SEC: Derek Mason

SEC morning links

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
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Much was made of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's hire at Florida this offseason. He was brought to inject life into a struggling unit and so far, he has done that -- hiccups in the first half against Kentucky notwithstanding. The true measuring stick for the Gators' offensive progress will come this week at Alabama. Fortunately for the Gators, Roper has experience against the Crimson Tide, though it wasn't a good experience (Duke lost to Alabama 62-13 in 2010 when Roper was with the Blue Devils). These are different circumstances and Roper has Will Muschamp -- who knows Nick Saban well from his days as an assistant on his staff -- as a resource. While Florida still has plenty of room for improvement, Saturday's clash in Tuscaloosa will be revealing when it comes to understanding how far the Gators' offense has come in a short time.

Texas A&M hasn't taken a step back -- like many thought they would in the post Johnny Manziel-era -- and contributions from the Aggies' freshmen is a big part of that equation. So far, 14 true freshmen from the Aggies' fourth-ranked 2014 recruiting class have seen the field and several have become impact players immediately: defensive end Myles Garrett, safety Armani Watts and receiver Speedy Noil, just to name a few. The Aggies' move to the SEC did quite a bit for the program in terms of visibility, fundraising, image but the impact has probably been felt most in recruiting, where the Aggies have hauled in two consecutive top-10 recruiting classes and are on track for a third straight this fall.

Vanderbilt started three different quarterbacks in their first three games, and suffice it to say, it has been an adventure. Against Massachusetts, true freshman Wade Freebeck started but Patton Robinette -- the Game 1 starter -- came in later to lead a comeback victory. What to make of the way coach Derek Mason has handled quarterbacks? It certainly has been a guessing game for fans and observers. This week, Mason said Robinette is starting and he's sticking with him until there's a reason to go another direction. Here's hoping that is the case. Robinette was pulled quickly in the opener against Temple but perhaps gained confidence from his relief performance last week. Confidence can be a fragile thing with a quarterback since it's a position of high visibility. Hopefully Mason can help Robinette keep that confidence up and stick with him through thick and thin, which would show the rest of the team that it should be confident in him as well.

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Nobody will argue that the Ole Miss-Vanderbilt series has the acclaim or reputation of Alabama-Auburn or Florida-Georgia. It certainly isn’t close to being as volatile, either.

But to those around the programs and those invested in these teams, this series is very much a rivalry. Mississippi State and LSU might bring out more passion in Ole Miss fans, and Vandy’s followers might have more hatred for Tennessee, but this game resonates with folks in Oxford and Nashville.

Saturday marks the 89th meeting between the schools. They recruit many of the same players out of the Tennessee area and the series has been pretty competitive in its long history. Ole Miss leads the series 48-38-2 but is 27-22-2 in Nashville, where Saturday’s game will be played.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsOle Miss coach Hugh Freeze and quarterback Bo Wallace will try to beat Vanderbilt for the second year in a row.
“They’re a tough team because they bring it every time, no matter what,” said Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, who made his college debut in last year’s Vandy game. “They’re in the SEC, and SEC teams are always good. The Southeastern Conference is a hard conference; I don’t care who you play. If you do sleep on a team, you can lose. I don’t see us sleeping on no team.”

The series has been played annually since 1970. Vandy has won six of the last nine against Ole Miss, including three of the last five in Nashville. Ten of the last 15 meetings have been decided by eight points or fewer, and the last two were decided a combined five points.

The only team that Vandy has played more than Ole Miss (88 times) is Tennessee (108).

“It’s always been a fun and exciting game to be a part of,” junior Vanderbilt offensive lineman Spencer Pulley said. “I know the community and fans have really gotten into it, especially the last couple of years. As far as a rivalry, over the last couple of years it’s really turned into a good one.”

In 2012, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace threw a career-high 403 yards and wide receiver Ja-Mes Logan caught eight passes for 160 yards – both career-highs -- only for the Rebels to blow a 17-point lead. The Commodores scored 14 unanswered points in the third quarter and won 27-26 on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Rodgers to Chris Boyd with 52 seconds remaining.

Last year, Ole Miss snapped the Commodores’ three-game winning streak with 29 second-half points in a 39-35 victory, capped by an exhilarating 75-yard touchdown run with 1:07 left.

