SEC: Derek Mason
A couple of SEC schools have announced new future series in recent days, including Texas A&M, which has added a home-and-home series with Colorado in 2020 and 2021.
The former Big 12 mates will play at Texas A&M in 2020 and most likely at Colorado in 2021, although the game might also be staged in Denver.
In case you missed it, Vanderbilt and Stanford also announced a four-game series this week. Vanderbilt will host in 2021 and 2025 and Stanford will host in 2024 and 2027.
Vandy coach Derek Mason was a Stanford assistant before accepting his current position in Nashville.
While the last two seasons have ended without an SEC team being crowned the national champion after seven straight title runs, you can't discount the past success of this league and how tough it is to survive in it.
Coaching in the SEC can be both a blessing and a curse. The risk and reward can almost be on the same playing field, but the chance to coach in the SEC is something high-profile coaches dream of. But tread lightly, because there's always a ferocious arms race going on, and getting behind can be bad for your health.
Today, we're ranking all 14 coaching jobs in the SEC. We put our brains together, considering location, tradition, support, fan bases, facilities and recruiting access.
Here's what we came up with:
1. Florida: Location, location, location. It's the flagship university in the fertile football state of Florida. There's enough talent to share with rivals Florida State and Miami, and Georgia is basically in Gainesville's backyard. Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer helped make Florida a true national brand with all those SEC titles and three national championships. Significant facility upgrades are coming, the fan base is tremendous, game days are great and the Swamp is one of the best stadiums around. The last five years haven't been great, but with rich recruiting grounds and endless resources, the right coach can quickly turn things around.
2. Alabama: If not for UF's location, Alabama would be No. 1. There's tremendous history with, like, 100 football national championships claimed by the fans. This is a job anyone would want. The facilities are some of the best, and coaches are able to recruit all over the Southeast and beyond with an extraordinary national brand. While expectations are gaudy, there's tremendous support inside and outside of the program, and there's no shortage of money for any coach out there.
3. LSU: It has the luxury of being one of the few schools across the country that is the team in its state. Prospects across Louisiana, which also has a tremendous amount of elite talent, grow up wanting to play for the Tigers. The facilities are top-notch, the fan base is incredible and chaotic, and that immense, intimidating stadium just got bigger. Nick Saban helped LSU become a premier program, but Les Miles has done a great job continuing that since his arrival in 2005.
4. Georgia: There's a great deal of talent in the state and Atlanta is essentially in its backyard. The Bulldogs are the top school in the state, rarely going to battle for recruits with rival Georgia Tech, and Georgia has a national brand that can push recruiting well outside the state's borders. The facilities are solid and an indoor practice facility is in the works. There's excellent tradition, a tremendous fan base and one of the league's best game-day atmospheres in Athens.
5. Texas A&M: You could argue that Texas A&M should be higher on this list for the simple fact that it's in Texas. I mean, isn't that where real football was invented? There's a ton of money in College Station to keep any coach happy (just ask Kevin Sumlin) and the facilities, which keep getting bigger and prettier, are exquisite. Texas A&M is rich in tradition and has one of the best game-day atmospheres in the country. However, regardless of recent success, this school is still in the Texas Longhorns' shadow.
6. Auburn: It isn't hard to recruit to Auburn and that beautiful campus. Yes, Auburn has to deal with playing second fiddle to Alabama, but getting elite talent on the Plains hasn't been difficult during Alabama's reign of terror. Auburn has a lot of tradition, one of the league's best stadiums and quality facilities. Even with that school in Tuscaloosa, a coach can win championships at Auburn.
7. Tennessee: It's been a long time since Tennessee was a nationally relevant program, but longtime tradition and a re-emergence on the recruiting trail are pushing Tennessee's stock up. Neyland Stadium has been tidied up in recent years and nearly $50 million was spent on a new football complex. The state might not have an abundance of top-tier talent, but it's not like coaches have to travel very far to pluck guys from neighboring states.
8. Arkansas: Arkansas has a lot going for it, even if it isn't in the heart of the Southeast's most fertile recruiting territory. It's essentially the only team in the state -- something LSU and Georgia can't even say -- and the school has unloaded some funds on improving facilities. However, since the state doesn't typically have a lot of top-notch prospects, coaches must heavily recruit other states such as Texas and Oklahoma.
9. South Carolina: Spurrier has proved during his 10 years in Columbia that you can win at South Carolina. He's been able to tap the state's underrated talent pool while having to compete with Clemson and those other pesky schools trying to steal guys away. An indoor practice facility is under construction, and South Carolina has one of the most faithful fan bases, which stuck with the program during some very rough years.
10. Ole Miss: In three years under Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss has grown its brand a little more. Just check out that historic 2013 recruiting class. The campus is beautiful, facilities are impressive and the game-day environment in the Grove is envied by just about everyone. However, consistently recruiting elite talent to Oxford has never been easy, and the program has won nine or more games just six times since 1971 and has had 11 head coaches in that span.
