It's a well-established fact by this point that the SEC East is a bit of a mess. Monday's news that Florida quarterback Will Grier is done for the year and South Carolina losing its head coach to retirement serves to stuff more maize into the cornucopia of crazy. Every team is flawed and vulnerable in its own ways. It's an environment like this where a team with a good defense and that could get overlooked could steal some wins. Enter the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Derek Mason oversaw very good Stanford defenses as coordinator between 2012-2013. One would have thought his Vanderbilt team would immediately follow suit in the 2014 season. After last year's humbling campaign, it wasn't a big surprise to learn Mason had made the decision to take on the vacant coordinator job at Vanderbilt in addition to his head coaching duties. The results so far have been very encouraging.
In 2014, Vandy was allowing 402 yards per game, but this season that number has dropped to 320 yards. That's a 20% decrease that's good enough for fifth in the SEC. In terms of advanced metrics, Vandy has the 23rd best defense in the country, and has been especially good on standard downs and defending the pass. Last season, Vandy had a S&P+ Defense ranking of 76th. Improvement indeed.
Making the turnaround even more impressive are the opposing offenses Vandy has done it against. They held a Western Kentucky offense averaging 7.3 yards per play to 4.6 yards per play and 14 points. They held Ole Miss to fewer points and yards per play than a Nick Saban defense stacked with former blue chip signees. Vandy also held Georgia below the 'Dawgs's season averages featuring a healthy Nick Chubb.
All the more impressive is Derek Mason has conducted the transformation with the same players as last season, and many of the individual statistic leaders are underclassmen. Mason deserves far more credit for developing his personnel than he's getting at the regional and national levels. Inside linebacker Zach Cunningham, safety Oren Burks, and outside linebacker Stephen Weatherly are young stars in the making. Last season, the Commodores' leading tackler was Nigel Bowden, but despite Bowden missing games this season due to concussion issues, the defense is still better.
Vandy next takes on South Carolina and Missouri, two teams that are worse than Georgia, Ole Miss, and arguably Western Kentucky too. South Carolina features the 53rd best S&P+ offense, while Missouri is ranked 115th. There's little reason to think the Commodores won't maintain their defensive prowess in the short-term. Beyond those teams, they face a Florida offense without Will Grier, host a boom-or-bust Kentucky offense, before traveling to Knoxville to close the season. Vanderbilt's defense won't be out-manned in any of those games.
The issue going forward will be Vandy's offense. It has improved a modicum this season, but is still ranked 9th in the SEC in yards per game, and is ranked 99th in the country in terms of S&P+ Offense. If the defense can increase the number of turnovers, and gift the offense with good field position, the Commodores should be able to punch above their offense's weight on a few possessions per game.
That's not a recipe for six wins and a trip to a bowl, but it may be enough to ruin someone's post-season aspirations and add more chaos to the season. In any case, it's a marked improvement from the 2014 season.