If you need a few hints as to why Vanderbilt struggled on the football field in Derek Mason’s first two years at the helm, a look back at the 2011 and 2012 recruiting classes should tell you everything you need to know.
The utter lack of contributions that Vanderbilt got from the 2011 class is rather stunning (or perhaps it shouldn’t be; after all, James Franklin had a month and a half to sell recruits on Robbie Caldwell’s 2-10 team.) The 2012 class was a bit better, but for the most part it was marred by attrition, injuries, and just general disappointment. Those are the players who should have been the upperclassmen leading the charge, and by and large, they weren’t. It’s no wonder then that Vanderbilt went 7-17, and 2-14 in the SEC.
Around this time last year, I wrote that we shouldn’t judge Derek Mason on his first two years. And that maxim holds true. Aside from the extreme cases — the Urban Meyers on one end and the Rod Dowhowers on the other — you really can’t tell anything from a coach’s first two years at a new job. By and large, the structure of college football, with limits on the number of new scholarship players a coach can bring in annually and with precious few immediate impact players available (both of which are distinguishable from basketball), dictates that a new head coach’s first two years are mostly a reflection on the state of the program he inherited. Jim Harbaugh needed a couple of years to put out the dumpster fire Walt Harris left behind at Stanford, and Bill Snyder needed a couple of years just to make Kansas State competitive. On the opposite end, Charlie Weis made BCS bowls in his first two years at Notre Dame, and Will Muschamp produced a top 10 finish in his second year at Florida; inheriting a good situation can mask a new coach’s deficiencies for a couple of years. More recently, Kevin Sumlin and Gus Malzahn both looked like keepers early on, but their more recent performances have called that into question.
Year three is different. A new coach who’s inherited a rebuilding job has had a couple of years to bring in his own recruits. The holdovers from the previous staff have had two years to learn the new system, and the coach’s first couple of recruiting classes have had some time to adjust to the college game. There are still some limits on what a coach can accomplish in three years, but for coaches who took over a moribund program, you can start to see some real upside (or not) in the third year. For coaches who took over a program that was in good shape, deficiencies may start to rear their ugly head in the third year (like Muschamp’s 4-8 season at Florida in 2013.)
I’ve been accused of being perhaps too defensive of Mason’s struggles at the helm, and while there certainly have been some things that he could have done better, the basic problem with the team in 2014 and 2015 has been a sheer lack of talent (and depth) at too many positions on the field — particularly at quarterback. While almost everyone agrees that Mason’s handling of the quarterback position in 2014 was awful, it’s also true that not having an SEC-ready quarterback available for much of the season played a significant role. You can blame the cook for burning your steak — but you can’t blame him for being unable to turn ground chuck into filet mignon.
But now? The upperclassmen on the roster are mostly either Mason’s own recruits or they’re coming from James Franklin’s 2013 recruiting class (which some services ranked in the top 25 nationally.) Mason has had two full recruiting classes to plug holes on the depth chart or to upgrade the talent level where necessary, so any holes that remain are on him because he’s had time to address them. Some of Mason’s own recruits have had a year or two to adjust to the college game, and the holdovers from Franklin have had two full years to learn the new system. And Mason himself now has two years of experience as a head coach, rather than zero.
In other words — 2016 is a make-or-break year for Derek Mason. For better or worse, the 2016 season can fairly be called a reflection on Mason’s abilities as a head coach. If Mason has upside as a head coach, we should start to see some evidence of it this year. That doesn’t mean going 10-2, but going 7-5 and finishing in the top 40 in advanced metrics would suggest that Mason knows what he’s doing here. Another 4-8 season with a putrid offensive performance can’t be blamed on what he inherited.
None of this, of course, is to suggest that Mason will be fired (or even that he should be fired) if the team fails to make a bowl game — we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. But it is to say that at the end of this season, we should be able to make a fair assessment of the coach. And that’s not something we’ve been able to say before this year.