The images of a cutting, darting Scott still plays in the minds of some Vandy players, and it’s added a little fuel to Saturday’s game.

"It sticks with me, 'cause every time I think about Ole Miss, I think about that last play,” Vandy defensive lineman Adam Butler said. “And I just think about if we would've stayed with our fundamentals, which is an area that coach said we didn't really stick with in this past game.”

Ah, yes, the last game. A comedy of errors for the Commodores. With seven turnovers, seven penalties, less than 280 yards of offense and no points on offense, Vandy was steamrolled in its home opener 37-7 to a Temple team that won just two games last year.

Head coach Derek Mason is embarrassed, and so are his players. But they’re motivated by the fact that Ole Miss visits for a late afternoon game at LP Field, just down the road from Vandy’s campus.

Mason will be baptized into this rivalry on Saturday, but players filled him in on the importance – and bragging rights – this game holds.

“The veterans got up and talked about the rivalry between the two schools and how tight it’s been,” Mason said. “That’s when your leadership starts to come out and shows you what the scope of this game is. Not only is it an SEC opponent, it’s a rivalry game. There’s always a little more on these rivalry games, but I think it helps us understand where we need to go, what the level of intensity is going to be.”

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze is very familiar with this game. He spent three years in it as an assistant at Ole Miss from 2005-2007, when the Rebels went 1-2 against the Commodores. As the head coach he’s 1-1, and knows it’s dangerous to discount the Commodores.

“We’re not going to overlook them,” said Freeze, whose 15th-ranked Rebels are coming off a 35-13 victory over Boise State. “We’ll get them ready. It’s an SEC football game on the road.

“They’ve always played us tough up there, for whatever reason.”

What will add a little more to this game is the atmosphere inside LP Field. With a large contingent of Ole Miss fans residing in and around the Nashville area, there’s a chance that this could actually feel like a home game for the Rebels. The short drive from Oxford, Mississippi – roughly 230 miles – should also help pack a lot more red and blue into "Nashvegas."

“This game is going to be a live atmosphere,” Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell said. “I can’t wait.”

SEC morning links

August, 28, 2014
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1. We made it! The college football season is here and SEC play begins tonight. First on the docket this evening is No. 9 South Carolina hosting No. 21 Texas A&M. This game matches two compelling teams, both beginning life without megastars that made lasting imprints on their respective campuses last year. It also pits two dynamic offensive-minded coaches -- the cagey, SEC veteran Steve Spurrier against the relative SEC newcomer but charismatic Kevin Sumlin. How do they stack up? Let's look at the tale of the tape. Both of them had their moments at SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama and Spurrier is known for not having a filter, saying what he thinks at all times. Sumlin doesn't have that reputation, but is beginning to show more and more personality as the years go by (see his responses to Johnny Manziel questions in Hoover as evidence). By the way, if you missed it yesterday, do yourself a favor and read Chris Low's in-depth feature on Spurrier, who is different from many in the profession when it comes to office hours and leisure time. Notably, Sumlin -- a friend of Spurrier's -- is big on family time and the health of his staff also.

2. Next up on the SEC schedule is No. 18 Ole Miss hosting Boise State. Need to get up to speed on the Rebels? Here's an in-depth discussion of the offense and the defense. Interestingly, both head coaches in this game, Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze and Boise State's Bryan Harsin, got their FBS head coaching starts at Arkansas State. Both speak fondly of their time there but acknowledged the difficulty of leaving so soon. The Rebels are one of the handful of SEC programs returning a starting quarterback and there's hope that a big year is ahead for Bo Wallace. The senior himself said he feels a lot more confident than he did at this point a year ago.

3. Finally, tonight's SEC slate concludes with Vanderbilt hosting Temple. New Commodores head coach Derek Mason makes his head coaching debut tonight, doesn't plan to be out in the forefront. Unlike his charismatic predecessor, James Franklin, Mason would rather blend in tonight. Linebacker Kyle Woestmann said "It's definitely centered a lot more around us. It's always player-first. Coming out of the tunnel, he wants it to be us first. Whatever we do, he wants it to be us first." It's also the time for quarterback Patton Robinette to take the wheel. He was named the starter in camp and though Mason acknowledged on Wednesday that it was a close race, he doesn't want Robinette looking over his shoulder and is confident in his signal-caller.

