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Can Derek Mason’s experienced Vanderbilt win in an improved SEC East?

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The good news: The Dores should again be better. The bad news: So should their opponents.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Derek Mason was maybe the most confident man in Hoover, Ala. During his half-hour appearance at the podium, he spoke like a man ready to lead his Commodores to an SEC title.

“Vanderbilt football is on the rise.”

“We’re starting to close the talent gap.”

“We’re moving the envelope. We’re pushing the needle.”

“When your team grows up, you’ve got a chance.”

“For the first time in my tenure, I look at depth on this football team, and I truly believe we have a chance to do something special.”

“I said to myself, I couldn’t wait to be a junior-senior football team in this conference. Now, I’m not having to wait anymore.”

“I’m excited to see what this team does this year. We are relentless, tough and intelligent.”

After a dreadful first season, Mason has moved the program forward. The Commodores fell from 9-4 and 68th in S&P+ in 2013, James Franklin’s final season, to 3-9 and 110th in 2014. They stabilized at 79th in 2015 and moved to 71st last fall, and with help from a less demanding schedule — five opponents with 10-plus wins in 2015, one in 2016 — they improved from 4-8 to 6-7, qualifying for their first bowl since Franklin left.

That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment. Franklin moved the goalposts when he went to bowls in each of his three seasons; before that, the program had four postseason trips, total.

Now Mason has his most experienced team yet. Even in a division loaded with continuity, Vandy’s returning production percentages stand out. The odds of further improvement are quite high.

So what does that actually mean? What’s the ceiling?

In the last 60 years, Vanderbilt has ranked in the S&P+ top 40 just four times. During Franklin’s three-year tenure, undeniably the best short run for the school since the 1950s, they averaged a ranking of 48th. They haven’t had a top-50 S&P+ offense since 1987. Their defense has proved to have a much higher ceiling (five top-30 finishes in Def. S&P+ since 2007) and returns a lot of experience from last year’s No. 40 unit but might have to replace its three best play-makers.

Plus, there’s the matter of seemingly everybody in the East improving. Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina return as much production as the Dores, and Missouri isn’t far behind. Florida and Tennessee built a lot more margin for error in recruiting.

VU can still win plenty of games. The Commodores have bowled five times in nine years and will have a sturdy defense. S&P+ projects the Commodores only 63rd, worst in the SEC, but they have at least a 44 percent win probability in six games and at least 31 percent in eight.

Now, that’s not what Mason is envisioning. He likely has the bar set higher than that. But this continuity does spell improvement, especially combined with the progress the offense made in the second half of last season.

If anything else, the experience this year and next will establish the likely ceiling. I said basically the same thing about Northwestern in the Wildcats preview, and that fits, considering they’re the same type of program: teams with built-in recruiting limitations (because of academics, size of fanbase, etc.) but the ability to attract smart personnel and compete at a high level, given the right continuity.

NU has proved itself capable of being a competitive bowl team, and Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats might have as much upside in 2017 as ever. The obvious difference: VU’s proved itself only once under Mason, and that was marginal. There’s room for growth; we’ll see if Mason can realize it.


2016 in review

2016 Vanderbilt statistical profile.

Part of the reason for optimism is how the offense blossomed last year, averaging nine more points per game over the final six games than the first seven. Of course, the defense regressed by a similar amount.

  • First 7 games (3-4): Avg. percentile performance: 41% (26% offense, 62% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.6, VU 4.4 (minus-1.2) | Avg. score: Opp 22, VU 19
  • Last 6 games (3-3): Avg. percentile performance: 58% (57% offense, 48% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.3, VU 6.0 (minus-0.3) | Avg. score: VU 28, Opp 26

The formula was easy to understand. The Commodores stunk at the field position game but dominated the red zone — 4.6 points per scoring opportunity on offense (56th in FBS), 3.5 on defense (sixth), meaning they scored as many points in five trips as opponents would in 6.5 — and relied on their ability to win on standard downs.

Either the formula worked, or it didn’t. In terms of postgame win expectancy (which looks at the key stats and says, “Team A would have won this game X percent of the time”), Vandy was at 66 percent or higher four times and at 20 percent or lower eight times. The Dores eked out a bowl bid because of unlikely wins against WKU (27 percent) and Georgia (15 percent).

The next two steps: occasional passing-downs success and far less horrendous field position.

