Barring a very specific series of events which enables 5-7 teams to get into bowl games, the Vanderbilt Commodores will not make a bowl game this season. This Saturday's game is therefore likely to be the last game of 2017 for both Vanderbilt and the vexed, vanquished Vols of Tennessee.
On the surface, this game in Knoxville is very different from 2016. Last year, both teams played bowl games after this one. Last year, both teams faced high stakes. It is hard to believe, but remember that every non-Alabama SEC team finished the regular season with at least four losses last year. Had Tennessee won to finish 9-3, it would have gone to the Sugar Bowl (!) despite failing to win the SEC East and significantly underachieving. Vanderbilt was playing for a surefire bowl bid and the right to claim a non-losing (6-6) regular season.
After going 3-9 in 2014 and 4-8 in 2015, Derek Mason built momentum by going 6-6 last year with his win over Tennessee. A definite and very realistic sense of hope permeated the Vanderbilt program. Veteran pieces on both sides of the ball lent genuine credence to the idea that Vanderbilt -- in a soft SEC East with a crossover West game against unraveling Ole Miss -- could realistically win eight games in a season, a sign of noticeable health for the Commodores.
In 2017, so much of the landscape is profoundly different for these teams.
Neither will finish at .500. Both regressed from last season. Neither team is playing for stakes beyond rivalry bragging rights unless Vanderbilt gets a ton of help to backdoor into a bowl. Whereas last year's game was a shootout, this game has the makings of a fistfight... even though Vanderbilt's defense has absorbed roundhouse punches for much of this season. Last year, Tennessee's path to the Sugar Bowl gave Vol fans one final reason to think that Butch Jones could turn the corner and give the program a gateway to a brighter future. Vanderbilt fans knew that after a year of hard-earned improvements and hard-learned lessons, getting to a bowl would have been both an appropriate reward and a possible springboard for the Commodores. None of that hope, none of that optimism exist this time around. Yes, a lot about this game is different relative to last season.
However, while having just spelled out the differences between 2016 and 2017 in Vandy-Vols, the sneaky and more subtle subtext underlying this game is that not much has changed at these programs over the past year. Flowing from that point, a sense of impending change is very real on both sides, merely more advanced in Tennessee's case.
Tennessee could have fired Butch Jones after last year's loss to VU... but circumstances got in the way. If Tennessee's athletic director position -- with the outgoing Dave Hart about to leave his post -- had not stood in a position of uncertainty, and if the chancellor post (which was eventually filled on December 15, 2016, by Beverly Davenport) had not been temporarily vacant, the school might have been able to pull the trigger. However, it was hamstrung.
Tennessee didn't figure to do much of anything this year, making Jones a dead coach walking. That view turned out to be true, and as a result, the Vols get to clean the slate. The monsoonal rains and winds which greeted Neyland Stadium last Saturday against LSU certainly felt like a Biblical deluge whose metaphorical potency and clarity were impossible to miss. Many a Vol fan remarked on the symbolism of the rain washing away the pollution of the Butch Jones era, the winds sweeping away the stink of a bitterly disappointing tenure. The Vols could have gotten a head start on a fresh start, but now they will finally begin again. They weren't in good shape at the end of 2016, and not much changed a year later.
Vanderbilt is in a situation which doesn't exactly replicate Tennessee's spot a year ago -- the Dores are not playing for the Sugar Bowl -- but the landscape for VU is not that different from 2016. The Commodores, if they beat Tennessee this weekend, will finish one game worse in the regular season compared to last year. They have not come particularly close to reaching their ceiling, the salient difference with 2016 being that now the VU fan base has less reason to expect that Derek Mason and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig are the men who can orchestrate a turnaround. Yet, the bigger picture for VU -- especially when evaluating Mason's four-season tenure as a whole -- reflects stasis, not transformation. This year is not that different from last year. It is lamentable story for the Dores, but the story is marked and headlined by a lack of movement. "Stuck" is a good word for Vanderbilt football at the moment.
