Vanderbilt built a surprising track record for success under James Franklin, who left for the Penn State vacancy after back-to-back 9-4 seasons.
The Commodores reached a bowl in each of Franklin’s three seasons, which is quite a feat considering the program had one winning seasons in 29 years from 1983-2011 and compiled a 94-234-1 record during that span.
Vanderbilt went 24-15 under Franklin, and that includes a 6-7 mark in 2011 that ended with a Liberty Bowl loss to Cincinnati.
Aside from a 7-6 record under Bobby Johnson in 2008, complete with a Music City Bowl win against Boston College, the Commodores’ recent history is pretty sad-sack.
Former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who spent three seasons with NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, is tasked with making sure Vanderbilt doesn’t slip back into college football’s abyss.
For some insight into how that’s going, we enlisted the help of Vanderbilt beat writer Adam Sparks from the Tennessean in Nashville.
Q: Record-wise, it’s been a rough start to the Derek Mason era, but what’s the feeling around the program about the job he’s doing?
Sparks: “The administration appears to be somewhat patient, or at least quiet, on the topic. The fan base is mostly disappointed, not just in the record but how it has come about. Vandy lost a winnable game over Temple by 30 points. And its two wins — 34-31 over UMass and 21-20 over FCS school Charleston Southern — were not exactly gems.
“And many fans have been critical of Mason’s handling of his four-quarterback carousel, lackluster offense, and perceived clock and game mismanagement. Mason has admitted committing rookie mistakes as a first-time head coach, and many other fans have decided to give him the benefit of the doubt for a while.
“I think the jury is still out, so to speak, until this stretch run of games is complete and Mason’s next recruiting class is signed. Missouri, Florida and Tennessee are up-and-down teams and, if Vandy somehow knocked off any of them in the final five games, it would restore some confidence in the program and coaching staff. But all three games will be challenges.”
Q: Johnny McCrary has been announced as the starter. What should Missouri fans know about him and how short will his leash be on Saturday?
Sparks: “The shortness of that leash is completely up in the air. There have been games this season where you thought a QB would go the distance, but then he was pulled after a couple of series.
“And then there have been other times when a struggling QB has been left out there longer than you’d think. That being said, I’m not sure the coaches have as many options in this game.
“Mason said freshman Wade Freebeck is nursing a finger injury, but he should be available. Patton Robinette appears to still be out with a concussion. Stephen Rivers missed the previous game with an ankle injury.
“As far as McCrary goes, he has all the physical tools — good arm and mobility in and out of the pocket. His legs probably make him the best option in this one to evade Missouri’s strong pass rush.
“McCrary is a high-risk, high-reward guy. He tossed two interceptions in three pass attempts in the opener, but then he played reasonably well in a win over Charleston Southern. The sense is he will either be really good or really bad in this one. I’m curious to see which.”
Q: Is there any area where you feel like Vanderbilt has an edge against Missouri on Saturday?
Sparks: “I’m not sure if it’s an edge, but Vanderbilt can run the ball effectively. Redshirt freshman Ralph Webb is a good running back. Dallas Rivers and Jerron Seymour offer a couple of other solid options in the backfield.
“But the ground game has been hampered by blowout losses and poor down-and-distance situations. The run has been mostly abandoned. So, if Vandy ever gets a game into the second half, it could lean on its run game a little more.”
Q: Missouri’s offense is struggling, but so is Vanderbilt’s defense. Who does Maty Mauk and company need to be most worried about on the Commodores’ D?
Sparks: “DT/OLB Caleb Azubike is an effective pass rusher, but he hasn’t piled up the sacks lately like he did early in the season. Freshman inside linebacker Nigel Bowden is the team’s top tackler and a budding playmaker.
“And this may be a shot in the dark, but nickelback/cornerback Darrius Sims has a knack for making plays. Sims is a dangerous kick returner akin to Missouri’s Marcus Murphy. Sims had two kick return TDs vs. South Carolina, but he also had a pick-six against Kentucky.
“Sims will return kicks and punts, play a little defense and maybe make an appearance on offense in this game. Somewhere in there, Vandy hopes he makes a big play.”