What James Franklin was able to do at Vanderbilt is nothing short of amazing. In three seasons, he led the Commodores to three consecutive bowls games, two consecutive bowl wins and two consecutive nine-win seasons. Before Franklin came to Nashville, Vanderbilt never went to consecutive bowls. Only two bowl wins were in Vandy’s name and they have not won nine games in a single season since 1915.
So when left Vanderbilt after the 2013 season, there were many fans that were upset with his decision just because of the success they were having. However, when Derek Mason was hired last season, the expectations for the Commodores were still high because of his background as a defensive coordinator at Stanford. That was not the case as Vanderbilt went 3-9 in 2014 including a 0-8 record in SEC play.
The biggest issue for the Mason’s team is there was no offensive consistency. In fact, they were last Division I team to score a touchdown on offense last season after being shut out the first two games. The defense was not any better as they ranked 10th in the SEC in total defense and last in scoring defense giving up 33 points per game.
So how do the Commodores get out the SEC cellar and be where they were when Franklin was the head coach?
When the 2014 season ended, Mason fired both coordinators, made a change when it came to strength and conditioning, and he let a few players go that did not buy into his system.
All the moves were necessary, but the most important move he made was hiring Andy Ludwig as the offensive coordinator. Ludwig was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, and with his guidance (and Melvin Gordon), the Badgers were able lead the Big Ten in rushing last season as well as fourth best scoring offense in the conference. Ludwig will have a talented running back to work with in Ralph Web,b and he will have nearly all the offensive line returning. But he will need to find a starting quarterback.
Johnny McCrary might be the most talented of the three competing for the job. He had 985 passing yards and nine touchdowns last season. There were three other quarterbacks to start last season, but McCrary was able to start the final five games of the year. He and Wade Freebeck will be competing for the job this season.
Defensively, Mason is taking over because he will have a better idea what he wants his defense to look like. And he will have a ton of experience returning as nine starters will be back to help turn things around.
Mason made some position switches with a few defensive players in order to generate more of pass rush. The one player to watch is linebacker Stephen Weatherly who had five sacks last season. If he can build on what he was able to do last season and take the next step, he can be a leader for the defense and that will give Mason something work with when it comes to finding an identity.
So it’s not out of the realm to say Vanderbilt will be a much improved team from last year. However, they have to find a quarterback, be more consistent on defense and they have to believe they can beat every opponent they face this season. Franklin was able to do that in short period of time and won games because of it. Mason will need to do the same thing or it could be another long season for everyone in Nashville.