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Vandy has been extremely Vandy under Derek Mason, but might be exciting on offense now

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The Commodores could be explosive, at least.

Vanderbilt vs Florida
Derek Mason
Photo by Logan Bowles/Getty Images

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

In this series’ Florida preview, I wrote about how programs tend to regress toward their own mean over time, particularly after coaching changes. You make a bad hire and slip below your mean, and you’re likely to revert back up after you make a change. You make a great hire, overachieve, and lose that coach to another job? You’re probably going to regress.

These are generalizations, but they are still an interesting idea for evaluating how a head coach is doing. For Florida, recent hires couldn’t reach the Gators’ 50-year averages.

What about Vanderbilt?

In the 50 years before Mason, Vandy’s average percentile rating per S&P+ was 35.8 percent. Given a 130-team landscape, that’s the equivalent of about a No. 85 ranking. The Commodores were coming off of two rousing seasons under James Franklin, who had just left for Penn State; they’d finished 9-4 in both 2012 and 2013, finishing ranked for just the second and third times ever (the first time: 12th in 1948). But a couple of years of success aren’t enough to drastically change long-term prospects.

In four years under Mason, Vandy’s average percentile rating ... is 34.6 percent. Average S&P+ ranking: 84.8. To put that another way, Vanderbilt is performing like Vanderbilt.

Granted, there have been some ups (a 6-6 regular season and Independence Bowl bid) and downs (being lucky to win even three games in Mason’s first season). And if you take out that debut, Vandy’s average ranking has been 78th. But those are well within the range of normalcy.

Vandy has basically been the same team for the last three seasons:

As the SEC has slumped a bit, the Commodores’ win total has perked up. Take out the three-year Franklin era, and Vandy’s 11 wins over the last two seasons are its most in a two-year span since 2007-08 and second-most since 1981-82. That’s not amazing, but it’s something.

Still, it’s disheartening to realize that, at best, you’ve given up most of the progress you’d showed under the last guy.

If nothing else, Vandy’s personality is changing. The offense improved from 117th in 2015 to 73rd in 2017 and now returns a veteran quarterback (Kyle Shurmur), an exciting big-play receiver (Kalija Lipscomb), and six linemen with at least four games’ worth of starting experience and adds a couple of promising transfers (explosive Illinois running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and former four-star Ohio State receiver Alex Stump), plus a four-star receiver (Cam Johnson).

VU hasn’t ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 50 since 1987’s squad, led by the immortal Eric Jones-to-Carl Parker combination, surged to 18th. There’s no guarantee the Commodores hit that mark this fall, but there’s a chance.

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

Of course, if the offense has risen, that must mean the defense has fallen. The Dores were 20th in Def. S&P+ in 2015 and 67th in 2017, and now they must replace two of their top three linemen, two of their top three linebackers, and five of their top eight defensive backs. They do return four of their top six producers of havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles), but depth will be tenuous unless redshirt freshmen and sophomores are ready. That’s doubly true up front, where the leading returning nose tackle made 1.5 tackles last year.

S&P+ favors the Commodores in four games this fall and projects them within a touchdown in four other games. If the offense can play at a top-50 level, that might be enough to get back to a bowl. But if the new hires at Florida and Tennessee click, finding six wins with basically a top-80 team every year is going to get more difficult. This would be a pretty good window to overachieve and change that trajectory a tad.

Offense

What felt like a 17-year college career for Ralph Webb has come to an end. That might not be a bad thing. Webb spent four seasons running into a clogged line but producing just enough breakout games to justify it. He finished with 4,173 career yards and 32 touchdowns, plus 68 receptions and another three scores through the air. But he only averaged better than 4.3 yards per carry in one year, and as he was asked to do less — his 192 carries in 2017 were 30 fewer than he had in any other season — Vandy’s offense did more.

A lot of that had to do with Shurmur. The idea of a running back who can carry a heavy load is tantalizing, but it only works if it helps your QB avoid second- or third-and-longs. Coordinator Andy Ludwig gave Shurmur more of an opportunity to throw in favorable downs and distances last year, and it paid off. VU went from running 62 percent of the time on standard downs to 54 percent and improved from 64th to 36th in standard-downs success rate.

Granted, Shumur’s still got some improving to do. After torching MTSU, Alabama A&M, and Kansas State to start 2017 (combined: 71 percent completion rate, 194.9 passer rating), he managed only a 118.4 rating and 54 percent completion rate over the next eight games before torching Tennessee in the finale.

With a sliding defense, Shurmur’s success is a grave necessity — the Commodores were 5-0 when his passer rating hit higher than 140 and 0-7 when it didn’t. In this regard, losing your security-blanket RB and your two most efficient receiving options isn’t automatically a good thing. C.J. Duncan and Trent Sherfield combined for a 60 percent receiving success rate, and every other wideout on the roster combined for 46 percent. That duo was a huge reason why Vandy ranked 12th in passing success rate.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Kalija Lipscomb
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Lipscomb emerged as a consistent weapon, going from 12 catches and 211 yards in the first six games to 25 for 399 in the last six. Junior Donaven Tennyson made five of his eight season receptions in the last three games, too.

There’s still room for newbies, though. Stump and redshirt freshman James Bostic provide bigger targets out side — each is listed at 6’3 and between 208 and 210 pounds. And if the freshmen are ready, there’s playing time available. Johnson and a couple of other physically ready first-year guys (6’3, 190-pound C.J. Bolar and 6’3, 205-pound Amir Abdur-Rahman) could find a niche.

At tight end, junior Jared Pinkney was productive during VU’s 3-0 start (nine catches, 125 yards) and erupted for six catches and 119 yards in a late-season loss to Missouri. He and senior Sam Dobbs (eight catches, 79 yards) have been around the block.

