HOOVER, Ala. – They are a blur in the background again, once more overlooked by many, their buzz almost nonexistent.
In this time of talk and teeing up expectations, the Vanderbilt Commodores are a whisper in this gabfest at SEC Media Days, the silence almost deafening.
Where’s the respect for coach Derek Mason’s team? Where’s recognition of the gains made by the Commodores last fall? Where’s the acknowledgment that Vanderbilt can be more than a wallflower in the wide open — and weak — SEC East when the annual fall party begins?
“Vanderbilt football is on the rise,” Mason said Tuesday at the Wynfrey Hotel. “As I look at our program and where we’re at and what we’ve done, I thought in 2016, we took several steps forward to be a better program. You looked at how we finished the season, 4-2, got us to a bowl game for the first time in my tenure. And that was an exciting time for us. Definitely not satisfied.”
Look, Vanderbilt likely won’t march to Atlanta this fall for the SEC Championship Game. Any logical mind not affected by a little liquid courage would avoid picking the Commodores to finish above Florida — or even Georgia — in the SEC East.
But there’s little that separates Vanderbilt from Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and South Carolina. The Wildcats’ offseason hype has picked up steam in recent weeks, and voices have pegged the Gamecocks as a possible contender in the SEC East. Plus, the Volunteers are the giant program in the Commodores’ own state.
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, has produced as much noise in recent months as an 80-year-old grandmother whose idea of a thrilling Friday night is falling asleep to the local 10 o’clock news.
Why can’t the Commodores be a dark horse in a flimsy division? Why can’t they build on a 6-7 record in 2016 with an appearance in the Independence Bowl? Why can’t Vanderbilt be more of a factor?
And don’t be surprised if they do.
“Yeah, we’ve always kind of been an underdog in the SEC. We kind of like that,” Vanderbilt linebacker Oren Burks said. “We know we’re setting ourselves up for a great season. So that’s all that really matters. All the talk, that’s going to go on.”
True, but the preseason SEC chatter should respect the Commodores more.
Electric linebacker Zach Cunningham is gone after the Houston Texans took him 57th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. But running back Ralph Webb returns after tearing through opponents for 1,283 rushing yards with 13 touchdowns last year. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur is back after he passed for 2,409 yards with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. And Mason owns an improved perspective after guiding Vanderbilt to a bowl game for the first time since he arrived before the 2014 season.
Many plusses. So much potential.
“We want to compete and win the East just like everyone else, and we are going to do everything in our power to go out and get it done,” Webb said. “We caught some fire late in the year last year, and we are going to use that to start out hot this year. We are going to make sure we carry that out through the entire season.”
Yes, there will be obstacles. Replacing Cunningham’s SEC-best 125 tackles, four fumble recoveries and 16.5 tackles for loss in 2016 will be hard. Then there’s Alabama’s visit to Nashville on Sept. 23 and a trip to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium a week later to face defending SEC East champ Florida.
But there are openings to rise. The SEC East will be no goliath division. Vanderbilt can pick off key wins against familiar opponents, as it showed against Georgia and Tennessee last year.
To view the Commodores as the likely SEC East doormat because they’re, well, Vanderbilt is misguided. Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and South Carolina can stumble.
The lack of respect for the Commodores is easy to find. SEC Country’s pre-Media Days poll placed the Commodores as the last-place pick in the SEC East. But with Webb and Shurmur back, Vanderbilt is capable of more. Bottling some of the momentum that Mason’s team created in winning four of six games to close the regular season last year is possible.
Don’t call the sky the limit in Nashville. But the Commodores can do more than crash and burn.
“I don’t fear anybody,” Mason said.
Kudos to Mason for showing fight behind a microphone Tuesday. Credit him for shaking people awake to the fact that Vanderbilt can be more than sorry static in the months ahead.
SEC observers would be wise to take notice.