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Derek Mason: Peaked or Still on the Rise?

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Is 6-7 the limit for the head Commodore?

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt
He looks pretty determined to keep getting better...
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Derek Mason has had his continued employment as Vanderbilt University’s head football coach under a microscope since August 28, 2014. That night against Temple was one of the darkest days in the history of a football program with plenty of dark days. Mason was following on the heels of a coach who had won 9 games at Vanderbilt. In Football. TWICE. Derek Mason also came to Vanderbilt as one of the hottest young names in college football. While having never been a head coach, his time at Stanford had set the young coach up as one of the names to watch in the years to come. Then the Het Wettening happened. In the succeeding years, Vanderbilt football has come a long way, but has it reached its peak under Derek Mason? For that answer, we need to go back to where it started and look at how the football program has changed since then.

The team that played a lightning-delayed opener against the Temple Owls looked nothing like the one who won 9 games the prior year. The lauded new coach was completely shell-shocked. The QB carousel was spinning so fast that Stephen Rivers would eventually forget how to read. Bowl games, which had become somewhat common, were a thing of the past until this coach was fired. This coach needed to be fired now and not a moment later!

Unfortunately, the season did not end there. Maybe if it had then Het Wettening could have been written off as a fluke. Instead, Ole Miss would beat us the next Saturday 41-3. The rest of the season included 3 wins over UMass (3 points and only avoided OT due to a missed chip shot FG), FCS Charleston Southern (1 point), and Old Dominion (14 points!). We also got drubbed 51-0 by Mississippi State. A sign of things to come appeared at the end of the season, as Mason would take over the defensive play calling and only fall to THEM 24-17. The season was an unmitigated disaster. The calls for Derek Mason’s job were justified, but the late David Williams allowed Mason to stay after a series of conversations where the head coach laid out his plans for the way forward.

That plan included firing both the offensive and defensive coordinators then hiring Andy Ludwig to oversee the offense and Derek Mason to run the defense. Yes, a second-year head coach who was totally out of his depths in year one decided that the best thing to do was put more onto his plate. It somehow worked. The 2014 team allowed 402.1 yards per game (5.7 per play) and 33.2 points per game. The 2015 team allowed 350.6 yards per game (5.2 per play) and 21.0 points per game. Unfortunately, the offense was still VERY bad. The team was much more competitive but lost 4 games by more than two scores – 31-14 vs UGA, 34-0 @ Houston, 25-0 vs Texas A&M, and 53-28 @ THEM. That was down one game from 2014 when 5 games were more than two scores with the average margin of defeat dropping from 23.4 to 15.6. The average result went from -16.0 to -5.8. The 2015 season was still brutal, and Mason’s seat was still red-hot amongst the fan base. Some of us could squint and find some amount of positivity if you sprayed the season down with rainbows and unicorn dust.

The 2016 Commodores kept the upward trend going and did something that seemed unimaginable to about 90% of Vanderbilt fans after the Temple game, much less the rest of that 2014 season. They found a way to finish the season with consecutive wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee to punch their ticket to Shreveport. The Independence Bowl may not be the most desired bowl game, but it was a bowl game. Derek Mason had gone from 3-9 (0-8) to 4-8 (2-6) to 6-6 (3-5) in his first three seasons. Yes, I am ignoring what happened in the bowl game because it was ugly and not indicative of the team’s actual performance. As an aside, I think bowl game performance is typically not a good way to judge a team due to the abnormally long layoff and other factors surrounding the game. It is not an attitude of just being glad to be in a bowl but that a bad bowl performance should not stain a season. Back to the topic at hand, the 2016 Commodores found a little offense to improve from 15.6 points per game in 2015 to 23.5 points per regular season game in 2016. The defense slipped very slightly to allow 22.6 points per game, but the average margin of defeat was down 10.7, and the total average margin was +0.9. The team was finally a net positive in Mason’s third season. Only 2 games were losses of more than 7 points while only 1 (ONE!) game was a loss of more than two scores. Coach Mason was finally gaining traction within Commodore Nation, bolstered heavily by his sideline and post-game dancing and antics during and after the win over the Vawls. In fact, the vest he had worn during the Ole Miss and UT games became a bit of a legend complete with appearances on the SEC Network and references to it many times since then.

