There's something about Vanderbilt this year that reminds at least somewhat of Arkansas last year. The similarities are largely cosmetic, but they're there. In both cases, there's a temptation to fall back on the cliche that the team could be better and win just as few or even fewer games. And then there's this downright eery observation from last year's preview post about Arkansas:
The Razorbacks scored more than 17 points three times in SEC play last year, and topped 30 points against just one conference defense
For Vanderbilt in 2014, though, it was even worse. They scored more than 17 points once -- a 48-34 loss to South Carolina, perhaps the most variable team not coached by Houston Nutt in years -- and only hit 17 points in two more conference games. The Commodores managed just 20 against Charleston Southern.
In 2014, Bret Bielema was heading into his second season following one of the most successful coaches at Arkansas in decades (though there was that one-season interim between the two). The same can be said of Derek Mason as he heads into Year Two of his rebuilding project at Vanderbilt.
The similarities are important because, at this point, Vanderbilt doing what Arkansas did last year and surpassing expectations to make a bowl game is the dream result for 2015. Indeed, sweeping the non-conference slate or winning just one SEC game would be cause for optimism
Alas, the similarities between the two teams largely end there. Bret Bielema was a more accomplished and experienced head coach in 2014 than Derek Mason is now. Bielema's 2013 Arkansas team did not drop off as dramatically from its predecessor as Mason's Vanderbilt team did last year. It was at least possible to see some faint glimmers of hope in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. And one reason that Arkansas seemed to have the potential to improve and do worse in the win-loss department was an absolutely brutal schedule; while Western Kentucky and Houston are not pushovers, neither is the same as playing Texas Tech, and the SEC East of this year is not the SEC West of last year. (The SEC East of last year was not the SEC West of last year, or any year since an 8-5 Arkansas team won that division, but I digress.) Vanderbilt this year could improve and not have a better record solely because the Commodores were so far behind the rest of the conference last year.
Still, improvement is possible, even probable. For a coach that quite frankly seemed lost at times during the season, Mason made some notable adjustments in the offseason. Karl Dorrell was fired, which makes you want to applaud Mason for decisiveness until you realize that he was the one that decided to hire Dorrell in the first place. Firing an offensive coordinator doesn't always translate into a better on-field product, but in this case it just might. If the Commodores can stop the "now serving" line at the quarterback position, that alone will be a vast improvement over last year's disaster.
And the defensively-minded head coach decided to call his own plays this season, a move that will result in either an improved defense that can given Vanderbilt fans a sign of tangible progress, or an equal or diminished defense that will make it easier to judge Mason a failure. And during its second year of using a 3-4 defense, Vanderbilt should improve regardless of who's calling the plays.
Furthermore, this is not a team that's devoid of talent; Vanderbilt was able to elevate its recruiting game a little bit, especially during the James Franklin Era. The team wasn't pulling in blue chips at the rate of an Alabama or an LSU, but the Commodores did a decent job of recruiting for a few years there, all things considered. No one should say that this is a surefire bowl contender by any stretch of the imagination, but there's a slender enough chance to not rule it out completely, either. Which is about what people would have said about Arkansas last year. If you're a Vanderbilt fan looking for some kind of hope to grab onto, there it is.
The perfect season: Andy Ludwig manages to coax an average or slightly better season out of Johnny McCrary, Wade Freebeck -- or anybody, really. Mason does wonders with the defense. Vanderbilt sweeps the non-conference schedule, picks off Kentucky and then gets another upset somewhere along the way to get to .500 on the year and grab a bowl berth. There are opportunities to surprise teams: the Commodores are wedged between trips to Alabama and Florida on Ole Miss' schedule; South Carolina will coming off a game against LSU; Missouri will be on the back end of a two-game road swing that takes them to Athens to face Georgia, then to Nashville; and Florida will have just played its rivalry game against Georgia. The best chance might be against Missouri, the only one of those opponents Vanderbilt will play at home.
The nightmare: Ludwig has no better luck developing a passing game than Dorrell did. Mason struggles to get consistent improvement out of the defense, which remains mediocre at best. The season starts with a loss against Western Kentucky and goes downhill from there, with only a victory of Austin Peay and an embarrassingly close win at Middle Tennessee State. (Or, if you want to get really horrifying, a loss in Murfreesboro.) Mason goes into his third season at Vanderbilt as a dead man walking.
What actually happens: Expect the Vanderbilt offense to be marginally better, or at least no worse. The defense should pick up a step or two from last year, which could be enough to tip an unexpected game into the Commodores' column. But it's likely going to be another long year in Nashville, given that the schedule does Vanderbilt no favors and it's not clear that the Commodores could take advantage of any favors they got. Three or four wins might not be enough to boost Mason's job security or make fans feel like a return to the postseason is around the corner, but that's probably going to be right about where this team lands.