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VOL. 132 | NO. 189 | Friday, September 22, 2017

Vandy-Bama Finds Relevance Under Mason

David Climer, Nashville Sports Correspondent

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Who would’ve thought the center of the Southeastern Conference football universe would be Nashville in late September?

Sure, it’s always a big deal when Alabama comes to town – any town. The Crimson Tide is, as usual, ranked No. 1. Nick Saban has created yet another monster.

This time, though, Alabama’s arrival doesn’t comprise the entire story line. Vanderbilt is undefeated and coming off a 14-7 gut-check against No. 18-ranked Kansas State.

The Commodores are not an easy out. CBS is banking on a competitive game as it brings its top announcing team of Brad Nessler, Gary Danielson and Allie LaForce to Vanderbilt Stadium.

Vanderbilt University coach Derek Mason greets legendary Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder after the Commodores’ 14-7 upset win Saturday. (John Russell/Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)

The victory over Kansas State was the start of a four-game stretch that will largely define Vanderbilt’s season. After playing host to Alabama, the Commodores go to Florida and then return home to face Georgia. That’s quite a month of football.

The Florida and Georgia games will tell us if Vanderbilt is a true threat to contend for the SEC East title. Through three games, the Commodores certainly look the part. And it’s not like the Eastern Division is loaded with top-tier teams.

It isn’t lost on anyone that Vanderbilt’s uptick comes at a time when rival Tennessee is stuck in neutral – or worse. The Vols were fortunate to beat Georgia Tech in double-overtime in their opener, and the last-second loss at Florida should put coach Butch Jones on alert.

He’s now coaching for his job.

You can make a fair case that UT is the third-best team in the state right now behind Vanderbilt and Memphis – not necessarily in that order. While Vanderbilt was beating Kansas State last Saturday, Memphis won a thrilling 48-45 shootout against No. 25 UCLA.

As for the Commodores, this is quite a stage. And it is one that fourth-year coach Derek Mason deserves. He has persevered through considerable adversity. And so has his team.

When James Franklin bailed for the Penn State job after the 2013 season, many expected Vanderbilt to fall back into its customary role as SEC bottom-feeder. Franklin won nine games in each of his last two seasons as Commodores coach. He took Vanderbilt to three straight bowls. Prior to that, the Commodores had been to only four bowls in their history.

Enter Mason, who had spent his previous 10 years as an assistant coach. And if you paid close attention to the Commodores in 2014, Mason’s debut season, you’re probably surprised he’s still around – with a recent contract extension to boot.

That first season was a disaster, even though he was playing with a number of good recruits left over from the Franklin era. Mason’s first game as a head coach was a 37-7 no-show against Temple. Vanderbilt followed that with a 41-3 blowout loss to Ole Miss. The low point was a 51-0 throttling at Mississippi State.

All told, the Commodores went 3-9 overall that season and failed to scratch in the SEC. Their closest conference loss was a 24-17 defeat by Tennessee in the last game.

The scores told only part of the story. Often, Mason had that deer-in-headlights look on the sideline as his team unraveled. Things weren’t organized. The Commodores had no real personality on either side of the ball.

By the end of the season, Mason realized he had to make some major changes if he was going to stick around very long. He took over the defensive play-calling for the Tennessee game, and things were markedly better.

In short order, he fired defensive coordinator David Kotulski and offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell. The latter fire was particularly difficult since Mason and Dorrell are very good friends.

As Mason went shopping for new coordinators, he found the going difficult, being turned down more than once. Eventually, he hired Andy Ludwig off the Wisconsin staff to run the offense. He decided to take matters into his own hands on defense.

Looking back, that decision probably saved his head coaching career. Mason’s resume as defensive coordinator at Stanford in 2011-13 was glowing. If you’re one of the best in the business, why not handle the job yourself?

Things got a bit better in 2015 when Vanderbilt went 4-8 overall and 2-6 in the SEC. Last year, the Commodores won six games and made it to the Independence Bowl, where they lost to North Carolina State. They also won at Georgia and dominated Tennessee in the second half on the way to a 45-34 victory.

That set the stage for the fast start this season despite a lack of star power on the roster.

Although there are still a few holdovers from Franklin’s recruiting successes, most notably running back Ralph Webb, the majority of the roster is made up of Mason’s recruits. And that’s an important part of the story.

If you buy into all those recruiting services and their rankings, Vanderbilt shouldn’t be having significant success.

Rivals.com ranks Mason’s three full recruiting classes as the 48th, 59th and 57th nationally. It also ranked those classes dead last among SEC teams.

That tells you something: Either recruiting rankings are bogus or Mason and his staff do an excellent job of developing talent. Perhaps it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that.

Vanderbilt seldom competes for elite high school talent. Instead, Commodores coaches look for players that fit their system. And once those players get on campus, they are indoctrinated into the system and their skills are honed.

This is particularly true on defense. Vanderbilt’s defense is as fundamentally sound as any you will find. Players are seldom out of position. Blown assignments are limited. And the lost art of tackling is a focus.

The result is a team of overachievers, led by a head coach who has learned from the mistakes of his first season. Because of that, the Commodores are in the process of writing quite a story.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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