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Final Thoughts on the 2020 Season

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Tying up some loose ends now that the season is officially over.

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

Now that the season is over, it’s time to tie up some loose ends and give my stream-of-consciousness thoughts on the season that just transpired.

  • Nobody is surprised that Vanderbilt let go of Derek Mason after close to seven full seasons, a 27-55 record, and an 0-8 record (at the time) this season and yet we’re all surprised that Vanderbilt actually did it, even if it seemed like the obvious move. After all, it would have been super easy to just use the global pandemic as a pretext for keeping him if that’s what you wanted to do.
  • Then again, there is no way that the fan base would have accepted that: probably at least 90 percent of fans thought that Mason should have been gone in 2019, and yet Vanderbilt pointlessly brought him back for that.
  • The winless record seemed preordained when the SEC went to a conference-only schedule, though even with that there were still at least a couple of wins to be had on the schedule. Vanderbilt came reasonably close to knocking off Mississippi State, and South Carolina ended up being terrible — even if Vanderbilt lost that game 41-7.
  • That said, this was probably a 2-10 team even if Vanderbilt had played its nonconference schedule. Mercer was going to be a win, but are you confident that this team would have beaten Colorado State and Louisiana Tech?
  • Here is where Derek Mason’s six full recruiting classes (I’m not counting 2014) ranked in the 247 Sports composite: 49th in 2015, 54th in 2016, 65th in 2017, 41st in 2018, 58th in 2019, 53rd in 2020. It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that Derek Mason’s worst recruiting class were the seniors on this year’s team. Meanwhile, the top eight recruits in the 2016 class were all gone.
  • On the other hand, new head coach Clark Lea will inherit, at a minimum, three players from the 2018 class who rated as four-star recruits: Alston Orji, Cam Johnson, and Brendon Harris. There is also currently a four-star set to sign this week in defensive lineman Marcus Bradley.
  • Interestingly, I think Derek Mason might have actually saved his job had he made the staff changes that he made in 2019 in 2018 instead.
  • The current state of the program that Clark Lea inherits is much closer to the program that Bobby Johnson inherited from Woody Widenhofer in 2002 than it is to the program that Derek Mason inherited from James Franklin in 2014. Clark Lea inherits a roster that’s only sort of an SEC-level roster... but at least he knows he has a good quarterback.
  • (Whereas Derek Mason inherited something resembling an SEC level roster, but without a good quarterback.)
  • The question I have about Ken Seals going forward is how much improvement he has left to do. 30 years ago, your average quarterback recruit was a guy with all the tools who’d been running a high school offense and had probably gotten pretty sketchy coaching; these days, the difference between a high school offense and a college offense isn’t that great and the quarterback-industrial complex means that a lot of these guys have been getting training at a high level for years. Does Seals have any room for improvement, or is what we saw in 2020 what we’re going to get? Lots of true freshmen who have taken starting jobs at Power 5 schools in recent years have plateaued after their freshman season.
  • That said, again, would you rather have Ken Seals for the next three years or would you rather have Clark Lea have to go out and find a quarterback?
  • The offensive line is probably the biggest difference between a competent offense and one that ranked 125th (out of 127) in points per game. Vanderbilt seemed to be okay at running back and receiver, and of course Ken Seals was fine as a true freshman, but the running backs had no room and the inability to hold blocks meant that Todd Fitch couldn’t really open the playbook as much as he liked.
  • The defense, on the other hand, had no excuse. That was supposed to be an experienced unit, and yet.
  • In hindsight, was it ever possible for Mason to succeed at Vanderbilt? I think the answer is yes, but it was a difficult needle to thread. Mason really put himself behind the 8-ball with the turd he laid right off the bat in 2014, which killed the momentum that James Franklin had going on the recruiting trail, and the bounce-back didn’t happen quickly enough to get it going again until 2018. With that said, the poor on-field performance in 2014 didn’t have to be as big of a drag on the 2015 recruiting class; after all, you could have pretty easily gone in and sold early playing time based on the roster.
  • Where that specifically hurt was in not having a bridge between Kyle Shurmur and Ken Seals. Had Deuce Wallace developed enough to be a stopgap, that might have bought Mason some additional time — instead, Mason was stuck scrambling to bring in Riley Neal and then throwing Seals to the wolves as a true freshman.
  • It’s easy to be optimistic about Clark Lea even if you’re not optimistic about the 2021 team specifically — next year is going to be another long one, but unlike 2020, it comes with reason to look forward to the future.