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SEC fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
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Believe it or not, we are two days away from SEC football officially kicking off the 2014 season. And you thought we'd never get here!

Each season we make perfect prediction after perfect prediction. From weekly game picks to preseason teams, we think we've got this whole prognostication thing down to a science!

It's become a tradition here on the SEC blog to release our fearless predictions for the season ahead. I'm riding solo on them this year, but they shouldn't be any less correct this time around.

Here are my 10 fearless predictions for the SEC in 2014:

1. The SEC champion will have two losses ... but still make the playoff: With the talent gap between the teams at the top and the middle of the pack growing tighter, the SEC might be in store for the most exciting divisional races we've seen in a long time. No team is perfect. I've said this since the end of last season: No team will go undefeated in the SEC and no team will leave Atlanta with fewer than two losses. But with how strong the conference is this year, there's no way the SEC champ will be left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesMike Davis rushed for 1,183 yards on 203 carries and 11 scores in 2013.
2. Mike Davis will lead the conference in rushing: He can steamroll over you or just run by you. Davis has everything you'd want in a back and even though he's dealing with a rib injury, he'll lead the SEC in rushing yards this season. It won't hurt that he has arguably the nation's best offensive line in front of him. Georgia's Todd Gurley has yet to make it through an entire season healthy, while T.J. Yeldon will undoubtedly have his carries eaten into by Derrick Henry. With what should be a solid passing game taking some pressure off him, Davis will blow by the 1,183 yards he had last year.

3. The SEC will have 12 bowl-eligible teams: Last year, the SEC saw 10 teams go bowling. This year, Florida and Tennessee will reach at least six wins this fall and join the teams that made bowl games last year. Yes, a Tennessee team with brand-new offensive and defensive lines will go bowling, and yes, Florida's offense will be much better.

4. Will Muschamp will finally beat Georgia: After going 0-3 against his alma mater, Muschamp will finally get a win at the World's Largest Outdoor, eh, Party. It's a rebound year in Gainesville with a better offense. Of course, the game will be close, but quarterback Jeff Driskel will engineer a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter to end the bleeding the Bulldogs have caused the Gators the past three years. That means the SEC East title will come down to the Gators' home game with South Carolina on Nov. 15.

5. Arkansas will have two 1,000-yard rushers: The Razorbacks came close last year after Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams combined to rush for 1,926 yards. With so many unknowns still lurking in the passing game, coach Bret Bielema will have no problem handing the ball off to his duo as much as possible. Williams might even lead the Hogs in rushing this year after an impressive offseason. Stacking the box won't stop this duo.

6. The Mississippi schools will reach nine wins: It seems like whenever Mississippi State and Ole Miss have higher expectations, they fail to live up to the hype. Well, that ain't happening this season. With two very manageable seasons, and a host of talent returning, both of these schools will reach at least nine wins this season. Ole Miss gets Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home and should sweep nonconference play. Mississippi State has an extremely soft nonconference slate and gets Auburn and Texas A&M at home. Both Mississippi teams will pull a big upset on their way to nine wins.

7. Leonard Floyd will lead the SEC in sacks: Last year, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks. This year, Georgia's best pass-rusher will push for All-American status by reaching double-digit sacks and leading the league. He's fast, strong and terrifying off the edge. Floyd had a great offseason and will be a nightmare for quarterbacks.

8. Vanderbilt will make it four bowl trips in a row: No James Franklin? No problem. What Franklin didn't take was the talented core of players the Commodores have. The Commodores return a strong offensive line and a deep, talented group of running backs. New coach Derek Mason also likes what he has defensively. The new 3-4 scheme will make the Dores faster off the edge with Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike moving to outside linebacker. Vandy should win its four nonconference games and will find two more wins to make it back to the postseason.

9. The SEC won't win the national championship: Look at prediction No. 1. While I think the SEC is stronger than ever as a whole, the winner of this league (I'm predicting Alabama) will be pretty beat-up come playoff time -- monthlong break and all. But it isn't just that. I think the country has a great set of teams at the top this year, and I don't see one SEC team really sticking out like seasons past. The seven straight titles were good for the league, but the conference will hit a two-year snag.