11. Missouri: With two SEC East titles in three years, Missouri's move to the SEC hasn't been as daunting as a lot of us expected. Gary Pinkel made this a quality program after his 2001 arrival, and the school charged right into the SEC arms race by upgrading and expanding Memorial Stadium as part of a $200 million facilities project. Location can be an issue, but Mizzou has made it a point to have more of a Southeastern presence in recruiting.
12. Mississippi State: Consistently getting elite talent to Starkville, which can be a little out of the way for people, is an uphill battle. But the program has been on the uptick since Dan Mullen's arrival in 2009. Mississippi State's brand is growing, the fan base is incredibly loyal and the school hasn't been afraid to spend money after pumping $75 million into a stadium expansion a couple of years ago.
13. Kentucky: Let's face it: This is a basketball school. The Wildcats haven't been to a bowl game since 2010, following five straight trips. It's hard to sustain real success at Kentucky when coaches constantly have to go outside of the state for recruiting. Mark Stoops has done well on the recruiting trail recently, and that $45 million football facility will be a major upgrade, but to see a true title contender emerge from Lexington will be a rarity.
14. Vanderbilt: James Franklin showed that you can win at Vandy with three straight bowl trips, but as soon as he was gone, Derek Mason's Commodores fell flat. High academic standards restrict coaches from recruiting some of the top players in the country, but a recent facilities upgrade shows some care for the program. Vandy must go way outside the box and a take a lot of risks in recruiting.
From the NFL combine:
- Mississippi State safety Justin Cox's athleticism shined on Monday, as he posted the best 40-yard dash time and broad jump marks among safeties at the combine.
- Alabama product Landon Collins posted the fourth-best 40-yard dash time among defensive backs at the combine.
- Auburn's Jermaine Whitehead recorded top-five marks in his position group in four events: the vertical, broad jump, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle.
- Ole Miss' Senquez Golson ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, eighth-fastest among cornerbacks at the combine.
- Tennessee's Justin Coleman finished in the top 10 among defensive backs in the vertical, broad jump and bench press.
- Some sad news on Monday from Tennessee, as former Vols receiver Clyde Duncan died at 54. Duncan played at Tennessee from 1979-83 and was an NFL first-round pick in 1984.
- SEC schools might be getting revenue checks from SEC Network sooner than expected, according to South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner.
- Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is simplifying the Commodores' defense down to only five calls, focusing more on how his unit plays rather than complexity of scheme.
- Kentucky earned commitments from two 2016 Ohio running back recruits on Monday.
- One of Arkansas' reserve defensive linemen was arrested over the weekend.
- Former Georgia running back Thomas Brown returned to Athens to be Mark Richt's running backs coach and spoke with reporters about it on Monday.
- Former Detroit Lions executive Matt Millen revealed in a radio interview that he threw former LSU quarterback Jamarcus Russell out of his office during a meeting prior to the NFL draft.
What's new: Derek Mason, entering his second season as head coach, fired both of his coordinators, Karl Dorrell on offense and David Kotulski on defense. Mason brought in former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig to run the offense and coach quarterbacks, but Mason will run the defense himself. Cortez Hankton, a former NFL receiver, replaces Marc Lubick as Vanderbilt's receivers coach. Hankton was most recently the receivers coach at Dartmouth. Marc Mattioli fills the open spot on the defensive staff and will coach safeties. Mattioli was a graduate assistant under Mason at Stanford. Mason initially hired former Philadelphia Eagles assistant defensive backs coach Todd Lyght to coach the cornerbacks, but Lyght left after three weeks to return to his alma mater and coach at Notre Dame. Brett Maxie will coach the cornerbacks. Maxie handled the entire secondary a year ago.
New faces: Junior college transfer Nehemiah Mitchell is enrolled in school and going through spring practice. The 6-4, 255-pound Mitchell played at City College of San Francisco last season after transferring there from Sacramento State, where he played the 2013 season. Mitchell has the kind of length Mason is looking for in his outside linebackers.
Question marks: Building depth and getting more production in the defensive line will be important. In particular, the Commodores need senior Caleb Azubike to take hold of the defensive end position in his second season in the 3-4 scheme. Azubike is up to 280 pounds. The same goes for 6-5, 320-pound sophomore Nifae Lealao at nose guard now that Vince Taylor has departed. The offensive line was a huge sore spot last season and has to get better. In SEC games, the Commodores finished last in rushing offense with an average of 94.1 yards per game and scored just three rushing touchdowns in eight league games. Fifth-year junior Spencer Pulley is one of four returning starters in the offensive line and has started in 25 straight games at right guard. He's likely to shift to center for the 2015 season. Jordan Matthews spoiled everybody at Vanderbilt with how many plays he made at receiver during his record-setting career. The void his departure left last season was glaring. The Commodores need more players to step up at the receiver position, and they need more explosive plays from their receivers. Defenses were able to load the box last season against the Commodores, and they rarely made them pay down the field with big plays. It's a big spring for third-year sophomore receiver C.J. Duncan to come into his own as a true No. 1 threat. Getting back senior tight end Steven Scheu should help the passing game. Scheu was Vanderbilt's leading receiver last season and a second-team All-SEC selection. He'll be a big part of Ludwig's plan on offense.
