The current state of Vanderbilt football and its inglorious history are woven together in one statistic: Commodores coach Derek Mason, who might be a loss or two away from becoming “embattled Commodores coach Derek Mason” is just 25-43 in six years at the helm . . . and also four wins away from fourth place on the program’s career wins list.
He might not get there if his ship continues to take water and sink deeper down the depths of the Southeastern Conference. Last season, Mason became the second Vandy coach to guide the program to multiple bowl games, but in both seasons, the Commodores lost their bowl game and finished 6-7. A loss to Missouri on Saturday will mean a sixth consecutive season of at least six losses under Mason.
The good news for Mason: He just signed a contract extension in February, which means he’ll keep getting paid whether Vandy fires him or keeps him around.
The bad news: Vandy is under new leadership and rookie athletics director Malcolm Turner who made college basketball’s most unconventional hire this offseason by bringing in former NBA player Jerry Stackhouse — he of zero college coaching experience.
The really bad news: The Commodores (1-5, 0-3 SEC) are coming off their worst loss under Mason . . . and still face five teams ahead of them in the SEC East standings, starting with Saturday’s 3 p.m. visit from No. 22 Missouri (5-1, 2-0).
Last week, Vanderbilt was a 15-point favorite at home over one-win Nevada- Las Vegas, a team led by a first-year coach who last year oversaw Las Vegas’ top high school program. UNLV clobbered the Commodores 34-10. The more sobering number in Nashville was the announced attendance at Vanderbilt Stadium, just 20,048.
All of that explains why Mason opened his weekly news conference Tuesday with a message for Vandy fans ahead of their homecoming game.
“When you coach 18- to 22-year-old young men, they’re in college and they’re trying to figure it out. They may not have all the answers, but here’s what I do know: I do know that they represent you,” Mason said. “They need your support. In this game, they’re not perfect. I’m big enough to take responsibility for the things that we don’t get done.
“But what I need you to do is support these young men. They’re you. They’re Vanderbilt. When they walk these halls and they step into these classrooms, they represent the ‘star V’ just like you represented it in your time here. I’m thankful for who you are because Commodore Nation is strong. I just need you to lean against adversity, just like this group is being asked to lean against adversity and help us get to the other side.”
Easier said than done with a team that ranks at the bottom of every major statistical category in the SEC. The Commodores have scored the fewest points in the SEC (18 per game) and have allowed the most points in the SEC (36.2). They’ve been outscored in every quarter. In September, Vandy was the only team to face two top-five opponents — Georgia and Louisiana State — but the robust schedule argument only carries so much weight: The Commodores were outscored by 67 points in games against Purdue, Mississippi and UNLV.
Vandy has struggled to play competitive football despite having three of the league’s best offensive skill players, running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney. Each was a preseason All-SEC selection who passed on the NFL draft to return for his senior season.
Quarterback play explains some of the struggles. Riley Neal, a graduate transfer from Ball State, hasn’t been the answer to replace career passing leader Kyle Shurmur. On Saturday, Mizzou could see more of junior backup Deuce Wallace.
The defense, Mason’s specialty, features a handful of first-year regulars. Only three of the team’s top 15 tacklers started six games last year.
Mason’s staff is under scrutiny this fall, too. When Andy Ludwig left his post as offensive coordinator for the same role at Utah, Mason promoted quarterbacks coach Gerry Gdowski and gave him the play-calling duties. Through six games, Gdowski’s offense ranks last in the SEC in rushing (124 yards per game), last in passing efficiency (103.2 rating), last in yards per game (338.8) and yards per play (5.1).
Mason bristled at questions about possible staff changes this week.
“You don’t get in the fog of war and start shooting at the guy who’s sitting right next to you,” Mason said. “What are we doing here? We’re talking about being a family. What we do is we tighten our bootstraps up, we make sure we tighten up the backpack and let’s march another 40 miles.”
The slog continues Saturday with the Commodores back in their role as heavy underdogs — 21½ points — to coach Barry Odom’s surging Tigers.
As you’d expect from an SEC peer, Odom praised Mason this week and cautioned against overlooking a wounded opponent. Two years ago Odom was the grim reaper around the SEC: Tennessee and Arkansas fired head coaches the week after losing to Missouri.
Could it happen again?
“Really they’re a play here and there away from (their record) being completely different,” Odom said. “I’m sure that they’ll play their best game this week. They’ll rally behind the opportunity to go finish the season strong because they’ll follow (Mason’s) lead.”