Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt
When: Saturday, November 28th, 2015
Where: Knoxville, Tenn. (Neyland Stadium)
Odds: Tennessee has an 87.2% chance of winning (via ESPN’s FPI projections)
Vanderbilt at a glance:
Head Coach: Derek Mason (3-9 in one season at Vanderbilt)
All-time record: 585–591–50
2014 results: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)
Returning starters: 17: 8 (offense), 9 (defense)
Vanderbilt is no stranger to 3-9-type of seasons, but this particular one was extra painful for the Commodores. Coming off two nine-win seasons, something that was unprecedented in the modern era of this program, Vanderbilt knew there would be some challenges in replacing James Franklin, who bolted for Penn State.
But it was hard to imagine how far VU would fall in one year. That reality set in very quickly, however, in an embarrassing 37-7 loss to Temple to open the Derek Mason era.
While that might’ve been rock bottom right off the bat, nothing else came easy for the Commodores in the 2014 season. VU was blanked in conference play, staying within one score of only one opponent, Tennessee, in the process.
And even the three non-conference wins the Commodores pulled out were disappointingly close. Vanderbilt beat Massachusetts, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion – three teams that combined for just eight FBS wins in 2014 – by an average of six points. Mason made some drastic overhauls to the staff after the season and admitted that 2014 wasn’t what he expected.
In just his second year, Mason finds himself on the hot seat, in need of significant improvement in 2015 to be able to make the case that he is the right man for the job.
Three early questions for the 2015 matchup:
1. Can Vandy find a quarterback?
Among the many problems Vanderbilt had in 2014, perhaps the biggest was the inability to find a consistent option at quarterback. Mason toggled through four quarterbacks that saw significant action in 2015 – Patton Robinette, Johnny McCrary, Wade Freebeck and Stephen Rivers. Robinette and Rivers have moved on, leaving McCrary, Freebeck and incoming four-star freshman Kyle Shurmur to battle it out in 2015.
New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig must find some consistency at that position for the Commodores to be more competitive this year. Four out of five offensive linemen are back in addition to all the primary pass-catching threats and a strong running back in Ralph Webb. The help should be there, but who will emerge at as the signal caller?
2. Can Derek Mason improve the defense?
While the Commodores were 10th in the SEC in total defense in 2014 (402.1 ypg), they were also dead last in scoring defense (33.3 ppg). That must improve in 2015. Mason is taking it upon himself, reprising his role of defensive coordinator that he held at Stanford in making the somewhat unusual decision to be both head coach and DC for the Commodores simultaneously. Most of the key pieces are back, and a couple four-star signees, LB Josh Smith and CB Donovan Sheffield, should up the talent level. DE Caleb Azubike and CB Torren McGaster are among the underrated defenders that Mason will need to maximize.
3. Will Vanderbilt play its best against Tennessee again?
Over the course of the offseason, Mason pointed to that season-finale against Tennessee, a closer-than-expected 24-17 loss, as an example of his team making progress and doing some of the things that the Commodores need to be successful. Tennessee wasn’t at its best in that game and was dealing with several key absences, but there’s no denying that VU did play one of its best games of the season against the Vols. Much – if not all – of the intimidation factor that worked in UT’s favor for years is gone after Vanderbilt’s two-game winning streak in 2012-13.
How do we expect it to play out?
It almost goes without saying that if Tennessee is going to return to the type of program that many are expecting under Butch Jones, beating Vanderbilt every season must be a given.
And that’s how we expect it go in 2015, especially in Neyland Stadium this year. Vandy should be better, and really has nowhere to go but up after a disastrous Year 1 for Mason in Nashville. And the Commodores showed last year that, even in a situation where they had nothing to play for, they would still battle the Vols.
But despite that, anything other than a comfortable victory for Tennessee would be a letdown in 2015.