School: Vanderbilt was founded in 1873 with $1 million from shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had never laid eyes on the state of Tennessee but wanted to do something to improve the region's prospects and help heal the wounds of the recently completed War of Northern Aggression. It has grown into one of the premier research universities in America, with a University economy which runs on nothing but Land Rovers, Martin Dingman loafers, Orvis fly fishing apparel that's never actually been used in fly fishing, and Starbucks gift cards.
Mascot: Mr. C
Location: Nashville, Tennessee
Head Coach: Derek Mason*
2014 record: 3-9
Returning starters (Offense/Defense): 9/9
Celebrity Fans/Alumni: Vanderbilt alums include professional hot taker Skip Bayless, country singer Dierks Bentley, and Bro-in-Residence Jay Cutler.
The 2014 Vanderbilt offense was not bad. It was epically bad. Last in the SEC in both total offense and scoring offense. Bottom 10 in the country in both of those categories as well. The Commodores scored 17 or fewer points in 8 of 12 contests. That’s not poor performance. It’s enough to make you wonder if it was on purpose. The deeper you look the worse it gets. The 4 teams the Commodores broke that barrier against were South Carolina (well that’s pretty good . . .) and UMass, Old Dominion, and Charleston Southern (okay that’s woeful).
But enough beating up on Derek Mason and crew for what happened in 2014. The question is, have they done anything to improve in 2015? The answer is “what he could.” He did jettison OC and former UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell in favor of journeyman offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. What do I mean by “journeyman coordinator”? Ludwig has served as OC at 8 different schools in 18 seasons, most recently at Cal (2009-2010), San Diego St. (2011-2012), and Wisconsin (2013-2014). I wouldn’t mistake Ludwig’s itinerant career path with an inability to get the job done. He was one of the minds behind Oregon’s explosive offense under Mike Belotti. And his Wisconsin offenses were very explosive, setting a school record for yards per game in 2013 (480.8) and nearly equaling that number in 2014 (468.9).
However Melvin Gordon won’t be toting the rock in Nashville. He will have tailback Ralph Webb, whose 912 rushing yards during his redshirt freshman 2014 campaign was a rare bright spot on that side of the ball for the Commies. But Ludwig still needs to find a quarterback to take the pressure off him. It looks like that guy will be either Johnny McCrary or Wade Freebeck. The good news is that both guys saw action in 2014 and did some good things. The bad news is that neither did good things consistently enough to take control of the job. Freebeck completed only 47% of his passes and threw 1 touchdown against 5 interceptions. McCrary posted a slightly better 51% completion rate and 9 TDs vs. “only” 8 picks. Vanderbilt does return four starters on the offensive line from 2014. The bad news (are you sensing a pattern yet?) is that those guys ground out only 3.4 yards per rushing play in 2014. They did allow a respectable 21 sacks in 12 games (Georgia’s talented, veteran line allowed 17 and Alabama’s 16).
On the defensive side of the football the Commodores also performed poorly enough in 2014 for Mason to make a change in coordinators. Out is Dave Kotulski and in is head coach/defensive coordinator Derek Mason. As with the offense, the move appears to have been justified. Vandy gave up 33.3 points per game in 2014, good for 106th in the country. Though the 402.1 yards per game they surrendered was only 70thworst in the nation. Yeah mediocrity!
Unlike the offense, which is really struggling to identify playmakers, there is talent on the defense. If it can stay healthy the Commodores will be okay. The linebackers should be a strength. Macon native and middle linebacker Nigel Bowdon struggled with injuries as a freshman in 2014 but was impressive when he was on the field, leading the team with 78 tackles. Stephen Weatherly returns at outside linebacker after showing flashes as a playmaking pass rusher in 2014 (4.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss). Freshman Josh Smith will likely play early after choosing the ‘Dores over the likes of Auburn, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Oregon.
The defensive line also returns proven talent, including ends Adam Butler (35 tackles, 7.5 TFL in 2014) and Caleb Azubike (39 tackles, 4 sacks, 6 TFL). All told the Vanderbilt defense returns 12 of its top 14 tacklers from 2014. It’s really tough to get worse when you bring back that many players, even if some of them underperformed a bit.
If there’s an area which really needs improvement on the Vandy defense it’s probably the secondary. The Commodores allowed 7.6 yards per pass attempt in 2014 (worst in the SEC). They also intercepted only 6 passes on the year, which didn’t do any big favors to a Vanderbilt offense which threw more than triple that amount. Want to hear a weird stat? Of course you do! Opponents completed 73.7% of passes against the Commodore secondary in the first quarter of 2014 games for 8 touchdowns and not a single interception. In aggregate opposing QBs had a 170.8 passer rating in the first act. Put another way, Vandy will get better on defense if they can just manage to keep from getting blitzed before the game ever really begins. Having a game planner like Mason getting the troops ready during the week will likely go a long way toward addressing that.
When a coach feels the need to fire both his offensive and defensive coordinators after only one season it’s not a good sign. I expect Vanderbilt to be better in 2015 if for no other reason than it would be very, very hard for them to be worse. Ludwig is a proven offensive mind and Mason is a proven defensive coordinator (Karl Dorrell is apparently a dynamite interviewee because, holy crap, have you seen his football teams???). If Vandy can settle on a QB and that QB settles in the offense may be good enough not to lose games all by its lonesome, which will be a step forward.
It seems odd to be wondering whether Derek Mason is coaching for his life in year two in Nashville. But another 3-9 effort with no discernible progress in the right direction will actually put the Vandy administration in a bind. There was a time when a 3-9 initial campaign by a Vanderbilt football coach would have had fans reasonably looking forward to things to come. This is not that time. Fairly or not, James Franklin convinced Commodore fans that theirs is an actual SEC football team, and they've begun to expect results commiserate with that. I doubt seriously that they'll see anything like the 9-3 efforts of 2013 and 2014. However a 5-7 season isn't out of the question and should buy Mason some more time. Prediction: UGA 34, Vandy 24. Until later...