One thing is worth pointing out for Vanderbilt: Tennessee being bad might make this game more winnable for Vanderbilt, but that same reality also makes this game less valuable for the Commodores. When VU beat a Josh Dobbs-quarterbacked UT offense and a team loaded with NFL talent such as Derek Barnett and Alvin Kamara, who are currently kicking butt in the pros for teams with genuine Super Bowl aspirations, the Commodores and Mason collected a high-value scalp. The 2017 Vols are feeble, frail and foggy, far less talented than 2016 and owning even less guidance and coaching than last year's poorly-coached crew received. (Mike DeBord was a below-average offensive coordinator, but Larry Scott is flunking. What a barrel of fun in Knoxville.)
Last year, beating Tennessee felt like a catapult for Vanderbilt. This year. beating Tennessee would be a moderately face-saving event. It would mark the avoidance of an embarrassment more than the attainment of a substantial feat. Last year, Vanderbilt expanded its ceiling and its possibilities against the Vols. This year's game is about attempting to not lower the floor, to place a limit on a downward slide and minimize fears about how much this program has regressed. The vibe, the implications, the goals are different because the Vols have cratered.
All of these points shape the context of Vandy-Vols 2017, but what is most fascinating of all is this: Saturday's game, once it ends, will set up a reality in which Tennessee is one year ahead of VU in terms of having a coach enter a season on his last legs, and TWO years ahead of VU relative to its quarterback situation.
The flow of this season makes it hard to think that Derek Mason won't be coaching for his job in 2018. Too much dissatisfaction, too many lopsided losses, too many SEC East setbacks, all make it hard for Mason to swim through a mediocre 2018 and expect to still have a job on Labor Day weekend of 2019. Mason has ceded leverage this season, to the point that he has to take a clear forward step next season in order to justify a 2019 in a VU shirt on the sidelines. To this extent, Mason's situation parallels Jones's 2017.
Yet, while Mason will likely coach for his job next season, he will in other ways mirror the situation Jones faced at UT -- not in 2017, but 2016.
It was in 2016 that Vol fans and people who covered the Tennessee program felt the team had to make the big leap. The 2016 season was Josh Dobbs' final go-round, a last chance for the Volunteers to harness Dobbs' talents with other talented skill players such as Kamara and defensive beasts such as Barnett. As said above, Tennessee's failures in 2016 SHOULD have gotten Jones fired, but administrative vacancies and uncertainties spared Butch for one more year.
Yes, 2018 Vanderbilt will not have the talent or NFL chops of 2016 Tennessee, but the one key parallel between the two teams is that while UT had Dobbs one more year, VU will have quarterback Kyle Shurmur for one more season. It only makes sense for Mason to have one more rodeo with a familiar quarterback, hoping that cohesion and stability at football's most important position will solidify the offense. If Mason can repair the defense, the operation could still come together and Mason could coach into 2019 on the heels of a 7-5 season. (Mason will not merit a pink slip if HE finishes 8-4. That is another obvious point of differentiation relative to Butch Jones at the end of 2016.)
However, if Mason can't get over the hump next year -- 6-6 being a minimum expectation, and seven wins being the target he will realistically need to hit, chiefly by beating Kentucky and Missouri -- the increased aspirations of Vanderbilt athletics would very likely point to a change in leadership and a chance to reset the dial, which Tennessee has chosen to do.
The great unknown this week is the man John Currie will select to replace Jones in Knoxville. Vanderbilt fans are hoping for a bad hire. Yet, the Commodores live in fear that UT will finally select a good coach again, something it hasn't had since Phil Fulmer left. While it would be the best outcome for Vanderbilt to see Derek Mason get it right next year, the idea of looking for a new leader at the end of 2018 gives the Commodores a chance to reinvent themselves.
The present moment is oppressive, weighed down with the baggage of failure before this last face-saving game of 2017 in Neyland Stadium, the home of cleansing monsoon storms.
Yet, while Derek Mason sweats this season finale, Vanderbilt fans can look at their neighbors in orange and know that in a year, they might have the chance to begin the new story which will transform their program.
Hope will not reside in Neyland Stadium this Saturday... but hope could soon come to the children of the checkerboard.
Vanderbilt fans might be only one year away from feeling that same sense of hope.