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How Does Vanderbilt Get To 6-6 in 2016?

It's going to be an uphill battle, but an improved Vanderbilt team would have a reasonable shot at six wins and getting to a bowl game for the first time since 2013.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Derek Mason's first year at Vanderbilt produced a vast quantity of horrifying images (Stephen Rivers, anyone?) and some considerable improvements, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, still led to only a 4-8 record -- albeit one that included a pair of two-point losses and a coulda/shoulda/woulda game at South Carolina.  There were really only three games last season in which the Commodores were truly uncompetitive (granted, it's not a good sign that all three of those came late in the season.)

So what do the Commodores need to do to get to 6-6 next year?  It's not going to be easy, but it's doable.  Here is Vanderbilt's 2016 football schedule; projected S&P+ ratings are from this post.

Date Opponent S&P+
9/1 South Carolina 63
9/10 Middle Tennessee 90
9/17 at Georgia Tech 54
9/24 at Western Kentucky 45
10/1 Florida 19
10/8 at Kentucky 83
10/15 at Georgia 15
10/22 Tennessee State NR
11/5 at Auburn 24
11/12 at Missouri 47
11/19 Ole Miss 7
11/26 Tennessee 9

So here are the key points:

  • Beat Tennessee State. Duh.  Tennessee State was a 4-6 FCS team in 2015, so if Mason can't win that game, he has no business coaching in the SEC.
  • Beat South Carolina and Middle Tennessee. While I hate to label games as "must-win," there is probably no realistic scenario in which Vanderbilt can lose either of these two games and get to 6-6.  Depending on how much Vanderbilt has improved going into next season, the Commodores might be able to win four or more of the remaining games on the schedule.  But since these also double as Vanderbilt's first two opponents, let's just go ahead and say that if Vandy can't win these two games, they're probably not "vastly improved" over last season (*unless either South Carolina or MTSU is far better than they were last year.)
  • Win three of these six games: at Georgia Tech, at Western Kentucky, Florida, at Kentucky, at Missouri, Tennessee. I'm tempted to say that Kentucky is a "must-win," but (a) the game is in Lexington, and (b) while Kentucky is assumed to be worse than last year, who knows, they could be salty.  As for the rest, Georgia Tech is coming off an uncharacteristic 3-9 year, Western Kentucky loses their quarterback, Missouri has a new coach, and Florida and Tennessee come to Nashville.

If there's a negative to the 2016 schedule, it's that Vanderbilt really has only one "sure" win.  If the Commodores regress at all -- or even if they just get a lot of bad bounces -- then 2-10 is a very real possibility, and 2-10 means Mason is almost certainly done.

The positive is that there also aren't many truly unwinnable games on the schedule; I didn't include Georgia, Auburn, or Ole Miss on the list above, but Georgia has a new coach, Auburn is still reeling a bit from last year, and at least Ole Miss comes to Nashville.  So if Vanderbilt sees some improvement on the offensive side of the ball and maybe gets a few bounces to go their way, 6-6 (or better) is very realistic.  But the first part of that sentence is the open question, and whether it gets solved will go a long way in deciding whether Derek Mason will be in Nashville for a while -- or if he's going to be a defensive coordinator in 2017.