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Addressing the elephant in the room

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Derek Mason’s record against actual good teams is... pretty awful.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

In four-plus years at Vanderbilt, Derek Mason is 20-33. That’s not great, but it’s honestly better than most of his predecessors’ save for his most immediate predecessor.

In SEC games, Derek Mason is now 6-27. That’s not good. Against all Power 5 teams (yes, I’m including Notre Dame in that), he’s 7-30. Throw in a couple of games against the AAC (POWER 6!!!) and Mason is 7-32.

But let’s narrow that even further. Mason has faced eight Power 5 teams that finished the season with five wins or fewer, and he’s 4-4 in those games. Against Power 5/AAC teams that finished the season with six or more wins, Mason is 3-28. Yes, I’m assuming for effect that Notre Dame and South Carolina will finish this season with at least six wins. Deal with it.

(Now, the obvious flaw here is that by switching a loss to a team that finished 6-6, like Ole Miss last year, to a win, that would no longer count as a game against a team that finished with six wins. Just roll with it. The record is bad is the point.)

This certainly isn’t anything new. Woody Widenhofer went 1-26 in such games over his five-year tenure; Bobby Johnson went 6-50. Even James Franklin only went 5-14. Now, Franklin had a strong record (19-1) against everybody outside that group, which Mason (17-5) has largely kept up, and that’s what separates him from Johnson (who went 23-16 in such games) and especially Widenhofer (14-14... ouch.)

There’s certainly value in reliably beating mid-major opponents, particularly since it’s not as though Mason has gone out of his way to schedule the dregs of Division I. Failure to reliably beat those teams, along with a consistent struggle to beat even the bottom tier of the SEC, is how you end up going 25 years without making a bowl game. But it’s the rare season in which Vanderbilt can attain bowl eligibility just by beating all of the bad teams on the schedule. (That might be the case in 2018, what with Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Tennessee all looking like teams that could finish below .500.)

It’s not unusual for a coach to post a worse record against the better teams on the schedule; better teams, after all, are better teams for a reason. But it’s unusual for a coach to have this much of a gap between performances against bad teams and performances against good teams. The kind of team that beats Nevada 41-10 doesn’t normally lose 37-14 to South Carolina at home; the kind of team that wins at Tennessee 42-24 generally doesn’t also get blown out by Kentucky and Missouri at home.

This dichotomy is what’s been frustrating about Mason’s tenure, and particularly the last year-plus. 2017 started off promising before the Alabama game happened, and the rest of the season looked more like the Alabama game than the first three games — save for a one-game breather against Western Kentucky. 2018, so far, has followed the same pattern.