The 2011-13 seasons were a golden era for Vanderbilt football. Three consecutive bowls. A pair of nine-win seasons. Life was great. But then James Franklin left for the Penn State job, because no matter how good things get at Vandy, it's not going to be able to keep a coach away from a blue blood program forever.
The hire of Derek Mason made more immediate sense than Franklin's hire did. Franklin was a surprise choice, having come from the vaunted Ralph Friedgen coaching tree that had previously produced the likes of Mike Locksley and Charlie Taaffe. Mason worked a year under Jim Harbaugh and three under David Shaw at Stanford, which is having the best run a high academics program has had in recent memory.
Last year, I thought Vandy had a chance to continue its run of success, even if it wasn't at the nine-win level. Boy, was I wrong. Here we are a year later after the Commodores won just three games last season, with only one of them coming over a team that's been in the FBS longer than a year. Mason already pulled some panic levers, as he fired both coordinators and took over the defense personally. The guy who looked like the best quarterback option quit football after the spring to focus on med school.
Man. What happened?
Some of it was simply that Franklin didn't leave the cupboard as full as you might have thought, and injuries exacerbated that problem. Some of it was that Mason might not have been ready for prime time, as evidenced by his hiring of Karl Dorrell as offensive coordinator and the waffling at quarterback that led to four different guys starting at that position. Changing up schemes on both sides of the ball didn't help either.
It's hard to try to spin a positive for a team that got blown out by Temple and beat UMass and Charleston Southern by a combined four points. The best I can offer is that three of its SEC losses came by 10 points or fewer, but even that is partially misleading. The offense didn't score a point and barely moved the ball at all in the 17-7 loss to Kentucky.
What I can say is that the second half of the year was better than the first. The 24-14 loss to Mizzou in late October was legitimately close, as the Commodores cut the lead to 17-14 midway through the fourth quarter. A week later they hammered Old Dominion 42-28. The last week of the season, they outgained Tennessee in another legitimately close 24-17 loss. Moral victories don't feel good, but that's the best I can offer.
I am not sure how much better things will get this year. I suspect the defense will improve with Mason calling the shots, but I don't know whether the offense will score too many more points.
New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has bounced around an awful lot despite having some nice statistical seasons in his past. Most recently he did well keeping continuity with the power running game at Wisconsin, but being able to hand off to Melvin Gordon 25 times a game will streamline things. He didn't exactly endear himself to Badger fans, and the reason he was available for Mason to hire is because Gary Andersen chose not to bring him with him out to Oregon State.
One of Ludwig's biggest failings in Madison was not developing a good passing game, and that's one of the most pressing issues in Nashville. Again, he's had some success with that in the past, but it's been a long time since David Carr and even Brian Johnson at Utah. Patton Robinette was the only player at quarterback I had any confidence in to any degree, and he's no longer playing football. Steven Scheu and C.J. Duncan had promising seasons as pass catching targets last year, but there's only so much they can do on their own.
With Kentucky and Tennessee expected to reap benefits of multi-year rebuilding processes this fall, there's little reason to expect that Vandy will win an SEC game this year unless the bottom completely falls out from under Florida or South Carolina. Even matching last year's win total of three could be an issue with a good Western Kentucky team coming in Week 1 and a road trip to Houston in the non-conference.
Vanderbilt is not known to be a particularly impatient place, but falling this far after climbing so high is not good for Mason's job security. The nine win level was never going to last, but VU would rather be winning five or six games every single season, not every two. Mason needs to do a great coaching job this year to prove to everyone that he didn't guide the program back to being Bad Old Vandy.