10. Ohio State will lose to another SEC team: The loss of quarterback Braxton Miller might have spoiled the Buckeyes' playoff hopes, but they'll find a way to meet an SEC team during the postseason and continue their time-honored tradition of losing to the SEC. Come January, the Buckeyes will be 0-11 against the SEC in bowl games.
videoWhat James Franklin did in his three seasons at Vanderbilt was nothing short of special. Call it astounding, fantastic or incredible.

Perennial SEC cellar dweller for most of its existence, Vanderbilt became relevant under Franklin.

No one will forget the transformation the program underwent thanks to Franklin, but it’s time to move on, and that’s exactly what the football team is doing now that the Derek Mason era is well underway.

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason
AP Images/Mark HumphreyVanderbilt wants to go from being competitive to champions under new coach Derek Mason.
 “James guided the ship, but those guys won games,” said Mason, who was Stanford’s defensive coordinator before arriving at Vanderbilt. “That’s what they see now. It’s really not about who’s at the helm, it’s about what they can get done collectively. You have to have great leadership in order to find great success.”

Franklin, who is now the head coach at Penn State, went 24-15 in three seasons at Vanderbilt and instilled a tough, winning mindset that catapulted the Commodores out of the “pushover” column. Last fall was a heck of a finale for Franklin, as Vandy beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee all in the same season for the first time ever.

Now, the Commodores are looking to build off that success and take the next step with new management. They want to go from competitive to champions under Mason.

“We thirst for that,” defensive lineman Adam Butler said. “We thirst for the SEC championship. We thirst to be better than we were previous years. We feel like we’ve been downplayed for so long. It’s time to make a change.”

That’s something Vandy has never experienced, but this group believes Mason, who has yet to coach a game as a head coach, can take the program to that level because of his résumé and his more verbalized vision for the program.

The goal under Franklin was to win immediately -- one team, one game. For Mason, he wants his players thinking, breathing and talking championships. Mason’s theme is to think big in order to do big things. It sounds cliché -- because it is -- but it’s also a motivator for the Commodores. After having to stay quiet when it came to the word “championship” or even “bowl,” players are practically screaming about them.

“[Mason] thinks about championships – you gotta talk it to believe it,” safety Andrew Williamson said. “That’s what I really look forward to, just going out there working with him and working toward a championship because that’s really our next step.”

Butler said he also likes the approach Mason takes to work. He knows when to flash that infectious smile and when to show his tough, business side. It’s that side that Butler said has helped the Commodores keep their edge.

“Well, you know Coach Franklin, a lot of people like to call him a walking headline,” Butler said. “He’s about the camera, he loves the camera, he loves the media. So does Coach Mason, to an extent, but Coach Franklin had his own sort of way of saying things. It was in a more joking way. He was serious when he needed to be, but Coach Mason, he doesn’t play any games at all, and that’s what I love about him. He’s serious, he’s about business, and he’s about winning.”

And Mason sees that same personality in his players. They aren’t looking for sympathy after losing their last coach. He sees a little anger in guys and plenty of players looking to prove something, just like he is.

“We’re not afraid of anybody, and we’re not going to back down from anything,” Mason said. “We’re going to play every game, and I tell you what, we’re going to find ourselves on the big side of wins, rather than the small side of losses.

“This team is an audacious team. They understand who they are, and they understand what everybody’s perception is [of Vanderbilt]. The only perception that counts is theirs.”

And the perception in Nashville is that Vandy will continue to be a winner without Franklin. The metaphorical chip has been securely placed on the Commodores’ shoulders, and they’re ready to move on with their new captain.

“We have a tremendous amount of pride in what we’ve done here and what we’re doing,” tight end Steven Scheu said. “We’re building a power in the SEC, which pretty much everybody in the nation did not think Vanderbilt could do. It’s nice to be able to show everybody that we are to be reckoned with and that it’s not impossible to win at Vanderbilt.”

SEC morning links

August, 22, 2014
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1. You’re up LSU. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason named Patton Robinette as his starting quarterback on Thursday night, leaving only one starting battle -- LSU’s -- publicly open. Tennessee (Justin Worley), Kentucky (Patrick Towles), Texas A&M (Kenny Hill) and now Vanderbilt have all announced the victors in their quarterback races lately after allowing the races to extend well into preseason camp. At Vandy, Robinette, who came into August as the favorite, won out over LSU transfer Stephen Rivers and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. “We were just looking for the most consistent guy day in and day out. He had very few lows, a lot of highs and really just did a great job of keeping his composure,” Mason said in announcing his decision.

