Flashback to the 2014 BBVA Compass Bowl. Vanderbilt found itself tied with Houston at 24 quarter after opening with a 24-0 lead at halftime.
Then, the Commodores answered with a 17-point four quarter to win 41-24. It was Vanderbilt’s last bowl game appearance and final game under former head coach James Franklin.
Franklin departed for Penn State one week later and the Commodores hired Derek Mason later that month. Things have changed in Nashville since.
Vanderbilt suffered through a 3-9 season in Mason’s debut which included zero conference wins. The Commodores were one of only two SEC teams to miss the postseason in 2014.
Granted, it didn’t help that Mason was left with little from the Franklin regime. In fact, his best players were redshirt freshmen — running back Ralph Webb and linebacker Nigel Bowden.
The disappointing season led to Vanderbilt firing several assistants, including both its offensive and defensive coordinators. Wisconsin’s Andy Ludwig was hired as the team’s new offensive coordinator while Mason assumed the role defensive coordinator — a position that earned him head coaching interest while at Stanford.
So far, the Commodores look like an improved team in 2015. The offense — which ranked last in the SEC last year — is averaging 385.4 yards per game, which is higher than Florida, Auburn, South Carolina and Missouri.
Mason’s defense ranks sixth in the SEC, one behind undefeated LSU and one ahead of the hyped Ole Miss “Landshark Defense.” But this should be less of a surprise as Vanderbilt showed signs of life on defense, but suffered when its offense was incapable of getting off the field.
Still, Vanderbilt has already matched its win total from 2014 and is coming off its first conference win under Mason. So does this mean the Commodores will stand a chance against undefeated Houston on Saturday?
Sure, Vanderbilt has a good defense and is coached by one of the better defensive minds in college football. But, Houston ranks fifth among FBS teams and has recorded more than 600 yards in four of its seven games.
Vanderbilt has a better chance than it would have with last year’s team, but Saturday’s matchup isn’t expected to be close. Houston has defeated teams by a 333-138 margin in 2015.
Then again, the Cougars have benefited from an easy schedule. Each of Houston’s past opponents currently has a losing record. Obviously, scoring 333 points and averaging 561.1 yards per game is impressive regardless of competition, but its still coming against bad teams.
That’s not to say Vanderbilt is a great team or even a good team by SEC standards. But its still an SEC program that’s shown improvement over the past year.
A win for Vanderbilt isn’t likely, but it could exceed many people’s expectations with a strong performance against a nationally ranked team. Even still, it’s not entirely impossible to think the Commodores could win Saturday’s game based on an inflated Houston program entering with too much hype.
Either way, a strong performance should build optimism for Mason and Vanderbilt in Year Two of its rebuilding project.
Ironically, Saturday’s game could be the biggest for the Commodores since their last against Houston.