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Derek Mason makes “prescripted” quarterback switch

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The Vanderbilt head coach apparently thought this was an NFL preseason game.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Day Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

The Vanderbilt Commodores’ second offensive possession of the game on Thursday night was, perhaps, the best offensive possession we had seen in the Derek Mason era. Kyle Shurmur only attempted three passes, but he completed two of them for 22 yards as Vanderbilt marched down the field on a 13-play, 67-yard touchdown drive that ran 6:06 off the clock.

It was exactly what you expect a power-based, ball-control offense to look like. There weren’t a lot of big plays — the biggest was Shurmur completing a 16-yard pass to C.J. Duncan on 3rd and 3 — but it was an offense that looked like it could chew the clock and score points.

And then, on Vanderbilt’s next offensive possession, Wade Freebeck came out to play quarterback.

Was Shurmur hurt? Apparently not — Mason said in his press conference that they had planned all along for Freebeck to take some snaps. Freebeck played the next two possessions, in which Vanderbilt ran 6 plays and wound up gaining a grand total of 1 yard of offense. All of this because the coaching staff had apparently decided in advance to treat this as essentially an NFL preseason game.

This isn’t anything against Freebeck, but he’s the backup quarterback for a reason. There is no excuse to play the clear number two guy on the depth chart when the game is still in doubt and the starting quarterback is both effective and physically able to play. In the second quarter of a walkover game against an FCS team, where regardless of what the score is at the time, it’s only a matter of time before the game is over? Yeah, I can see it.

Against a Southeastern Conference opponent? In a game that counts in the standings? Are you kidding me?

I’ve defended Mason, not because there was anything particularly defensible about his first two seasons at Vanderbilt -- instead, largely out of a hope that he would learn from the mistakes he’d made in his first two years. But one game into his third season, and it’s clear that the very basic issues — like playing your best players — are not fixed. Comparing Reid Nelson’s two punts to Sam Loy’s punts (which there were way too many of, though that’s certainly not Loy’s fault) hints at the same basic issue. The coaching staff either does not recognize talent or they just want to get too cute with the depth chart.

And while you can’t necessarily draw a straight line from those decisions to the loss — Nelson’s punts, while not terribly effective, did not directly cost Vanderbilt in any way (in fact, one of his two punts got muffed by the South Carolina returner, leading to a Tommy Openshaw field goal), and Shurmur wasn’t terribly effective after the touchdown drive — these are the kind of decisions that speak to the basic competence of the coaching staff. I don’t like to be too harsh with my judgment, but these are the kind of inexplicable decisions that make it really easy to say that people just have no business being in their current positions.

In short — at least make it hard to argue that you should be fired.