Key battle: It's the same one as a year ago. The Commodores need to settle on a starting quarterback after having four different quarterbacks start games last season, none of them playing with much consistency. Three are back -- fourth-year junior Patton Robinette, third-year sophomore Johnny McCrary and true sophomore Wade Freebeck. Redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage will also take his shot at the job this spring. Ludwig would like to pare the competition down to two as soon as he can and go from there. They all bring different skill sets to the table. McCrary is probably the most athletic and has a big arm, but he needs to cut down on the mistakes. Robinette has had concussion issues. They all will get a clean slate under Ludwig, who wasn't around to see the Commodores throw 13 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions last season.
Breaking out: Third-year sophomore Jay Woods is somebody to watch at defensive end. He was a part-time starter last season and showed flashes. On the offensive line, 6-5, 320-pound Delando Crooks sure looks the part. Also a third-year sophomore, he's plenty athletic for a guy his size and could help solidify matters inside at guard. Anybody who can stretch the field at receiver will be given a long look. Redshirt freshman Ronald Monroe is a bigger target (6-2, 200) who could help the passing game become more potent. Trent Sherfield played a little bit last season as a true freshman and has the speed to be one of the Commodores' most explosive receivers. Monroe and Sherfield are still learning how to play the position after playing quarterback in high school. And at safety, third-year sophomore Oren Burks, with his added maturity, experience and athleticism, has everything it takes to be a leader in that secondary.
Don't forget about: Vanderbilt's linebacker corps has a chance to be outstanding. Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham were both starters at inside linebacker as redshirt freshmen last season and were the top two tacklers on the team. Junior Stephen Weatherly is also back at one of the outside linebacker spots, and he led the Commodores last season with 12.5 tackles for loss. The veteran of the group is senior Darreon Herring, who was sixth on the team in total tackles last season and played both inside linebacker and the nickel position. Throw in the addition of JUCO transfer Mitchell, and it's easy to see why Mason likes what he sees at linebacker.
All eyes on: Now that Mason has shaken up his staff, including bringing in a new head strength coach (James Dobson from Nebraska), everybody is anxious to see how it will all translate to the field. Mason is taking the reins on defense, which means Vanderbilt fans can hope to see more of what they saw in the finale against Tennessee last season than the earlier games. Mason was much more involved in the Tennessee game plan, and the Commodores played one of their better games. One thing Mason mentioned was being able to execute the defense better and not worry as much about having so many different looks, checks and packages in the playbook. They'll have just five defensive calls this spring. Wearing both hats (as head coach and defensive coordinator) is a steep challenge, especially for such an inexperienced head coach. But Mason knows what he wants and is confident the Commodores can be more disruptive on 'D' next season after giving up more than 30 points in seven of their 12 games last season.
Before anyone runs a route in practice or sets up for blocking drills, debates will rage about which schools made the best hires. We will also debate who enters 2015 with the biggest target on his back and the most pressure to deal with.
That's what we will focus on right now: pressure. Honestly, with so much movement, you could have a field day with who you think has the smallest margin for error in his new home. Take Will Muschamp and John Chavis for instance. Both are considered defensive wizards, but their moves this offseason come with hefty expectations. Muschamp moved from being the head coach at Florida to trying to repair an Auburn defense that has been awful the past two seasons. Chavis left LSU for Texas A&M with the responsibility to turn around yet another cringe-worthy defense.
You also have head coach Derek Mason taking over defensive responsibilities at Vanderbilt, and Doug Nussmeier pegged as what feels like the 10th coach in the past five years to resurrect Florida's offense. And what about the interesting hire of Mike DeBord at Tennessee? He hasn't coached any football since 2012, and has to keep an upstart offense going.
All of these guys will feel some sort of heat if they don't excite fans or get the ball rolling early. But the coordinator feeling the most pressure in Year 1 at his new digs is Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
Yes, the man picked to replace the enigmatic -- but very successful -- Mike Bobo can't afford to slip one bit in his first year in Athens. Though he has to figure out who his quarterback will be, Schottenheimer, who served as the St. Louis Rams' offensive coordinator the past three seasons, has the benefit of returning four experienced offensive line starters, a solid receiving corps led by vets Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, and possibly the nation's best running back in sophomore Nick Chubb. He has weapons at his disposal, but he still has to get them in the right position.
