When James Franklin won his opening press conference by a blowout margin, things felt different at Vanderbilt. When he took a team that had won a combined four games over the previous two seasons to a bowl, we all knew he wouldn't be in that job for long. When he blew out Tennessee 41-18, won nine games, and then beat Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee on the way to winning nine games again, we knew we were witnessing the golden era of Commodore Football.
With Franklin finally gone after what seems like an impossibly long three-year tenure in Nashville, we're about to find out just how long that golden era will last.
Derek Mason takes over with the best situation that any incoming Vanderbilt head coach has ever had. The talent level is as high as it's ever been thanks to Franklin's great recruiting, and perhaps even more importantly, people around the program believe that it can win. Getting to that point was a long, slow slog over Bobby Johnson's tenure, and even the bowl he went to didn't fully get them there. They're there now, though.
It's not hard to imagine some first-year speed bumps for the new staff, despite how well things are looking overall. There is only one holdover from the old staff, running backs coach Charles Bankins. It will take some time for everyone to get situated and used to each other. Mason is also switching the defense from a 4-3 to his preferred 3-4, and changes like that usually take a year or two before they really gel. There is reason to think it won't be too bad though. All of last year's starting linebackers are back, so that helps, and Caleb Azubike is well suited to playing the 3-4 outside linebacker who rushes the passer.
With big questions are quarterback and receiver, it's a fair bet that the team will lean on the running game on the other side of the ball. Thankfully the team has a pair of nice options at running back with Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow, and four of the five starting linemen are back.
If there's one concern I'd have about this whole arrangement, it's that Mason is trying to fit the program in an NFL kind of mold more so than ever. The 3-4 is still more common the pros than in college, and he brought in Karl Dorrell, who's been in the NFL since being fired as UCLA's head coach in 2007, to run the offense. It makes sense given that Mason came from Stanford, which has risen to extreme heights on a pro-style scheme under Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw. I'm sure Mason intends to get Vanderbilt to that next, higher level that Stanford found, but I'm not sure he can do it by being so conventional.
In any event, the schedule is about as favorable as they come in the SEC, with many key games at home and no projected division contenders from the West. The stage is set for a pretty good first year for Mason, if the transition goes smoothly enough.
If it turns out to be a pretty good year, it will demonstrate that the new level of success in Nashville can be replicated without the guy who created it in charge. Is the world ready to handle the idea of a consistently good Vanderbilt program? The Good Ship Commodore is truly in uncharted waters now.