Even with the late-year improvement, Vandy’s offense ranked a miserable 123rd in Passing Downs S&P+; quarterback Kyle Shurmur was constantly under pressure, and the Commodores managed a 40 percent passing downs success rate in just two games. Granted, they were the last two of the regular season (hope!), but they followed with a 21 percent in the blowout bowl loss to NC State (less hope!).

The field position problems were due to a combination of passing-downs inefficiency and poor legwork. Vandy ranked 102nd in punt efficiency and 89th in kickoff efficiency. Not having a freshman punter will help there.


Offense

Vanderbilt offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

I cannot stress how important Vanderbilt’s offensive line is.

This is an over-generalization, but you can boil a lot of a line’s performance down to two key situations: short-yardage and passing-downs pass protection. Is there a lot of other context going on in those situations? Of course. But the fact that Vandy ranked 121st (out of 128) in power success rate and 124th in passing-downs sack rate says a lot.

In certain situations, everything was fine. Vandy ranked a healthy 44th in Standard Downs S&P+; defenses were preoccupied with stopping star running back Ralph Webb, and it opened up some passing opportunities. Shumur was only OK in such situations — his passer rating on first downs was a paltry 107.8; for comparison, Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs’ was 190.1 — but there was enough balance for VU to avoid passing downs reasonably well.

You can win with a “stay on schedule and avoid passing-downs disaster” approach. But it’s harder to pull that off when you’re awful at both converting short yardage and, well, avoiding passing-downs disaster.

That four linemen with starting experience return is good, and the fact that all four are either sophomores or juniors tells you how young Vandy’s line was. But all-conference left tackle Will Holden and two-year starting center Barrett Gouger are gone, and Vandy might end up relying on a couple of redshirt freshmen — center Sean Auwae-McMoore and tackle Devin Cochran — to fill in the gaps. Yikes.

NCAA Football: Tennessee State at Vanderbilt
Ralph Webb
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Webb still has eligibility despite the fact that it feels like he was in Nashville when Jay Cutler was Vandy’s quarterback. In three seasons, he has racked up a combined 3,726 rushing and receiving yards and 24 touchdowns, all on bad or mostly bad offenses. And while there are still questions about the line, the passing game might be in better shape than it has been since Cutler left.

OK, that’s presumptuous. Vandy still ranked just 87th in Passing S&P+ last year. But after a dreadful start, Shurmur really did show progress.

  • Shurmur, first 7 games: 51% completion rate, 10.4 yards per completion, 98.5 passer rating
  • Shurmur, next 5 games: 62% completion rate, 13.9 yards per completion, 141.7 passer rating

The interception rate ticked up a bit, and his bowl game was miserable (19-for-46 for 158 yards and three picks against an awesome NC State defense), but he showed the kind of trend you want in a sophomore.

The development of Caleb Scott was key. Scott had four catches in the first seven games, then 16 in the next five. That took pressure off freshman receiver Kalija Lipscomb, who had been asked to do far too much early on. And the fact that Scott averaged 19.4 yards per catch gave Vandy an honest-to-god big-play threat. Webb has his moments, but he needed more help.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Vanderbilt
Kyle Shurmur
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Continuity in the passing game is a sign of likely improvement. Shurmur is back, as are each of the eight players targeted at least 10 times last year. If Late-Season Scott makes an extended appearance, then possession targets like slot man C.J. Duncan and sophomore tight end Jared Pinkney could find a bit more room to run. So could Webb, for just about the first time ever.

It comes back to that line, though. Webb needs more of a push than he got, and Shurmur needs protection.

Defense

Vanderbilt defensive radar

Vanderbilt’s 2016 defense was ... unique. The Commodores were disruptive against the run, ranking 29th in stuff rate and 31st in power success rate. That usually correlates with good run efficiency, but they were 72nd in rushing success rate.

Meanwhile, they were good at big-play prevention, allowing just 13 passes of 30-plus yards all year (10th in FBS); that typically coincides with strong explosiveness ratings, but they ranked 55th in Passing isoPPP (which measures the magnitude of successful plays).

They were aggressive against the run, but it backfired occasionally; they were bend-don’t-break against the pass (with the No. 117 Adj. Sack Rate ranking to match) but gave up a few too many passes in the 10- to 15-yard range.

And through all that, they ranked a cohesive 47th in Standard Downs S&P+, 48th in Passing S&P+, and 40th in overall Def. S&P+.

Makes sense, right?