2. You’ve probably seen 100 lame, subjective lists where some bored columnist ranks the best SEC fan bases -- usually in a summertime column when there’s no actual news to cover. Emory University’s sports marketing analytics group tries to gauge fan support in a more scientific fashion (you can read about its methodology here) and it found that six of the top 12 fan bases are in the SEC, led by Nos. 3-6 Georgia, Florida, Auburn and Arkansas. Surely Alabama and LSU fans can find some nits to pick with this study, but take that up with the folks at Emory. As they explained, evaluating the quality of a sports brand is a complicated endeavor.

3. Let’s revise that item from this post yesterday. It turns out that the organizers of a charity fundraiser in Mobile, Alabama, don’t want infamous Crimson Tide fan Harvey Updyke to be associated with the event after all. That’s the smart move. This is an event designed to engender goodwill for a great cause, not give a jerk the dunking or pie in the face that he so richly deserves. Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s mother, Dee Dee, is involved in the event, which will be held in tribute of a 7-year-old boy who recently passed away after a battle with cancer. Here’s hoping it turns into the successful event it should have been all along before adding Updyke threatened to turn it into a sideshow act.

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Patton Robinette to start for Vandy

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has named Patton Robinette as his starting quarterback a week before the Commodores' season opener against Temple.
Mason announced his decision Thursday night.

"I'm excited for Patton as we prepare this team for the season opener next Thursday," Mason said in a statement. "Patton has really made strides and consistently improved from the spring to now. I believe he has worked to earn this opportunity."

The 6-foot-4 Robinette, the only quarterback with any starting experience at Vanderbilt, beat out Johnny McCrary and Stephen Rivers, the younger brother of Philip, who's quarterback for the NFL's San Diego Chargers. The Commodores started fall practice with six quarterbacks competing.

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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Vanderbilt Commodores:

2013 record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC). Beat Houston 41-24 in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Final grade for the 2013 season: This was quite the finale for former coach James Franklin. Winning nine games in back-to-back seasons was a first for Vanderbilt, and so was beating Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season. There were some up-and-down times for the offense, but the defense ranked sixth in the SEC. The Commodores capped the season with a blowout win over Houston in their bowl game, giving Vandy a solid A- for the season.

Key losses: QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, RB Wesley Tate, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Jonathan Krause, OT Wesley Johnson, DE Walker May, CB Andre Hal, S Kenny Ladler

[+] EnlargeCaleb Azubike
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCaleb Azubike posted 10 tackles for loss and four sacks as part of the DE rotation in 2013.
Key returnees: QB Patton Robinette, RB Jerron Seymour, RB Brian Kimbrow, OT Andrew Jelks, C Joe Townsend, DT Vince Taylor, LB Caleb Azubike, LB Kyle Woestmann

Breakout player: While Vandy has to replace a stud in Ladler at safety, new coach Derek Mason is very excited about the prospects of redshirt freshman Oren Burks. He was recruited to Vandy as a linebacker, but Mason calls him one of the best safeties people haven't heard about. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Burks should have no problem knocking people around.

Key position battle: Being a new coach in the SEC is one thing, but being a new coach and having a quarterback battle is another. It's down to three players -- Robinette, LSU transfer Stephen Rivers and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary -- and Mason has actually been pretty excited about the competition for a while now. Robinette has the most experience, and even came off the bench to deliver a comeback win over Georgia last year and later directed wins over Florida and Tennessee. Rivers, the younger brother of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, played sparingly at LSU, but he made up a lot of ground with his competitors this fall. He has a ton of upside and has two years of eligibility. McCrary might be the most athletic and the most talented of the bunch, which could get him on the field even if he isn't the starter.

Most important game: Even though the Commodores are breaking in a new coach, they aren't going to be overlooked in 2014. That means getting off to a fast start, and a win over Ole Miss in Nashville could be crucial to the Commodores' bowl chances in 2014. Last year's back-and-forth scoring act between these two was one for the ages. We still don't know fully what to expect from Vandy this fall, so to start 3-0 would be huge when it comes to the postseason.