With so many questions in the SEC Eastern Division (again), Georgia is the early and maybe obvious favorite to take the division. This team has enough depth and talent coming back on both sides of the ball to win more than just the SEC East, but we've certainly seen this movie before when it comes to Georgia. Getting out of its own way has been a major issue for Georgia, but excuses won't really fly this season ... not with how last season ended.
With the way defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt burst onto the scene with a very successful first year in Athens, fans won't approve of a drop-off from Schottenheimer, who wasn't exactly the "wow hire" fans were looking for. The Rams' offense, which did endure some tough injuries, ranked 28th in the NFL in total offense last season, and his bouncing around the NFL has been met with mixed reviews.
But Georgia's offensive philosophy won't change under Schottenheimer. Though Bobo endured a lot of criticism from fans, his offenses were some of the best in the SEC for much of his Georgia tenure. The Bulldogs' offense has ranked among the top four of the SEC the past four seasons, and Bobo's final season ended with Georgia ranking fourth in the league, averaging 457.8 yards per game and a conference-high 6.79 yards per play.
With Chubb, who ran for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, Schottenheimer's first option will -- and should -- be to hand the ball off, as he helps groom a new quarterback. Though this offense should be Chubb-centric, Schottenheimer must help create a more explosive passing game this season. Georgia's passing fell off during the transition from Aaron Murray to Hutson Mason, and the Dawgs just can't endure another average year through the air. There needs to be a legitimate threat of the deep ball.
Georgia's offense, while predicated on running the ball, is very balanced, and Schottenheimer can't stray away from that mindset. Not in a year in which the Bulldogs should be on top of the East and maybe making a playoff run.
The pieces are in place for Schottenheimer to make a smooth transition, but there will be very little leeway from a fan base thirsty for a championship and still trying to feel out its new coordinator.
Continuing this week’s SEC series of post-signing day roundtable discussions, today we’ll examine the conference coaches who are under pressure to make something happen after signing their newest class of recruits.
Edward Aschoff: Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
Year 4 of the Freeze era is beginning, and expectations are about to explode in Oxford. After being on the cusp of an SEC West title and a spot in the first College Football Playoff, Ole Miss now has to stay in the thick of the title hunts. While Freeze has been enormously successful during his time at Ole Miss, he has now signed three straight top-20 classes, and now the 2013 class (the crown jewel of Freeze’s tenure) will be all grown up. If the bulk of that class is going to bring a championship to Ole Miss, the time is now because the heavy hitters, like Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil, will likely head to the NFL after this coming season. There’s too much talent in Oxford for Ole Miss not to compete for a spot in Atlanta, and anything else will be considered a failure.
David Ching: Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
I was tempted to focus on Mark Richt or Les Miles because the natives seem to be getting restless at Georgia and LSU, but let’s go in a different direction. Mason probably needs to get more out of this 2015 class immediately than those two SEC veterans. Last season was a mess at Vandy, with the Commodores failing to put up a good fight in most of their nine losses. Their three wins came against UMass (by three points), Charleston Southern (by one) and Old Dominion (by 14), and they lost by an average of 18 points per game in SEC play. Now Mason enters his second season with two new coordinators (actually he’ll be his own defensive coordinator) and a recruiting class that ESPN ranked No. 44 nationally, dead last in the SEC. Mason told reporters on signing day that he staked his reputation on the quality of this class, which is all well and good. But if the Commodores don’t start looking like a more competent team this fall, I’m not sure Mason’s reputation as a head coach will be too great.
Sam Khan Jr.: Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
I think Travis Haney said it best that Sumlin must begin to reap the fruits of the recruiting labor he and his staff have put in over the last three years. The Aggies' classes ranked eighth, fourth and 12th nationally in Sumlin's first three full recruiting cycles, and the team now enters its fourth year in the SEC. He made significant coaching staff changes (including paying a pretty penny for former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis), and overall the Aggies have recruited better than any team in their own state -- which is talent-rich -- since Sumlin has been there. It's time for the recruiting hauls to translate to the standings.
Chris Low: Mark Stoops, Kentucky
As it turns out, the sky didn't fall at Kentucky after the Wildcats lost six commitments in a span of eight days leading up to signing day. Thanks to some hustle by Stoops and his staff, Kentucky was able to plug some of the gaps late and finish with the nation's 43rd-ranked class. The problem was that Stoops reeled in the 20th-ranked class the year before, so expectations were lofty. As Stoops enters his third season at Kentucky -- with a brand-new contract that will pay him an average of $3.57 million per year -- expectations will be equally high on the field. Kentucky will be aiming for its first winning season since 2009. The Wildcats looked like they were on their way in 2014 after starting out 5-1, but wound up losing their last six games.
Greg Ostendorf: Jim McElwain, Florida
All things considered, McElwain deserves credit for this class. He took over two months before signing day and closed with a top-20 class that included five-star prospects Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson. But this class had a chance to be more than solid. It had the potential to be great. Florida missed on a number of homegrown prospects, including Byron Cowart and Jeff Holland, who both decided to leave home to play at Auburn for the man McElwain replaced. The first-year coach deserves a pass for this class, but he can’t keep letting the top players out of the state. Losing battles to Florida State is one thing. Losing battles to Will Muschamp and Auburn is another.