Stats don’t paint a clear picture here, but here’s what I think I know from watching Vandy:

  • The line, still not blessed with the type of size you like to see from a 3-4 front, was quick but could be pushed around under the wrong circumstances.
  • A lot was asked of the linebacking corps, and the trio of Zach Cunningham, Oren Burks, and Ja’karri Thomas (but mostly Cunningham) responded incredibly.
  • The backfield punished mistakes if you made them (but didn’t force a lot of mistakes).
NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt
Joejuan Williams (8) and Oren Burks (20)
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

If this is true, it’s a good-news, bad-news situation.

  • Good news: Almost the entire secondary is back. Losing cornerback Torren McGaster hurts, but he’s the only departure — a sturdy foursome of senior safeties (LaDarius Wiley, Ryan White, Taurean Ferguson, Arnold Tarpley III) is back, as are senior corner Tre Herndon and sophomore Joejuan Williams.
  • Good news: The line is nearly as experienced. Tackles Adam Butler and Torey Agee are gone, but senior nose Nifae Lealao returns and has a seasoned dance partner in Jay Woods. At end, Jonathan Wynn and Dare Odeyingbo are back, though after them it’s all redshirt freshmen and true freshmen (including Dare’s incoming brother Dayo). Depth here could be a concern, but you’ve got four solid pieces.
  • Bad news: The linebacking corps got thinned out. The all-world Cunningham is gone, and so are Thomas and backup Landon Stokes. After Burks come juniors Jordan Griffin, Charles Wright, and Josh Smith, who combined for 30 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss in mostly backup roles.

Generally speaking, it’s easier to replace production at linebacker than it is in the front or (especially) back of the defense. But there was a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of Cunningham and Co., so turnover there is alarming.

Though Mason doesn’t get the offensive benefit of the doubt, he does on defense. In his six years as either a coordinator or head coach, he’s had four defenses in the Def. S&P+ top 40. If the Commodores don’t have that, they’ll have something close.

NCAA Football: Florida at Vanderbilt
Nifae Lealao (77)
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Despite shakiness in punts and kickoffs, Vandy’s overall Special Teams S&P+ ranking was 70th; it could have been worse, but while Tommy Openshaw isn’t much of a kickoffs guy, he’s a wonderfully steady place-kicker. He made 11 of 12 field goals inside of 40 yards and four of seven outside. His return will help, as will the presence of Kalija Lipscomb in punt returns.

Lipscomb may have been asked to do more than he was ready to do in the passing game, but he averaged 14.9 yards per return and ranked 33rd in punt return efficiency. That Vandy still did poorly in the field position battle says a lot about the inefficient offense.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Middle Tennessee 89 6.8 65%
9-Sep Alabama A&M NR 48.3 100%
16-Sep Kansas State 35 -2.5 44%
23-Sep Alabama 1 -29.1 5%
30-Sep at Florida 15 -17.9 15%
7-Oct Georgia 20 -8.4 31%
14-Oct at Ole Miss 26 -10.9 26%
28-Oct at South Carolina 36 -6.8 35%
4-Nov Western Kentucky 51 0.8 52%
11-Nov Kentucky 41 -1.0 48%
18-Nov Missouri 53 1.0 52%
25-Nov at Tennessee 24 -11.3 26%
Projected S&P+ Rk 63
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 70 / 43
Projected wins 5.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -2.1 (80)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 59 / 47
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 3.6
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 81% (94%, 68%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 4.5 (1.5)

In one way, Mason is right to be excited. The experience his team has compiled — and not just returning production (like what South Carolina’s batch of sophomores and juniors have), but the experience that comes with loads of fourth- and fifth-year guys — should pay off in the form of maybe the highest floor in the SEC East, outside of Georgia or Florida.

That means that if basically any division rival plays a C-game or worse against Vandy this year, that rival will lose. But while the Commodores may have the highest floor, they also have the lowest ceiling. If an opponent plays its A-game, that opponent wins, perhaps comfortably.

In a division like the 2016 East, that worked. A high floor allowed the Commodores to beat Ole Miss, Tennessee, Western Kentucky, Georgia, and a Middle Tennessee that beat Missouri. But they also lost by 31 to Georgia Tech, by 24 to NC State, and fell to Mizzou.

If the East improves as I think it might, then a lot of Vandy’s growth will be neutralized. S&P+ gives Vandy between a 35 and 65 percent chance of winning in six of 12 games. That five of the other six are below 35 percent tells you that a second bowl would be a heck of an accomplishment. But it’s on the table.

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