For a time, it seemed that Vanderbilt turned a corner its history of uncertainty and into a new era of stability. Head Coach James Franklin brought to Nashville what seemed to be unobtainable, an attitude, or a swagger that is needed to compete in the SEC. While playing in the Georgia Dome and representing the SEC East was a small chance, the Vanderbilt Commodores finished with one of their best season in 2013 defeating division foes Georgia, Tennessee and Florida en route to a 9-4 record and a win in the BBVA Compass bowl over Houston.
Since joining the SEC in 1932, Vanderbilt had consistently stayed at the bottom of the conference until Franklin came along. Bobby Johnson and George MacIntyre were the last two Vanderbilt to receive SEC coach of the year honors, Johnson in 2008 and MacIntyre in 1982. Both had records below .500 in there tenures of coaching. James Franklin coached the ‘Dores to back-to-back winning season in 2012 and 2013, which had not happened since 1974 and ’75, when those teams went 7-4 and 7-3 respectively. Instead of accepting the “culture” of being the easy homecoming game for big time programs, James Franklin took the pieces that he had and made a contending program.
Going into 2014, the Vanderbilt Commodores lost most of that consistency with the loss of Franklin, who accepted the head coaching job at Penn St. No one can blame him for accepting the job in University Park. It’s common for successful head coaches in lower tier schools to move on to elite programs. While Commodore fans and the rest of the SEC had reason to think that Franklin could possibly stay in Nashville, it is no surprise that he has done what plenty of other coaches have done before him. The question now is; what happens to Vanderbilt Commodore Football?
Does the loss of the fiery young coach suddenly mean Vanderbilt’s return to its old “culture?” The departure of James Franklin has brought back the uncertainty that has plagued Vanderbilt football for most of its tenure in the SEC.
One week after Vanderbilt started its search for a new head coach, Derek Mason was inked in to fill the vacancy. Mason spent four years at Stanford coaching under Jim Harbaugh and serving as David Shaw’s defensive coordinator for his last two years in Palo Alto. Mason seems to have all the credentials to fit as coach. He landed a handful of solid signees in February and an interview with ESPN analyst Chris Low, Mason said, “we see ourselves pushing towards an SEC east title.” The attitude seems to be there but the only time will tell if Derek Mason is the right fit as head coach.
The departure of the SEC’s all-time receiving leader Jordan Matthews as well as quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels has put holes into an offense that needs to reload quickly and the defense returns only three starters. Mason is a defensive mind and at Stanford led one of the best defenses in the nation. That being said, it is no easy task to try and fill eight starting spots.
The SEC can be an unforgiving place and it is possible that Vanderbilt can revert back to their old ways if Mason can’t keep the “ship” on course. Mason does have some pieces to work with; he has most of the offense to work with besides Carta-Samuels and Matthews. Jerron Seymour, returns as the team’s leading rusher and the leader of the offense. There is still no clear heir apparent to Carta-Samuels, but Patton Robinette and John McCrary seem to be the two clear front runners in that race. On the defensive side Darreon Herring who started every game at the OLB finished second on the team with tackles in 2013. DE Kyle Woestmann accumulated 6 sacks in 2013 along with 40 total tackles 7 of which were for loss.
With a few pieces coming in, like Stone Mountain native Dallas Rivers, a 6’0” 200 lb. running back and 4 star defensive backs Trent Sherfield and Emmanuel Smith, Mason will be able to fill in a few spots by getting these guys on the field early.
Vanderbilt has a favorable schedule early on, playing the first four weeks at home before traveling to Lexington and Athens in weeks five and six. In that first stretch they do play Ole Miss and South Carolina, not the easiest teams to go up against early on. Vanderbilt probably won’t be early favorites going into 2014, but if they can snag a couple of wins and get a bit of confidence then they will be a dangerous team. At this point in time, there are still too many questions before the SEC knows what team the Commodores will be this season.
2014 marks a new era and there are two directions that Vanderbilt can go down. 2014 can be known as the beginning of the Derek Mason era, or the post James Franklin era. If Vanderbilt stays on track and has a successful 2014 campaign then Derek Mason will be seen as a hero. On the other hand, if Vanderbilt regresses then the Commodore faithful will be begin the chants to bring back James Franklin from Penn St. Only time will tell how the 2014 will run its course and if Vanderbilt will continue the success its had, or if it will take a step back on the progress they have made.
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