After Elliot Fry kicked-off the Will Muschamp era with a win last year in Nashville, Derek Mason turned a corner at Vanderbilt.
In his third season in Nashville, the former Stanford assistant guided the Commodores to a 6-6 (3-5) record. The ‘Dores beat Georgia in Athens for the first time since 2006 and knocked-off Tennessee on senior night to clinch a bowl bid for the first time under Mason. It could have been an even better year but they failed to win tight games against South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and Auburn, falling by a touchdown or less in each. They also suffered defeat on the road against a 4-8 Missouri team. They return 15 starters from last season as they search for a fifth bowl appearance in seven seasons.
Under center for Vandy is Kyle Shurmur. The junior started every game last year and did not find much success. He completed only 54 percent of his throws for 2,409 yards and nine touchdowns with 10 INTs. Entering the eighth game of the season, Shurmur had only three touchdown passes despite throwing 25 times or more in all but two games. He finished the regular season strong though, giving the ‘Dores something to work with. In wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee, Shurmur threw for 689 yards with four touchdowns and only one interception. 416 of those yards come in the finale vicotry against the Volunteers to get bowl eligible. He then capped of the year with arguably his worst performance of the season. In the Independence Bowl, Shurmur completed only 19 of 46 throws for 158 yards, with no touchdowns and three interceptions in the heavy defeat to North Carolina State.
With Shurmur still a question mark, Vandy will lean heavily on the ground game again. They have a solid tandem in the backfield with Ralph Webb and Khari Blasingame. Webb got most of the work, carrying the ball 250 times for 1,283 yards and 13 touchdowns. Blasingame was used inside the five often, scoring 10 times on only 97 carries for 449 yards. The offensive-line will need a little tweaking after losing LT Will Holden to the NFL but they return three starters to the unit. That should be good enough to propel Webb to another thousand yard campaign.
Shurmur will also not have to strike up any new relationships with his targets as the top seven pass catchers return. C.J. Duncan led the group with 494 yards last year while Trent Sherfield (472) and Caleb Scott (466) also broke the 400-yard mark but the three only combined for one touchdown catch.
Even with the struggles under center, the biggest question mark Mason faces is how he’ll replace All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham. He led the Commodores with 125 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss last year, by far leading the team in both categories. The Alabama native had a stellar career in Nashville before getting picked in the second round of the NFL Draft by the Houston Texans. Luckily, Vandy has a large group of seniors than can help cushion the blow. Nifae Lealao will anchor the 3-4 defense at nose tackle while Oren Burks fills in Cunnigham’s spot for the linebacker unit. They also return five seniors in the secondary, led by CB Tre Herndon and FS LaDarius Wiley, the Commodores second leading tackler last year with 75.
The trip to Columbia caps off a tough stretch in the Commodore schedule. They’ll play Kansas State, Alabama, at Florida, Georgia and at Ole Miss before their bye week. After the bye, they’ll travel to Columbia before hosting three of their final four games. With Webb carrying the load for the offense, if Shurmur can progress and Mason’s defense copes with Cunningham’s departure, then another bowl trip will certainly be within reach. Both teams will be rested coming off of their bye but the Gamecocks should be able to take care of business at home.