BRISTOL, Conn. -- Within the confines of Vanderbilt's football complex, talk of competing or building to be competitive in the SEC are over.
Patience and moral victories are no longer part of the plan for the Commodores.
“We got to win and you got to talk about winning," coach Derek Mason said during last week's SEC coaches car wash at ESPN's headquarters.
Seems simple enough, and it seems like just about every message the 13 other SEC coaches will deliver in some form over the next few weeks leading into the 2016 season. But when you're Vanderbilt, internal perception is everything. A program that has traditionally been an SEC bottom-feeder won't always have the talent of its conference counterparts, so mentality is crucial. Confidence and the right language can help mask the talent deficiencies this program will always have.
Mason, who enters his third season as Vandy's head coach, fully understands that and believes his players do, too. The cloud hanging over his head for the past two years has been his inability to match the immediate success his predecessor, James Franklin, saw. If Franklin could walk in and instantly make the Commodores relevant, well, shouldn't Mason? That's up for discussion, but it's also in the past, and as Mason turns to the present and future, he sees a completely different and more confident team than the one that mustered an uninspiring seven total wins the past two seasons.
“The culture’s just so different," Mason said. "If you look at the last 24 months, the last 24 months have been about not being right but getting it right.
“There’s not very high expectations from the outside world on this team, but there’s very high expectations in the building for playing well early. … These guys have slowly earned the right to be somewhat confident in lining up against some of these teams.”
Simply put, Mason said "these dudes get it." No longer are players wasting Mason's or his assistants' time with frivolous questions that were irrelevant to football. Now, Mason said the right questions are being asked. Players want to know how to eat and sleep better. They are asking how to improve their film-watching ability. They are searching for answers to why four of their eight losses were by single digits in 2015.
Again, the Commodores aren't reinventing the wheel, but the right talk that was absent from Vandy's locker room has arrived and that's very important to Mason.
So is the fact that he doesn't have a young team anymore. It isn't overly experienced, but it does have a solid chunk of players who have significant SEC minutes. Forty-two upperclassmen and 15 starters return. Mason finally feels confident in his quarterback situation with sophomore Kyle Shurmur, who threw for 503 yards last year, taking over. His admiration for running back Ralph Webb, who has gained 2,059 yards the past two seasons, only continues to grow. He still has a salty defense with a ton of speed and athleticism at linebacker. He's also coming around to really liking a deeper offensive line with maturity and 12 guys he thinks can all play SEC ball.
“You can only beat up little brother for so long," Mason said. "Then, all of a sudden, little brother grows up and becomes little big brother.”
But in order to do that, the Commodores' new confidence must translate onto the field. The offensive line must win more battles in the trenches. Twenty-five turnovers and a turnover margin of minus-8 (both worst in the SEC) are unacceptable. The defense can't have a league-high 22 dropped interceptions again.
To succeed in 2016 (make a bowl game), the Commodores have to win the stats game. They have to translate the "war of attrition" from practice to games. The Dores must make sure that everything they do day in and day out amid chaos allows them to perform when it counts.
"We have to take the training from the class to the grass and make sure that when you get into the stadium and there’s 65,000 people or 10,000 people -- it really doesn’t matter -- your execution is what it needs to be in order to get the job done," Mason said.
“Let’s do what we think we can do.”