Alex Scarborough: Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
The great thing about Steve Spurrier is that you can take him at his word. But this time I think his openness hurt him. By telling reporters he thought he'd stay at South Carolina 2-3 more years, he had to turn some recruits off. I mean, who would commit to a program knowing the head coach wouldn't be there the whole way through? Though his 31-man signing class was solid, coming in at No. 21 overall in the country, it was what was missing that Gamecocks fans should find troubling -- most notably, four-star defensive players Damon Arnette and Arden Key, who both decommitted heading down the stretch. While you have to appreciate Spurrier’s honest assessment of himself, reading a head coach say this has to be jarring: "I don't think I did a very good job of maybe going full-speed as much as we needed as it turned out."
Derek Tyson: Butch Jones, Tennessee
After two top-five recruiting classes in a row, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones now has the talent on his roster to make a move in the SEC East. With Josh Dobbs showing promise last season and several other freshmen having standout years, including Derek Barnett, Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr., the talent is in place to have a big season on the field this year. Another 7-6 season could have Tennessee fans getting a little restless.
As the Commodores look to get back on solid ground, they'll have to start by figuring out their situation at quarterback:
Position to improve: Quarterback
Why it was a problem: From the start, Vanderbilt’s coaching staff couldn’t settle on one quarterback. The Commodores used multiple quarterbacks in games eight times, going 2-6 in the process. Even when Vandy kept one quarterback in for an entire game, the Commodores went just 1-3, with those starters throwing for 622 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions on 49-of-110 passing (.445). First, Patton Robinette – the one with the most experience coming in – didn’t work out after only a few snaps in the opener. So the staff moved to LSU transfer Stephen Rivers, who basically fizzled out after a blowout loss to Ole Miss in Week 2. By the time redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary started back-to-back games late in the year, the season was lost and even McCrary couldn’t stay as the full-time guy for long. With four different quarterbacks starting games, there was absolutely no continuity at quarterback, and that really affected an offense that ranked 13th or worse in all four major offensive categories.
How it can be fixed: Mason and new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig need to push a real, tough quarterback battle this spring and then find a concrete starter coming out of fall camp -- if not before. It's time to find a quarterback and ride him through the good and the bad. The quarterback-by-committee approach didn’t work last season, and there’s no reason for anyone to believe it will work this year. With Rivers deciding to transfer, the Commodores return McCrary, Robinette and rising sophomore Wade Freebeck, who, of course, all played and started last year. What would also help is some sort of development at receiver. The Commodores return three of their top receiving targets, but none reached the 40-catch mark, nor did any catch more than four touchdowns. Someone has to step up as a consistent playmaker to help these quarterbacks. Having a solid, young running back in Ralph Webb (912 yards and four touchdowns) returning will provide a nice safety net for anyone under center.
Early 2015 outlook: Having three experienced quarterbacks returning means that Vandy’s coaches won’t exactly be telling these guys things they don’t already know about how to prepare and what to expect. The problem is that none of them were very successful when given the opportunity last year. That means there’s a lot of development that must take place immediately this spring. Ludwig will also have freshman Shawn Stankavage to mentor this spring. He sat out all of last year, but did work as a scout-team quarterback. Vandy also has two quarterbacks committed in its 2015 recruiting class, including ESPN 300 member Kyle Shurmur, who is the No. 7-ranked pocket passer by ESPN’s RecruitingNation. The Commodores will once again have a logjam at quarterback, but the hope is that Vandy’s staff can finally find one guy to lead this team.