Biggest question mark: The loss of Matthews and Krause takes away 154 receptions, 2,191 yards and 10 touchdowns from a year ago. That leaves sophomore Jordan Cunningham as the leading returning pass-catcher at receiver with his 15 catches from a year ago. Experience isn't something the Commodores have at receiver, and it doesn't help that the quarterback situation is unsettled. Redshirt freshman C.J. Duncan is a converted running back and might be the Commodores' most versatile player. Still, he has no in-game experience. Sophomore Latevius Rayford and redshirt freshman Gerald Perry have all shown flashes, and Kris Kentera has moved from tight end.

Upset special: Last year, Vandy went on a run of upsets. While beating Florida in Gainesville was historic for the Commodores, the biggest win of the season came when Vandy took down No. 15 Georgia 31-27 at home. This season, the Commodores could have another upset in the making with a home game against South Carolina on Sept. 20. The Gamecocks will enter the season ranked ninth in the country, and there's always that one game in which the Gamecocks get caught snoozing. Steve Spurrier has lost to Vandy twice (2007, 2008) since taking over at South Carolina in 2005, and both times his Gamecocks were ranked, including No. 6 in 2007. Four games in this series have been decided by seven or fewer points in that span.

Key stat: Vandy owned the SEC's No. 6 defense last year, but ranked 13th in the league when it came to stopping opponents in the red zone. Teams scored on 40 of 46 (86.96 percent) trips inside the Commodores' 20 last year. Twenty-nine of those scores were touchdowns.

They said it: "We’re going to be physical. We’re going to be a team that doesn’t beat itself. You’re going to have to take it out of our hands. We’re going to be a team that it’s going to take you four quarters -- you may even have to go five -- to try and pull one out of the hat. We’re just a team that’s going to be blue collar in terms of what we work toward, what we look like." -- Mason

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 4.93

Bovada over/under: 6

Our take: One thing that made Franklin so successful at Vandy was the attitude he instilled in his team. This was a program used to being pushed around at the bottom of the conference. Back-to-back nine-win seasons and three straight bowl trips were all firsts for the school, so can Mason, who also arrived in Nashville as a highly touted assistant coach, replicate Franklin's success? Now that everyone is paying attention to the Commodores, it won't be easy, and having questions at quarterback and receiver won't help, either. But a solid offensive line and running game should help the passing game, while Vandy has some good, underrated talent within its front seven and could have some breakout candidates in the secondary. Vandy won't get back to nine wins this season, but the Commodores will make their fourth straight bowl game, winning six games during the regular season.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Tucked away in a hotel meeting room, Derek Mason slumps in his chair, wearing a breezy black Dri-Fit shirt, athletic shorts and sandals.

Twelve hours from facing the feeding frenzy that is SEC media days for the first time, Vanderbilt's rookie head coach is relaxed and smiling.

The former Stanford defensive coordinator, who commanded back-to-back top-20 defenses, entered the nation's longest, most scrutinized media days radiating confidence.

"I'm just trying to make sure that we are who we think we are," Mason told ESPN.com in July. "And that's a process. [Former Vanderbilt coach] James [Franklin] did a great job of pushing this program to relevancy, but if you dream small, you accomplish small things.

"It doesn't feel tough, man, because it feels like I'm telling the truth. When you're at a place like Vanderbilt and what you're selling is real ... I'm not selling pipe dreams."

To read more of Edward Aschoff's piece on Mason's journey to Vanderbilt, click here.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 4, 2014
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With camps underway or about to open, there is no shortage of news and notes from around the SEC. Let's dive right in:

SEC lunchtime links

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
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When Auburn opens fall camp this afternoon, it will do so with a reminder of their former teammate, Philip Lutzenkirchen.


SEC's lunch links

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
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Looks like Tennessee products Peyton Manning and Britton Colquitt heard that the Volunteers open preseason practice this week. Check out the “Rocky Top” dance party before Denver's practice on Monday.

Here are today's links:

• Georgia is handing a scholarship to tight end Joseph Ledbetter after he played two seasons of basketball at NCAA Division II Pfeiffer University. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Ledbetter's brother Jonathan is committed to Alabama for next year's recruiting class.

