At the conclusion of the regular season, no SEC team outside of Tuscaloosa carried as much heat as Vanderbilt. Derek Mason used November wins over Ole Miss and rival Tennessee to undergo a swift transformation from potential chopping block victim to “it” coach, and his offense appeared to have reemerged from a two-and-a-half year stint in creative purgatory.
Monday, the optimism fizzled out with an embarrassing 41-17 loss against North Carolina State in the Independence Bowl.
Those looking forward to a big jump in 2017 were brought back down to Earth as sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur (19 of 46 for 158 yards, no touchdowns and 3 interceptions) turned in perhaps the worst performance of his career and Mason’s defense — excellent in 2015 but pedestrian this fall — collapsed against a middle-of-the-road ACC team that had not hit the 40-point mark against an FBS opponent this year.
Shurmur’s 3.4-yard average per attempt was inexplicable, especially given Vanderbilt’s success on the ground.
Entering Monday’s debacle, the son of Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur had turned his young career around with a string of strong stat lines to close out the regular season.
We spoke with former Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers — younger brother of two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and a recent reality-television star — at the SEC championship game in early December, and he was optimistic about the passing offense.
“Shurmur has shown a lot of strides in his accuracy and composure,” Rodgers said. “Still looks young at times, but he played really well down the stretch. If they get more talent around him at the receiver position … they can be pretty good. They need to do something on offense to be able to match what they can do on defense, and that’s going to be the formula for them to not win 5 or 6 games but to win 7, 8 or 9 games.”
Three years removed from the second of its back-to-back 9-win seasons, Vanderbilt will bring back Shurmur and more than a dozen other starters, including Webb. Few major-conference teams will field lineups with as much playing experience as the Commodores’ group.
But Monday was a huge red flag for those counting on the new guard to drag the program into the 2017 championship race. And fans expecting a fast start in SEC play might want to avoid looking at the calendar.
Let’s begin with the bad news: Vanderbilt’s 2017 conference schedule opens with a home game against Alabama on Sept. 23.
The Crimson Tide have not lost in Nashville since 1969, going 35-1 overall vs. the Commodores in that time. As long as Nick Saban is still on the ‘Bama sideline, Vanderbilt is going to start 0-1 in SEC play. Then, there’s a key back-to-back stretch at Florida and vs. Georgia which could very well lead to an 0-3 mark that sinks the ‘Dores before they can take a deep breath.
There is a bit of good news, too, though: Vanderbilt might have the easiest November schedule of any SEC team. Western Kentucky, Kentucky and Missouri all visit Nashville before Vanderbilt packs up and buses to Knoxville for the annual Tennessee-Vandy rivalry game on Thanksgiving weekend.
It’s reasonable — though perhaps too optimistic — to project a 5-3 conference record for the Commodores (including losses vs. Alabama, at Florida and another “L” at Ole Miss or Tennessee), and there’s not another division team that screams “6-2.”
Florida will likely enter the season as the East favorite, and most of Vandy’s opponents appear to be trending upward, but no program is the “lock” that Tennessee was entering this year (and look where that got the Vols, anyway). No one can deny the fact that the SEC East is wide open, nor deny that Mason’s program took a crucial step forward in 2016.
But that rough opening SEC slate — coupled with a dangerous non-conference game vs. Kansas State in mid-September – is a serious threat to derail the Commodores’ season early. And with the disappointment of the Independence Bowl loss fresher in fans’ minds than a strong finish to the regular season, the Commodores might need to pull off a shocker or two early next autumn to keep Mason’s chair from heating up again.
The “same old Vandy” was on display Monday. Until we see otherwise, it’s prudent to assume the status quo when Mason’s team takes the field again in 2017.