Purdue v Illinois
Ke’Shawn Vaughn
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Vaughn was insanely volatile as a sophomore at Illinois in 2016; he produced an opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards) of just 27 percent, about 13 percentage points below the national average, but he made the most of basically every open-field opportunity he got. He’ll have some alls and some nothings.

(That’s more than we can say of Webb’s 2017 backups, Khari Blasingame and Jamauri Wakefield, who combined to average 3.6 yards per carry, 2.8 if you take out the Alabama A&M game.)

Despite Webb’s abilities to make people miss and fall forward, VU ranked 118th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), 108th in power success rate, and 102nd in Adj. Line Yards. Pass protection improved — they went from 108th to 25th in Adj. Sack Rate, and that could mean far more than run blocking this year — but there’s room for improvement from left tackle Justin Skule and company.

Defense

Back in 2015, VU used havoc to great effect. Linebackers Zach Cunningham and Stephen Weatherly combined for 26 tackles for loss and six sacks, while cornerback Torren McGaster produced 13 pass breakups and 4.5 TFLs. The Dores ranked 19th in overall havoc rate and 22nd in success rate.

Last year: 47th in the former, 66th in the latter. And the big plays they allowed were a lot bigger, too. They still did a pretty good job of capitalizing on passing downs (18th in PD success rate), but they had to wait for you to screw up to force any.

After four seasons of serving as his own coordinator, Mason brought Jason Tarver in to breathe some life. (You could say Mason demoted himself, I guess.) Tarver served as the Raiders’ coordinator for three years (2012-14) and has spent 16 of the last 17 seasons as an NFL assistant. The outlier year: a 2011 stint as Stanford’s coordinator and linebackers coach, where Mason was serving as co-coordinator.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Florida
Dare Odeyingbo
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tarver’s Oakland defenses were pretty good against the run, so you can understand the draw of bringing him aboard. Vandy ranked 91st in Rushing S&P+ last year, and at SEC Media Days this year, Mason made a point of talking about more bulk up front.

Easier said than done. Starting nose tackle Nifae Lealao is gone; he was easily the Commodores’ biggest and most productive nose. The primary ends — senior Dare Odeyingbo and sophomores Dayo Odeyingbo (no relation ... just kidding) and Cameron Tidd — are all listed much bigger than last year, but sophomore nose Josiah Sa’o is the only listed 300-pounder among the most likely contributors.

At least the most disruptive guys are back. Inside linebacker Jordan Griffin and the elder Odeyingbo combined for 19.5 tackles for loss and, perhaps more importantly, 14 non-sack TFLs. They each took part in at least nine run stuffs on a defense desperate for them.

Still, the the other top two ILBs are gone, as are the top two nose tackles. Unless Tarver brings some exciting, effective new ideas to the table, it’s hard to assume the run defense improves much.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Vanderbilt
Joejuan Williams
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The same could be said about the pass defense. The pass rush is still going to be hard to handle thanks to the return of OLB Charles Wright (10.5 TFLs, nine of which were sacks) and the Odeyingbos. Corner Joejuan Williams (10 breakups, 2.5 TFLs) is a keeper, too. But the depth chart got thinned out — after Williams, safety LaDarius Wiley, and reserve CB Donovan Sheffield, the depth chart could be filled in entirely with freshmen and sophomores.

Mason brought in a trio of high-three- or four-star freshmen in the secondary, but they could contribute before they’re completely ready. And any injury to a veteran could be devastating.

Special Teams

Despite improving offensive efficiency, the combination of bad defensive efficiency and horrid special teams created a major field position disadvantage for a team that couldn’t afford such a thing. The Commodores were 101st in FBS and 13th in the SEC with a field position margin of minus-2.2 yards per drive. And they were 128th in Special Teams S&P+ thanks to short, returnable punts, a minimal return game, and a 3-for-7 performance on field goals.

Both punter Sam Loy and kicker Tommy Openshaw are gone, but the Dores probably aren’t going to regress anyway. Jamauri Wakefield appears to have some potential in kick returns, but he was all-or-nothing last year.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Middle Tennessee 83 4.4 60%
8-Sep Nevada 101 9.2 70%
15-Sep at Notre Dame 7 -24.9 8%
22-Sep South Carolina 35 -5.7 37%
29-Sep Tennessee State NR 23.1 91%
6-Oct at Georgia 6 -25.6 7%
13-Oct Florida 32 -6.7 35%
20-Oct at Kentucky 64 -5.3 38%
27-Oct at Arkansas 52 -7.2 34%
10-Nov at Missouri 30 -12.4 24%
17-Nov Ole Miss 25 -9.4 29%
24-Nov Tennessee 79 3.1 57%
Projected S&P+ Rk 75
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 71 / 76
Projected wins 4.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -2.9 (84)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 52 / 50
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -5 / -4.4
2017 TO Luck/Game -0.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 55% (58%, 52%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 5.5 (-0.5)

After the last three years, it’s not hard to believe a five-win, No. 75 projection, is it? The offense could again progress if young receivers step up, and the defense might avoid further regression if new coaching and, again, youngsters come through.

The overall depth here is problematic, though, and the schedule, which features road trips to three projected top-30 teams (Georgia, Notre Dame, Mizzou) and visits from three others in the top 40, offers minimal margin for error. Vandy will need to win every winnable game (the Dores are projected favorites in four games) and ride big-play potential to a few upsets; otherwise, they’ll have gone through the Shurmur era while maxing out at six wins.

Vanderbilt isn’t underachieving under Mason. The Commodores are just ... achieving. There are worse fates than that, but if you’re a Vandy fan, you’re probably longing for a bit more.

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