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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Bye Week Special

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The first 3 games have given us a small chance to learn about where Vanderbilt’s football program stands.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Vanderbilt
Some would say that Derek Mason has made Vanderbilt look too much like the past, so the throwback look makes sense.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt has had two straight Saturdays without a game. The first was due to postponing the Missouri game due to COVID roster limitations. Last Saturday was the scheduled bye week. Last week, we looked at the 13 recognized SEC teams, and then those teams mostly did what I expected. It was nice to have some validation after how the Staff Pick’em is going for me.

With that said, the traditional Bye Week Special is where I break mid-season form and take a step back. For folks new to (or those needing a refresher to) my nonsense, the goal of Lessons in Vanderbilt football week-to-week is to keep focused on how the season is developing. Today, I allow myself to look at the bigger picture. It is a bit harder to do that when the season has only had 3 games and has been as wacky as this one has been. Thanks, COVID. I will also eschew the traditional headings since this is not an ongoing week-to-week adjusted evaluation.

First, we have seen this offensive story before under Mason. As Tom has said a few times, think 2015. They are not producing points, but there are reasons to be hopeful for the future. Ken Seals has made some mistakes, but the true freshman QB has never looked out of place. Wide Receivers Amir Abdur-Rahman and Cam Johnson have shown that they can make plays for him, though both need to be more consistent. Ben Bresnahan is turning into the type of Tight End that any QB would love to have with great hands and that sweet mix of size and athleticism that makes the best TEs a nightmare to cover. Ja’Veon Marlow has shown himself to be a very reliable runner while Keyon Henry-Brooks flashed explosiveness while being an every down back. Even the offensive line has mostly avoided being terrible with 4 COVID opt outs of 2 likely starters and a third who would have contended for a spot.

The problem so far has been consistency. It is painful. It is frustrating. However, it is to be expected with a true freshman QB, new offensive coordinator, and an offseason program that was thrown into the spin cycle after only a small handful of spring practices. As much as I hate reacting to one game as a proof of anything, today will likely tell us how the rest of this season goes offensively with a weak Ole Miss defense coming to town and having 3 weeks to work out the early season bugs. If the offense still sputters, I do not see it a death knell for them going into 2021 and onward. I just do not expect they turn it around later with the grind of the SEC-only schedule.

The defense looked like they were ready to be a lot like the 2015 unit after game 1 at Texas A&M. Then LSU came to Nashville and slowly picked them apart. It was LSU though. They have ridiculous talent all over the place. I would argue Vanderbilt was just out-athleted in that game. However, South Carolina came to town and matched the 41-point output of LSU. That game is where it gets messy. Vanderbilt was down several players, especially in the secondary, and I pointed out several game-changing plays that the normal safeties make easily whereas the understandably unprepared 2nd and 3rd stringers forced to play the whole game did not. The good news is Kaufman and Jerkins are back on the depth chart. They will be needed against a fittingly scary Ole Miss offense. The Rebel Bear Landsharks have scored 35 versus Florida, 42 at Kentucky (35 in regulation), 48 versus Alabama, 21 at Arkansas, and 28 versus Auburn. Those last two games were likely impacted by their own COVID outbreak, but it is possible that some tricky things done earlier in the season have been found on film study. Slowing them down would be a good sign that South Carolina WAS due to COVID. Though, I will hedge my bet a bit in that we are not sure how long these guys have been allowed to be back in practice.

In the long term, all of them who want to be back next year can. The only players who seem like possible NFL Draft losses are Dayo Odeyingbo and potential Dimitri Moore. Andre Mintze, Frank Coppet, Randall Haynie, DC Williams, Kenny Hebert, Allan George, and Michael Owusu could decide they have played their normal college career and want to move on from football, but IF the defense can solidify as the season runs down, it would make a lot of sense for each of them to come back and take a swing at big seasons that could find them at the tail end of the draft or even just as NFL UDFAs. Tre Herndon, Khari Blasingame, and Trent Sherfield have all carved out careers in the league as UDFAs. Long term, having all of them back with a theoretically second year DC Ted Roof could form a truly formidable unit. There are a lot of questions though, which is basically 2020’s parental approved slogan.

The elephant in the room is obviously Derek Mason. Opinions vary wildly on what it would take for Vanderbilt to move on from the 7th year head coach. Almost every (see 99+%) Vanderbilt fan wanted Mason relieved of his duties following 2019. The university supposedly did not want to pony up his buyout, and there was apparently a ton of unrest within the athletic department and university administration. Malcolm Turner would step aside with some prodding to get out the door. Vanderbilt was transitioning chancellors as Zeppos was retiring. The problem they have created is that Mason was allowed to go out and hire more acclaimed assistants than Vanderbilt has ever had to my knowledge. Members of James Franklin’s staff became acclaimed at Vanderbilt then moved to bigger futures, but they did not have impressive resumes. It would be unfortunate to then move on from them after just one season where implementing their systems and styles was obviously going to be VERY difficult due to COVID.

Or was hiring them Vanderbilt’s first progressive move to hiring a new coach? The coordinator hires could be a declaration that any new coach would not be limited on price tag when it comes to assistants. Everyone knows that not being an elite program will limit the talent willing to come to Vanderbilt unless a promotion is involved, but removing the financial barrier will maximize the talent that is available and could give a new coach his pick of any G5 coordinators looking to move to the Power 5 or even P5 position/co-OCs looking to move to being a coordinator.

The program is really at a tipping point, both for this season and possibly long term. For this season, I have already pointed out what major factors can show up in the game against Ole Miss to give a little hope for a few wins this season. Long term, it starts with Mason but goes well beyond him. The locker room renovation was given a new start date after COVID prevented the summer improvement. A stand-alone building for football appears to be on the horizon with AD Candice Storey Lee comfortable talking about it. She has not said it is happening, but she HAS committed to not talking about things she does not feel good about with the point of not giving more smoke with no fire. Vanderbilt fans are used to hearing about nebulous commitment without backing it up. Hopefully, her stated stance is honest because a building purely for football would be a nice facilities step.

AD CSL has a lot on her plate. She needs to convince a LOT of Vanderbilt fans to either stay invested or re-invest. Fan interest is rapidly shrinking, and the fan base was already fun sized. Her and new Chancellor Daniel Diermeier need to find ways to reinvigorate fans. For them, it may be best if this season does completely tank, and they can fire Mason then hopefully make a relatively big hire. Well, I guess the real “best” option is if the Commodores can somehow find a way to win 4+ games (maybe a bowl?!) and make some moves in recruiting, though losing Jack Bech this week was excruciating. Even then, it is only the “best” because it lets them save some money while avoiding losing ground. Derek Mason would probably need a winning season to get anyone to buy back in on him. He is not having a winning season with only 7 games left and sitting at 0-3, even with a chance at a bowl no matter the record. Vanderbilt will not win 5 of the last 7. Now, I will NEVER root for Vanderbilt to lose, even if I know it might be best for the long term. It also is not a good public look, and we all know recruits see fans on Twitter or even SB Nation blogs (BUBBLEZ!).

For today, settle in for a mid-afternoon kickoff and enjoy the return of sweet gold jerseys. Try to enjoy the bright spots, especially by young guys. Hopefully, the result will not be fittingly scary for Halloween.