Offense: It was not a very flattering offensive year for the Commodores. Vanderbilt ranked last in the SEC in total offense (288.3 yards per game), rushing (109.3) and scoring (17.2 points per game). The Commodores were slightly better throwing the ball -- ranking 13th (179.1). Vandy spent most of the year rotating four quarterbacks, only to lack any sort of continuity and throw a league-high 19 interceptions. The bright spot was freshman running back Ralph Webb, who ran for 912 yards and four touchdowns. Grade: F
Defense: While the Dores gave up a league-high 33.2 points per game, they were a little more productive on this side of the ball than on offense. Vandy still ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in the top defensive categories, but ranked sixth in the conference in pass defense versus league opponents. Redshirt freshman linebacker Nigel Bowden proved to be one of the league’s top young players, leading Vandy and all first-year players in total tackles (78). Grade: D
Special teams: The Dores were actually pretty successful when it came to returning kicks in 2014. Vandy had one of the league’s top kickoff returners in Darrius Sims, who tied for first in the SEC with two touchdowns and also averaged 24.5 yards per return. Vandy also registered a punt return for a touchdown, but surrendered two as well. Kicker Tommy Openshaw hit 8 of 11 field goal attempts, while punter Colby Cooke averaged 42.4 yards per punt and downed 19 inside the 20-yard line. Grade: C+
Coaching: The fact that Mason had to make so many coaching changes during the offseason tells you all you need to know about the difficulties this staff had in 2014. Mason, himself, would probably tell you that he and his assistants underachieved in their first year in Nashville. Mason even admitted that the handling of the quarterback situation stunted the offense's growth. Going winless in SEC play after the last staff went to three straight bowl games stings, but for a first-year coach, you have to expect some bumps along the way. Grade: D-
Overall: This was a season to forget for the program. From the carousel at quarterback to the embarrassing blowout loss to Temple to open the season, the Dores looked nothing like the teams Franklin guided. Vandy led the league in turnovers (29) and crossed the 20-point mark in SEC play just once. It was a trying year for Mason and his team, but the fact that Mason made the moves he did after the season shows that he understands 2014 wasn’t good enough. Grade: D-
Mason announced on Monday that former Dartmouth assistant and NFL player Cortez Hankton would coach the Vanderbilt receivers, the final piece of the puzzle this offseason to the Commodores’ staff.
Coming off a 3-9 season in his first year as Vanderbilt’s coach, Mason fired both his offensive and defensive coordinators and also replaced his strength and conditioning coach. Of course, the move he made that attracted the most attention was naming himself as defensive coordinator. Mason said he was able to do that, in large part, because of the trust he has in the people around him and the way this staff fits.
One of the most important hires any coach can make is his strength coach, and Mason jumped at the chance to get James Dobson from Nebraska. Dobson had headed up the Huskers’ strength program under Bo Pelini for the past seven years.
“The strength coach spends more time with the players than I do, so I needed to make sure that guy was truly reflective of me and had a personality similar to mine in terms of core philosophy and beliefs,” Mason said. “That’s what I found in James Dobson, a master strength coach who’s been in championship games and understands what that looks like.”
Hankton is among three new on-field assistants that Mason is bringing aboard as he looks to get the Commodores back to playing winning football. They went winless in the SEC during his first season and were held to 17 or fewer points in eight of their 12 games. Andy Ludwig will be the offensive coordinator and coach the quarterbacks, while Todd Lyght will coach the cornerbacks.
Ludwig spent the past two years at Wisconsin under Gary Andersen. The Badgers were 21st nationally this past season in total offense (468.9 yards per game) and rode Melvin Gordon much of the way. Their quarterback play was inconsistent, but Ludwig was still able to keep opposing defenses honest. The Badgers averaged 34.6 points per game and finished 27th nationally in scoring offense. Ludwig has also been an offensive coordinator at Cal, Oregon, San Diego State, Fresno State and Utah.
“I needed a guy who could utilize the talent and develop the quarterback position the way I wanted it developed,” Mason said. “I talked to everybody I could about Andy. He’s smart, articulate and been in a lot of different programs and has been able to adapt and make it work wherever he’s been.”
Lyght, who played 12 years in the NFL, coached the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive backs the past two years under Chip Kelly. Mason had tried to get Lyght when he was the defensive coordinator at Stanford and then again when he got the Vanderbilt head coaching job.
A big part of the restructuring is splitting up the secondary duties. Brett Maxie will stay on to coach the safeties, and Lyght will handle the cornerbacks. Mason said his decision to call his own defensive plays and coordinate the Commodores’ defense next season was really made for him after talking to several people about the job. He also said that having associate head coach Kenwick Thompson as his right-hand man on defense would make the transition even smoother.
“He’s a guy I strongly believe in, and he knows our system,” Mason said of Thompson, who will coach the outside linebackers. “I was already in those defensive meeting rooms. But for us to get to where we want to go defensively, I need to do more than just walk into those meeting rooms.”
Mason took on a much more active role in game-planning for the Tennessee game last season, and the Commodores had one of their better defensive performances in a 24-17 loss. It was after that game that Mason began to think that it could definitely work, his wearing both hats as head coach and defensive coordinator.
“We probably had too much defense in last season,” Mason said. “It’s not about how much defense you have, but how well you can execute the defense you have. As I talked to different guys about the coordinator’s job, they kept talking about playing a different style of defense. I didn’t want a different style of defense. I wanted our defense, and I wanted it to be what I planned for it to be when I first got here.”
2. Want to have a quality defense in the SEC? It'll cost you. While Diaz signed his new deal, Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith got a new contract as well, one that pays him $750,000 per season and increases $50,000 each year, Bret Bielema sounds committed to keeping Smith there after the Razorbacks thrived defensively under his watch. In the Razorbacks' final five games, they allowed only 31 total points and recorded two shutouts. Their Advocare V100 Texas Bowl win over Texas was particularly impressive, as the Razorbacks held Texas to only 59 yards, the fewest an FBS team produced all season. But there's plenty of money being thrown around to SEC defensive coordinators, with $1.6 million going to Auburn's Will Muschamp and a similar figure rumored for John Chavis, who went to Texas A&M.