• Mississippi State's Dee Arrington and Ferlando Bohanna are both out for the season, and the Bulldogs have three freshmen who are still working to gain eligibility for 2014.

• With as many as four capable tailbacks available, South Carolina might not need Mike Davis to carry as heavy a load in the backfield this fall.

• James Franklin redshirted all but three players from Vanderbilt's well-regarded 2013 signing class, so new Commodores coach Derek Mason will have some talented redshirt freshmen at his disposal this fall.

• The Lexington Herald-Leader's Mark Story remembers “Wah Wah” Jones, who died Sunday at age 88. Jones was a standout player for legendary coaches Bear Bryant and Adolph Rupp at Kentucky and won a gold medal as a member of the U.S. men's basketball team in 1948.

• The Montgomery Advertiser's James Crepea asks a question many Auburn fans are wondering: When will the Tigers roll out highly-recruited running back Roc Thomas to join the established veterans in the backfield?

Weight has been a regular subject for both defensive lineman Isaac Gross and quarterback (among other possible positions) Jeremy Liggins at Ole Miss.

• The Orlando Sentinel's Chris Hays writes that a rash of decommitments should not concern Florida yet, although plenty of prospects are in wait-and-see mode after the Gators went 4-8 last season.

• Adding top junior-college receiver D'haquille Williams has left Auburn's wideouts even more optimistic about what they can accomplish this fall.

• A pair of LSU freshman defensive linemen were issued citations for misdemeanor offenses last week.

• Alabama's top three running backs (T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake) bring a variety of impressive skills to the Crimson Tide backfield.

• Quarterback Maty Mauk is ready to run the show this season at Missouri after briefly filling in for James Franklin last fall.
BRISTOL, Conn. -- Vanderbilt has played in three consecutive bowl games for the first time in school history.

Stanford has appeared in four straight BCS bowl games, and Notre Dame played for a BCS national championship two seasons ago.

[+] EnlargeVanderbilt's Derek Mason
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsDerek Mason wants Vanderbilt to be a 'quarterback school.'
Duke, of all teams, is coming off a 10-win season.

It seems it pays to be smart in college football nowadays.

“You’re not walking into a home having to apologize about being smart,” new Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “You’re not trying to downplay what you’re doing academically.”

Mason, who worked as Stanford’s associate head coach and defensive coordinator the past three seasons, was hired by Vanderbilt to replace the departed James Franklin on Jan. 17. Franklin had a 24-15 record the past three seasons, including 9-4 marks in 2012 and ’13.

Mason sees a lot of similarities between Stanford and Vanderbilt, both academically and athletically.

“In my mind, when I look at the landscape of college football and where we’re at, Vanderbilt is poised to have success,” Mason said. “The groundwork has been laid and gives us an opportunity to compete now. From players to scheduling, everything is in place for us to get what [we want], which is an SEC East title.”

Like Vanderbilt, Stanford wasn’t a football juggernaut until coach Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2007. The Cardinal went 1-11 in coach Walt Harris’ final season in 2006 and then had consecutive losing campaigns in Harbaugh’s first two seasons. But Stanford has won 54 games the past five seasons combined under Harbaugh and his successor, David Shaw.

“When you have brands that are very, very similar and you had the opportunity to see things work, I think you integrate the things that worked well,” Mason said. “You have to look at what the environment is like at Vanderbilt and figure out how you can make it better.”

On the field, Mason will have to replace eight starters on defense and settle on a starting quarterback. Sophomore Patton Robinette, redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary, freshman Wade Freebeck and senior Stephen Rivers, an LSU transfer, will battle for the starting job when preseason camp opens. The Commodores must also replace star receiver Jordan Matthews.

“I want to turn Vanderbilt into a quarterback school and infuse talent,” Mason said.

Sounds a lot like Stanford.
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.

[+] EnlargeVanderbilt's Derek Mason
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY Sports"I think our opportunity to compete for an SEC East title is now," new Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said.
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.

But Mason believes linebacker Caleb Azubike is going to be a star, Andrew Williamson is the best safety you’ve never heard of, and the tight ends, led by Steven Scheu, could be a real weapon.

"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."
HOOVER, Ala. -- Welcome to SEC media days!

