly shallow standard set upon them, discussions about firing the Vanderbilt coach will pop up on talk radio across the state for minutes at a time before being shoved aside for tirades about how great Butch Jones's recruiting classes are and whether or not Bruce Pearl should come back to Knoxville.
The primary measurement of growth will be the 'Dores 2015 record. Mason inherited a program that averaged eight victories per season under his predecessor. He limped to only three wins in his first season. There were plenty of constraints on the rookie coach's performance - he inherited a roster that had been ravaged by turnover and had less than a month to lock down his premier recruiting class - but no amount of caveats can salvage the disaster that was 2014. In the simplest possible terms, even a four-win season would help dull the vivid memories of Stephen Rivers chest passes and 30-point defeats to Big East castoffs.
But that's not the only option. Though it seems counterintuitive, there is still a way for Mason to earn this program's confidence with another 3-9 season. Vanderbilt squeezed out those three wins last fall in the ugliest possible fashion. Their 42-28 win over Old Dominion was the only contest where they displayed basic offensive competence. They needed the equivalent of a missed extra point to beat UMass at home. They defeated an 8-4 FCS team by a single point.
Their losses were even worse. They didn't have a single-digit margin of defeat until their final game of the season. The Commodores finished outside the top 100 in nearly every meaningful statistical measurement, and there were only 125 FBS programs that year. In short, that 2014 Vanderbilt Football team was one of the worst to play at Dudley Field in the new millennium.
That leaves plenty of room for improvement, even if wins don't follow. Derek Mason made the right moves this offseason. He fired his close friend and offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell and brought in a play caller with a history of success in Andy Ludwig. He cut another Stanford transplant in David Kotulski and decided to take over the defense himself. He got out on the recruiting trail and brought three four-star players to Nashville despite a borderline unwatchable 2014 season. These are achievements that should help lighten the storm clouds that have gathered over Natchez Trace.
However, those moves won't mean anything unless the product on the field improves. Mason and Ludwig can escape another three-win season if they can turn this team's offense from the dirt worst to even a league-average unit. They'll win fans back by turning 44-17 blowouts into 31-27 squeakers. The Vanderbilt Commodores can regain the respect they lost in 2014 by developing back into the dangerous squad they'd been under James Franklin and Bobby Johnson, even if this young team ultimately falls short in those upset bids. Vandy's roster is stocked with underclassmen. They're building something big for the future. Showing some significant improvement - any kind of foundation for the future - would give fans and players hope for 2016 and beyond, even if it didn't translate to victories in 2015.
That's the key to keeping Derek Mason's job secure. His success in his second year won't just be measured by wins and losses. He'll have to prove that he can push this team in the right direction, and he's got one more year before those defeats begin to define his legacy.
Derek Mason was dealt a tough hand in Nashville. He inherited a team that lost almost all the key starters that had taken them to nine-win seasons in the previous two years. The departing head coach left town with a handful of prospects and left him with recruiting classes that looked great on paper but have failed to live up to the hype on the field. He's earned some leeway - but that goodwill will run out very quickly if the Commodores are as bad in 2015 as they were in 2014. While he's not on the hot seat yet, a failure to improve despite a talented young core could ultimately align the end date of his tenure in Nashville.
Of course, an 1-11 season, with the lone victory coming in Knoxville and knocking the Vols out of bowl contention would buy him a year of goodwill, too.