3. Not surprising, but Missouri defensive end Shane Ray has decided to enter the NFL draft, according to a report. Missouri called a press conference for Tuesday afternoon for Ray to make an announcement. Ray is one of the latest in a long line of productive Missouri defensive linemen and turned in a 14.5-sack season, setting a school record. He and Markus Golden made quite a pass-rush tandem for the Tigers, who won the SEC East for a second consecutive season.
Around the SEC
- A teammate congratulated LSU defensive lineman Danielle Hunter via Instagram for declaring for the NFL draft, but Hunter denied reports that he has made such a decision.
- Florida coach Jim McElwain officially announced six more assistant coach hires on Monday.
- Kentucky held on to tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow by giving him a new contract after Marrow was courted by new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
- Hugh Freeze hasn't made a final decision on whether to bring in junior college quarterback signee Chad Kelly, who agreed to a plea bargain after an arrest on seven charges near his hometown of Buffalo. Also, Ole Miss running backs Mark Dodson and David Kamara are expected to transfer out of the program.
- Vanderbilt officially announced the hire of Wisconsin offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig to the same position. Also, head coach Derek Mason will call defensive plays.
Doing a little math, and taking into account the recent raises, the average salary for D-coordinators in the SEC is just under $1 million.— Chris Low (@ClowESPN) January 6, 2015
Vandy finished the year with just three wins and ranked near the bottom of the league in every major offensive category. The Commodores also spent most of the year shuffling quarterbacks around, which stunted the offense's growth. Getting outscored 283-102 in SEC play just isn't close to being good enough, and Mason knows that. That's why he made staff changes after the season, including firing offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell and defensive coordinator David Kotulski.
Mason has said that he likes the direction of the program, but the Commodores have a long way to go before returning to being truly competitive in the SEC.
Best win: There weren’t many, but the best of the three had to be the Commodores’ 42-28 win over Old Dominion to open the month of November. Forget who the opponent was, this was the most complete performance of the season for the Commodores. The offense, rolled up a season-high 524 yards of offense and the defense allowed 336 yards, second fewest on the season. We got to see some growth from freshman quarterback Johnny McCrary, who threw for a season-high 281 yards and five touchdowns, and freshman running back Ralph Webb, who rushed for a season-high 166 yards with one touchdown.
Worst loss: The Commodores got blown out in a couple of SEC games this season, but that opening loss to Temple was just unacceptable. The Owls were coming off a 2-10 season, only to walk out of Nashville with a commanding 37-7 win. Vandy was totally inept on offense, registering 278 yards, scoring zero offensive points and turning it over seven times. Three Vandy quarterbacks combined to throw for 224 yards and three interceptions. What’s worse is that players and coaches later said they just weren’t prepared enough for the game -- the first game of the Mason era.
Player of year: The biggest bright spot on offense for the Commodores was Webb, who finished the season ranking 11th in the league in rushing with 907 yards. He was the Commodores’ most consistent offensive player. He rushed for 90-plus yards in four games this season but scored only four touchdowns.
Breakout player: We might be hearing the name Nigel Bowden for a few years. The freshman linebacker was arguably the Commodores’ best defender this season. He led Vandy with 78 total tackles and became the first freshman to lead the team in tackles since since 1998. Bowden, who also led all SEC freshmen in tackles, registered at least five tackles in nine games.
Play of year: The game was well in hand and the Commodores weren’t coming back, but McCrary’s 41-yard pass to David Dudchock in Vandy’s loss to Florida was great. McCray had to dodge a couple of Florida defenders to even get the pass off and then Dudchock went all Odell Beckham Jr. by snatching the pass out of the air with one hand. It wasn’t a play that changed the game or ignited a rally, but it’s one that will make Vandy highlight reels for years. The athleticism, timing and concentration that play took were amazing.
2015 outlook: We don’t really know what to expect from the Commodores in 2015. With a handful of coaches leaving, including both coordinators, Mason is kind of starting over. Now, after the season Vandy just had, that could be a good thing. He and that team need a fresh start. Mason has to settle on one quarterback, and McCrary has all the tools needed to be the guy. The defense has some young, solid talent returning, but the offense has to find playmakers at receiver. Bringing some quality talent in this next recruiting class is key, and developing current guys and motivating them will be crucial to future success.