Sadly, 2017 would be a step back for Vanderbilt football. The offense improved production again slightly, up to 24.6 points per game, but the defense allowed more than a touchdown more per game at 31.3 points per game. The defense was almost as bad in 2017 as 2014 with the reason likely being the losses of Zach Cunningham and Adam Butler from the 2016 squad revealing some serious holes in other parts of the defense. The drubbings at the hands of Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Missouri were a far cry from what had been become typical under Mason after 2015 and 2016. They also wiped away the joy of a 3-0 start to the season that included a win over then-#18 Kansas State (who would finish unranked and 8-5). A last bit of joy was had in defeating the hoodlums from Knoxville 42-24, continuing the “score 40” trend started the year before with a 45-34 game in favor of the Black and Gold. Rumblings started that maybe Derek Mason had peaked in 2016 with those defensive standouts and could never deliver like that again.

The 2018 season would not be a repeat of 2016 in terms of on-field product, but Mason would again guide the Commodores to a bowl game after winning the final two games against the Rebels and Voluntears. The average margin during the regular season was again positive at +2.6 from 27.7 scored and 25.1 allowed. However, for those who do care about bowl games, it was Mason’s first time being a plus-differential including the bowl game. The averages including the bowl game go to +1.9 from 28.5 for and 26.6 against. The problems that plagued 2017 do seem to be staring down the 2019 squad. Vanderbilt’s 2nd leading passer all time Kyle Shurmur has departed with 2.5 starting offensive linemen. The half is because the third spot was juggled around quite a bit, so that player’s departure is less concerning. Also gone are lockdown corner and 2nd round pick JoeJuan Williams, team-leading tackler linebacker Jordan Griffin, and incredibly reliable safety Ladarius Wiley. Dare Odeyingbo and Louis Vecchio also depart the defensive line, but the youth movement there makes their replacement more projectible.

While I may have included some raw statistics to indicate progress or decline from year to year, a deep dive into the nuances would be my preference to find trends or peaks and valleys. Comparing 5 seasons against each other in that way is better left to an analytical model than individually comparing statistics. For that, Bill Connelly’s S&P+ will be used. Connelly describes it as a “It can be used to make predictions, similar to the analytics systems Vegas uses. It is, at its heart, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of what college football teams can most consistently do to win football games.” By its intention, we should be able to see how each Vanderbilt team measured against the other teams in college football that year. Again, a deep dive into each component of the S&P+ would be too time-consuming and likely to reveal my bias towards optimism if I start picking and choosing which components are worth discussing.

The overall, offensive, defensive, and special teams rankings will be used since it is best for judging where a Vanderbilt team fell in the grand scheme of college football that season. The 2014 team was 84th overall, 106th in offense, 57th in defense, and 103rd in special teams. The 2015 Commodores were again 84th overall, 120th in offense, 16th in defense, and 70th in special teams. The 2016 rankings were 71st overall, 89th in offense, 48th in defense, and 70th in special teams. 2017 saw Vanderbilt rank 70th overall, 41st in offense, 79th in defense, and 128th in special teams. Last but not least, the 2018 version was 39th overall, 24th in offense, 57th in defense, and 100th in special teams. The low ranking of the 2016 Commodores along with being deemed better in 2017 is shocking. The consistent trend is for improvement though. It is clear that 2016 was not the peak for Derek Mason at Vanderbilt. The 2018 season may now have that spot on the mantle, but you could say that about any coach with an upward trend.

At some point, every coach hits their limit. For Vanderbilt, that limit may be lower than what the same coach could do elsewhere. The last 3 coaches have challenged where Vanderbilt football’s ceiling might be. Yes, Bobby Johnson deserves some credit beyond just finding diamonds in the rough that James Franklin would polish to heights unseen by the Commodores since prior to World War II. Johnson had gotten within one win of a bowl twice, in 2005 and 2007, before reaching on in 2008. From 2008 until 2018, Commodore teams have competed in 6 of the 9 bowl games in program history. They have made a bowl more often than not (6 to 5). Ignoring bowl results, 2 of the 3 best 3-year periods since 1960 have been recorded with Mason having the 3rd best while Franklin had the best.

Derek Mason has come a long way from August 28, 2014. One of the most widely cited analytics models in college football says that the team has been better each year under him. The 2019 Commodores might take a step back with what they have lost, but there are a lot of very good pieces returning. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Jared Pinkney, and Kalija Lipscomb provide a trio at RB, TE, and WR that Vanderbilt has never had before. Derek Mason convinced those guys that even without Shurmur they could all improve their draft stock by staying one more year. Oh, and the 2019 recruiting class had the highest average 247Composite rating Vanderbilt has had since the start of the rankings at 0.8619. It seems more like Mason is building higher and higher than it does that he has reached his limits.