After three decades of wandering through the desert, Vanderbilt football has reached a promised land of sports. The Commodores have gone to four bowl games in the last six seasons, doubling the program’s total postseason appearances. After a rocky start to the Derek Mason era, Vandy is trending upward once more; last season featured victories over Georgia, Ole Miss, and Tennessee.
But is that sustainable?
Mason built a successful team in his third season at the helm, utilizing a combination of James Franklin recruits — Zach Cunningham, Will Holden, Ralph Webb -- and his own — Kyle Shurmur, Nifae Lealao — to patch together a sneaky-dangerous team. While the team will lose contributors like Cunningham, Holden, Torren McGaster, and Adam Butler this spring, Vandy is primed to improve on last year’s 6-7 campaign.
That would be good news for Mason’s recruiting efforts. The fourth-year head coach reeled in his lowest-ranked incoming class this winter. After two-plus cycles with four-star recruits like Shurmur, Lealao, Josh Smith, and JoeJuan Williams headlining the Commodores’ haul, he went without a consensus four-star player in 2016. Past seasons have proven the program can win with unheralded prospects, but sustaining a high level of talent is the easiest way to be competitive in the SEC.
Fortunately, 2018 looks brighter. The ‘Dores have three members in next year’s recruiting class, two of whom should end their high school careers as blue-chip prospects. The Peddie School’s Allan Walters is a four-star passer who is helping buiild a pipeline from New Jersey to Nashville. His center, high three-star lineman Dan Dawkins, will follow him.
Those two, combined with three-star athlete Miles Jones, all committed after Vanderbilt had put the stamp on its six-win season and claimed an emphatic win over the Volunteers. While recruits were rightfully concerned about the direction of the program after Franklin’s departure, Mason’s strong finish to 2016 helped put the team back on track.
So what will this team look like in 2022?
Given last year’s improvements, there’s a solid chance Mason remains this team’s coach. He’s shown slow growth since taking over in 2014 — not the kind of meteoric rise that got Franklin poached by Penn State. Last year’s six-win campaign earned him some job security, but there’s no guarantee it will be sustainable.
Andy Ludwig is less likely to be with the program. He was a candidate for the Nevada head coaching job last winter and has never spent more than four seasons at a school in his 30-year career. You’d imagine several of the team’s assistants would leave as well as better opportunities arise. Of course, that also means potential openings from some guys in the coaching game with Vandy ties — like future defensive coordinator Chris Marve or quarterbacks coach Austyn Carta-Samuels.
The team itself? If early indications are correct, a handful of winning seasons would be enough to help Mason and his staff return Vanderbilt back to near-Franklin levels. That means top 50 recruiting classes in a bad year and top 30 guys in a good one. Not elite — but for Vandy, that’s still pretty damn good.
One thing that could throw a wrench into that is the program’s current stadium situation. The university keeps springing the idea of an off-campus venue on alumni, misguidedly hoping the missing ingredient from the fan experience is nicer benches and a more rigid tailgate structure. Moving the team would slash already-meager student attendance and alienate the program in a city that’s proven ambivalent to it. Some people may think moving from the West End is the way to engage more fans.
It’s not. Consistently winning is.
Vanderbilt Stadium certainly could use an upgrade, and an influx of fans (and seating) would require some parking reform on Natchez Trace. However, those are all improvements that can be made on campus. The key will be keeping the good parts of the gameday experience -- the ones that have long-suffering fans coming back — and enhancing them with a better venue with more comfortable seating, better sightlines, and other amenities.
As someone who went to school in Pittsburgh, I’ve seen the struggle Pitt has had bussing students out to Heinz Field. I’m not confident Vanderbilt can avoid those issues with a program that has a fraction of the tradition the Panthers do. You can make the argument visiting fans would be more apt to purchase tickets and tailgate at a more neutral site than campus, but
a) Vanderbilt fans are pretty damn welcoming
b) SEC gameday experiences aren’t meant to be a homogeneous experience
c) if you’re making moves to accommodate visiting fans rather than your own students, alumni, and season ticket holders, good lord.
In five years, scant attendance at an off-campus site could be the gaping wound in Vanderbilt’s recruiting strategy. Or, after a few more eight and nine-win seasons, a rowdy home crowd at a revamped Dudley Field could create the lasting memory that helps four-star recruits and young alumni alike decide to stick around.
2016 proved the future is trending upward for Vanderbilt. 2014 showed just how fragile that momentum can be. The Commodores need to take advantage of every opportunity they can get if they want to be consistently successful in the SEC. That means doing what’s right by the team and their supporters and keeping Vanderbilt Stadium on campus, where fans will have their voices heard the loudest.