- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOOVER, Ala. -- Derek Mason had the media eating out of his palm the second he strolled into the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Monday wearing a sharp black bow tie and a patterned gold jacket. Then he did the rarest thing you’ll see at a conference media days gathering: He opened his mouth and meaningful words came out.
In a sea of vanilla quotes and too-tight windsor knots, Mason set himself apart at SEC media days. He stepped to the podium, proudly called himself the new head coach on the block and added that, "The great thing is I'm undefeated, so I'm feeling real good about where we're at." Later he was asked who the most underrated team in the league might be this season, and without the slightest pause he said it was his own.
While the rest of the country might see Vanderbilt as a nice little rebuilding project that can raise the league's SAT scores, Mason dared to be confident.
"I think our opportunity to compete for an SEC East title is now," he said.
If James Franklin was audacious about raising expectations at Vanderbilt, his successor is taking it one step further. Everything is on the table for Mason. He wants to recruit nationally. He wants to play freshmen right away. He wants to throw the SEC for a loop with his West Coast roots.
"My job is to compete," Mason said. "My team has to be competitive. I need to be competitive from a recruiting standpoint, from a coaching standpoint, from selling of our program, our city. Those things are what I've been charged with to do. I really embrace that from the standpoint of here is the opportunity, let's go."
Stanford's former defensive coordinator will have his fair share of challenges as a first-year head coach, to be sure. He's inheriting a team that lost its starting quarterback, both its top receivers and more than half of its defense from a year ago. With games against Ole Miss, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida on the schedule, it’s going to be an uphill battle.
"Our team is a team of probably no-name young men who have a chance to do something great," Mason said. "It's talented across the board."
Just how talented remains to be seen. But if media days was a barometer, Vanderbilt won’t be lacking in confidence.
While other coaches deflected and dodged questions on Monday, Mason happily navigated the fray.
Late in the day, he went up to two workers carrying the SEC championship trophy. He stopped to pose alongside it, made the Vanderbilt "V" with his right hand and called the prize "what we are chasing."
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