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This season can go one of two ways now

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Vanderbilt looked awful on Saturday, but we can’t ignore the upside they showed in getting to 3-0.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

You wouldn’t really be that far off the mark to suggest that Saturday was the worst performance of the Derek Mason era.

Even considering the level of competition, you also have to consider the fact that the talent level is pretty far ahead of where it was in 2014 and 2015. There’s a reason, after all, that Vanderbilt was an 18.5-point underdog; consider that Alabama opened as a 28-point favorite against Ole Miss this coming Saturday. Vanderbilt was completely and utterly dominated on both sides of the ball. We expected to lose to Alabama, but not like that.

So now, Derek Mason has maybe the biggest challenge of his career ahead of him. Over the next two weeks, Vanderbilt plays at Florida and then gets Georgia — which just moved into the top 10 — at home. Vanderbilt still has three November games it should win — Western Kentucky, Kentucky, and Missouri, all at home — in its back pocket to make bowl eligibility a likely proposition; whether Vandy sneaks into a bowl game at 6-6 (or, I guess, gets an APR bowl bid at 5-7) or goes 8-4 or better depends a lot on how well Mason rallies the troops in the coming week.

Bad losses like this can cause a team to go one of two directions. If you’re optimistic, the team had maybe gotten too confident after a 3-0 start and a win over Kansas State, and getting drilled by Alabama will give the team a renewed focus that will net them a win in the Swamp on Saturday (or a close loss and an upset a week later against UGA.)

But really bad losses like this can also send a team into a tailspin from which they never recover. You can probably live with losses to Florida and Georgia — which would probably knock the Commodores out of the East race, but at least if they’re competitive, you can live with them. On the other hand, road trips to Ole Miss and South Carolina following those two games are quite winnable, but not if Vanderbilt is playing like they did on Saturday.

So which is it going to be? Do the Commodores get back to business, or do they mail it in? The loss to Alabama isn’t a crisis — this team is still 3-1, and it’s shown Top 25 upside in the other three games — but it could be if Derek Mason doesn’t get the team’s focus back after it.