2. In other "As the Coaching World Turns" news, Tennessee is currently working on a new contract for coach Butch Jones, reports VolQuest.com. Tennessee AD Dave Hart told the site that those conversations are already underway and that, "It will get done in an appropriate fashion" since Jones' focus is on recruiting right now. Jones is already locked into a six-year deal worth in the neighborhood of $18 million, but as we all know by now, that's yesterday's news. Getting Jones under a new, more lucrative and extensive contract will help keep potential suitors at bay. The job he's done getting Tennessee on the right track and into a bowl game this early after the Derek Dooley debacle has not gone unnoticed. Keeping Jones in Knoxville and keeping that program on stable footing would be a wise move. With another stellar recruiting class, the development of last year's class and the maturation of QB Josh Dobbs, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Jones and Tennessee are among the leading contenders in the East next season. Of course, if they win it there will probably have to be a new contract after that.
3. Nick Saban has been calling for more involvement from receivers not named Amari Cooper all season. With good reason, the coach wants Alabama's offense to be more diverse, not just a one-page playbook with No. 9 scribbled in dozens of different languages. Part of that is on coordinator Lane Kiffin, part of it is on QB Blake Sims, but some of the blame rests with the supporting cast. And there's been no more obvious letdown than O.J. Howard. The freakishly athletic tight end was MIA for most of the season. For the first half of the year, you went to the grocery store expecting to see his face on the back of a milk carton. But it appears as if the 6-foot-6 sophomore has hit his stride. He hasn't been great -- seven catches in the past four games -- but it's a start. Howard says now that, "We're on the same page. We're clicking." The problem before? "Probably just not me going to get the ball out of the air," Howard said. "But now I've been doing a pretty good job of it, of going up and getting it and attacking the ball." That's good news for Alabama, which will face more intense scrutiny should it reach the playoff. The more options it has offensively, the better off it will be.
2. Remember when Jacob Coker transferred to Alabama this offseason? It seemed like everybody who followed the Crimson Tide expected the former Florida State backup to walk in and take the starting job. Blake Sims, the ever-patient fifth-year senior, waited his turn behind AJ McCarron, battled Coker and the patience paid off. After throwing three interceptions that opened the door for Auburn to take the lead, Sims remained poised and finished strong with 312 passing yards and four touchdowns in the Crimson Tide's 55-44 Iron Bowl victory over Auburn. Throughout this season, Sims has earned Saban's confidence, and rightfully so. Sims and the Tide are a victory away from the College Football Playoff.
3. To the surprise of just about nobody, Missouri is a 14-point underdog heading into its SEC championship game matchup against Alabama. The Tigers (10-2), winners of six in a row, aren't going to be expected by many to beat Alabama. That seems to be OK by them. "“We love it,” sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer said. “We don’t want people to believe in us." The Tigers are of the mind that the more doubters they have, the bigger the proverbial chip on their shoulder will be heading into the game. This will be Missouri's second consecutive SEC East title game, so the Tigers have an idea of what to expect.
Around the SEC
- Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown explains why he left his job to accept the head coach job at Troy. And here's a look at potential replacements.
- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel will earn at least $200,000 in bonuses for getting the Tigers to 10 wins and the SEC title game.
- Georgia and Mark Richt fell short of an SEC East title. But what does it mean?
- On the heels of a loss to Clemson and a 6-6 season, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has some decisions to make.
- After a winless debut season in the SEC, Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said changes are coming within the program.
- Tennessee is in a bowl game for the first time since 2010.
2. Tired of the “kick-six” yet? I promise this will be the last link. But if you haven’t already, I suggest you go and read Jon Solomon’s piece on how the effects of one of the wildest finishes in college football history are still being felt. It will be worth your time. The Iron Bowl rivalry itself is known for the passion and animosity felt between the two fan bases, but it’s not always that way. Earlier this season, I wrote a story on Alabama quarterback Blake Sims and how he wore a bracelet in support of Kayla Perry, an Auburn student with a rare form of pediatric cancer. Well now, Perry and an Alabama student who has a similar condition will attend Saturday’s game thanks to Kristi Malzahn, wife of Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. Kristi surprised the two girls by inviting them to attend the game with her. Watch their story here.
3. Arkansas and Missouri might be cross-division foes that will meet every season unless the SEC changes its schedule. They might have a huge game this Friday with SEC title hopes on the line. But they’re not rivals, not yet at least. The two sides haven’t played in the regular season since 1963, and they have only met five times ever. Give it time, though. It’s already catching on with some of the players. “Arkansas, they have the word Kansas in it, so it’s got to be a rival,” said Missouri center Evan Boehm. One team who will be directed by Friday’s game is Georgia. If Missouri loses, the Bulldogs are headed to Atlanta for the SEC championship. However, Mark Richt is not planning any Arkansas-Missouri viewing parties for his team.
Around the SEC
- Corey Grant gets his last crack at the Tide three years after leaving Alabama for Auburn.
- Gators’ Jeff Driskel returns to Florida State as the last quarterback to beat the Seminoles.
- Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has a new name for rival Tennessee: “the team out east.”
Congrats to @15_DakP on being named a finalist for the Maxwell and Davey O'Brien awards. Couldn't have happened to a better young man!— Brian Johnson (@BDJohnson3) November 26, 2014