It didn't seem as if we'd ever get here, but in a couple of hours, the inside of the Wynfrey Hotel will be transformed into a circus. The arrival of SEC media days brings us ever closer to the start of the 2014 season. Remember, this is the first season in which we'll be seeing an actual playoff end the season. That right there might be too much to digest.

But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the season, we're turning our attention to SEC media days. It's where you can have 1,000 media members all together -- along with a lobby jam-packed with ravenous fans (usually Alabama ones) -- crowding around kids and coaches.

It really is a beautiful thing, and here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week in Hoover:

1. Life without Marshall: Monday was supposed to be a chance for Auburn to truly introduce quarterback Nick Marshall to the world. Sure, we've all seen what he can do with a football in his hand, but this was where we were supposed to hear Auburn's quarterback talk about all he does with a football. After all, Marshall could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall. But after Marshall was cited for possession of a small amount of marijuana Friday, he's out for media days. Tight end C.J. Uzomah will take his place. Marshall should be here to own up to his mistake. He should be here to take responsibility, but he isn't. Now his coach and teammates have to do that.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama may be picked for the fourth time in five years to win the SEC.
2. Bama talk: For the first time since the 2011 SEC media days, Alabama did not arrive as the defending national champs. The Crimson Tide didn't even make it to the SEC title game. But that won't matter. Alabama still will steal the show. Everyone is here to see coach Nick Saban and ask questions about why Alabama couldn't get it done last season. We'll hear questions about the present and future for Alabama. And with so much talent returning, Alabama will likely be picked to win the SEC for the fourth time in five years.

3. Mason's debut: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is headed to the big leagues, but his first official stop as the man in charge of the Commodores is in Hoover. This ain't Stanford, and it definitely isn't the Pac-12. He'll meet a throng of media members inside a gigantic ballroom. He'll be bombarded with questions about replacing James Franklin, and we'll all wonder if he has what it takes to keep Vandy relevant. Will he wow us during his introductory news conference? Or will he take the businesslike approach and just try to get through such a long day?

4. Muschamp's hot seat: After a 4-8 season that saw an anemic offense and a loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat under his seat. While he has been very collected about the pressure he should be feeling, he knows that this is the most important season of his tenure. To be fair, Florida dealt with an unfair amount of important injuries, but that means nothing now. Muschamp has yet to take Florida back to the SEC title and is 0-3 against archrival Georgia. Muschamp knows he has to win, and he and his players will be grilled about it all day today.

5. Sumlin dealing with distractions: Johnny Manziel might be gone, but Texas A&M is still dealing with distractions away from the football. Before Kevin Sumlin could even get to media days, he had to dismiss two of his best defensive players in linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery earlier this year. One of his quarterbacks -- Kenny Hill -- also was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. Once again, Sumlin will have to talk about more than just football this week.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri's Maty Mauk threw for 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in place of the injured James Franklin.
6. Quarterback composure: A lot of talented quarterbacks left this league after last season, but we'll get our fill this week. Marshall might be absent, but we'll hear from Jeff Driskel, Dak Prescott, Dylan Thompson, Bo Wallace and Maty Mauk. All these guys could have big seasons and will be crucial to their respective teams' success. Can Florida's Driskel rebound after his early, season-ending injury? Is Thompson ready to replace Connor Shaw at South Carolina? Can Wallace of Ole Miss finally find some consistency? And can Prescott (Mississippi State) and Mauk (Missouri) prove their 2013 success wasn't just a flash in the pan?

7. Mauk's composure: Speaking of Missouri's quarterback, he's an incredibly interesting character to watch. He went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured James Franklin last season, and has the right attitude and moxie that you want in a quarterback. Is he ready to be the guy full time? Is he ready to lead without a stud like Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to or Franklin to help him? A lot of veteran leadership is gone, so all eyes are on Mauk. He's also a very confident person who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Let's hope he's on his game.

8. Players and the playoff: This is the first season of the College Football Playoff, and we've received just about everyone's opinion on the matter. Well, almost. We haven't heard much from the people who might be playing in it. What do players think about it? Are there too many games now? Not enough? Do they care about the bowl experience? Do they even care about the playoff?

9. What do players think about getting paid? With the Power Five a real thing and autonomy becoming more of a reality, what do the players think about it all? What are their thoughts on the prospect of getting some sort of compensation from their schools? Are they getting enough now? How much is enough?

10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!

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