It’s been a rough year for Derek Mason and Vanderbilt.
Through his first 16 games, Mason holds a 4-12 (0-10 SEC) record. His team ranked last in the SEC and was one of two teams not to make a bowl game appearance.
But one must consider just how bad this program was upon his arrival. James Franklin brought Vanderbilt its most successful run of the modern era, leading the team to three consecutive bowl games and back-to-back nine-win seasons.
But Franklin decided to head back to his native Pennsylvania and take over as Bill O’Brien’s successor at Penn State. He also tried to pillage the majority of Vanderbilt’s recruiting class, which at one point had single-digit commits with less than a month before National Signing Day.
Mason was left with little as the Commodores saw the majority of their key players embark on NFL careers. His debut season was a reflection of having a depleted roster with little experience.
Vanderbilt went winless in the SEC and switched quarterbacks more than 10 times before midseason. The offense ranked last in the conference. The defense wasn’t as bad, but couldn’t manage to stay off the field given the offense’s ineptitude.
But in Year 2, Mason has already fielded a team that’s progress is going unnoticed. Vanderbilt isn’t a great team by any means, but it definitely is improved from last season. Obviously, you can’t get much worse than a winless conference record, but still, the level of talent has increased and the Commodores look more competitive in conference games.
Fortunately, Vanderbilt gets a break from its SEC schedule and makes a short trip to nearby Murfreesboro to face Middle Tennessee State University in Week 5. The two teams haven’t played each other since 2005.
MTSU has won the last three consecutive meetings — 2001, 2002 and 2005 — but neither team has any coaches left from their roster of 10 years ago.
“It is just a game. It’s the game we have to play,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason told the Tennessean. “… I don’t get caught up in all the (talk) about the game. I think it’s important for the fans, important to the cities. Obviously, we’re neighbors. But for our players, it’s our next football game in a journey.”
Mason won’t say it, but Saturday’s game is a big deal for Vanderbilt. It’s not Tennessee big, but it definitely plays a factor in his program’s success within state lines.
After the Vols, Vanderbilt and MTSU are the two biggest football programs in the state of Tennessee. The Commodores won’t match Butch Jones’ success in recruiting given their current lack of success, but should be able to hold an advantage over the Blue Raiders in signing in-state talent.
But Saturday’s game isn’t the typical matchup between SEC and Conference USA teams. MTSU opened as a 4.5-point favorite and — although that line has shrunk to one point — is still favored to win at home.
MTSU enters Saturday’s game at 2-2. Both of the Blue Raiders’ losses came against teams from Power Five conferences — Alabama (SEC) and Illinois (Big Ten). But MTSU won handedly in its two other games, scoring more than 70 points in each.
Saturday’s game will be a good measuring stick for Vanderbilt. MTSU is a capable team that — despite playing in Conference USA — shouldn’t be taken lightly.
This would be a momentum shifting win for Mason and the Commodores. Sure, it’s not a conference win, but it does bring some optimism to a fan base in dire need of something to cheer for.
A loss, however, would put more pressure on Mason, who already faces the hot seat in his second year. Vanderbilt could earn its second win of 2015 against a capable, in-state opponent and gain some confidence heading into its bye week.