If you like that old-time religion, "How Firm a Foundation" represents a classic hymn for Sundays or Christian camp sing-a-longs. (Yes, I speak from personal experience.) For the Vanderbilt University football program, "How Firm a Foundation" is better expressed as a question than as a declaration. Just how solid is the infrastructure put in place by head coach Derek Mason?
It is hard to sit here, after Mason's first four seasons in Nashville, and express confidence in the level of building which has occurred at VU.
"The quality of "Masonry" has left something to be desired. As a result, the former Stanford defensive coordinator might not get another chance beyond 2018 to lay bricks and cement on the gridiron.
The foremost problem with Mason's situation is that he inhabits a world which is appreciably similar to the one Butch Jones had to confront at Tennessee after the 2016 season. That world is not an exact replica of Jones' situation, since Tennessee and Vanderbilt don't exist on the same plane in terms of expectations, prestige or history, but it owns enough similarities in relevant areas of comparison.
Even when one accounts for the differences between Vanderbilt and Tennessee, one can make a highly salient comparison between VU after 2017 and UT after 2016. It's not as intricate or complicated as one might think, either.
Even at jobs which carry different standards and different levels of pressure, coaches will get into trouble if they don't maximize (or come close to maximizing) the year in which the program is expected to take a significant step forward. 2017 was that year for Vanderbilt, much as 2016 was that year for Tennessee. In 2017, Vanderbilt was coming off a bowl season and was filled with optimism. The defense was supposed to be solid, and quarterback Kyle Shurmur was supposed to put all the pieces together. To be fair to Shurmur, there wasn't too much he could have done in a number of Vanderbilt's SEC losses. He was not the foremost problem with the Dores, to be sure. Injuries in the secondary hit hard, and the Alabama-Florida-Georgia three-game stack proved to be every bit as brutal and devastating as skeptical VU fans feared it might be.
Yet, even though Shurmur was respectable and injuries played a role in harming the season, those realities still don't excuse getting boatraced by Ole Miss, Kentucky and Missouri. Vanderbilt lost to all three of those teams by at least 22 points while giving up at least 44 in each game. Even with Shurmur's limitations and even with injuries entering the picture, a bowl team in a coach's fourth season shouldn't lack depth to the extent VU did in 2017. The team -- specifically the defense -- shouldn't fall off a cliff against mediocre SEC opponents.
If Vanderbilt failed to make a bowl game last year because it lost a bunch of last-second heartbreakers, the pain of failure still would have been acute, but Mason and his staff could have told themselves, their players, and the fan base that substantial improvement was just a heartbeat away. Moreover, Mason would have come across as credible in making such a statement. It wouldn't have been an outlandish or irresponsible thing to say.
Instead, Vanderbilt got wiped off the map by a number of lower-rung SEC opponents. The offense was less responsible for the 2017 season's outcome than the defense was, but even if the defense had performed much closer to reasonable expectations, it might not have mattered anyway. VU couldn't score more than 21 points against either Kentucky or Missouri, which rated as disappointing performances irrespective of what the defense did (or didn't do). Tossing aside the three non-conference wins against Conference USA and an FCS opponent, Vanderbilt had only one game in 2017 in which both sides of the ball played well at the same time for at least a half: the finale against Tennessee, the worst Vol team in recent memory.
Even when factoring in the bad injury luck VU received last year, the team's performance fell far short of standards and expectations. In a fourth season with a veteran quarterback coming off a bowl the year prior, a coach can't spin that as progress -- not if people will respect him. Mason whiffed on his big chance to consolidate power and affirm the notion that he was ready to move this program solidly into the middle third of the SEC East. Now he has to find a way to improve upon last season... but since last season was the one in which Mason needed to make his move, he has painted himself into a corner... just as Jones did in Knoxville a year earlier.
We all know how Butch Jones' 2017 season played out.
Mason MUST get to a bowl in 2018 if he wants to have any chance of keeping his job... but even 6-6 wouldn't make him a lock to stay on in 2019. A 7-5 season would give Mason total safety, but anything less will, right or wrong, reinforce the perception that VU is confined to an existence with a very low ceiling. For a program which is showing signs of devoting more resources to football and accordingly needs a sexier, more successful product in order to inspire higher levels of enthusiasm and involvement, a 6-6 2018 season hardly seems certain to guarantee Mason another year.
He is in a tight spot.
When one realizes that Notre Dame is almost certain to be a loss in 2018, VU can't bank on the 4-0 non-conference record which made a bowl a realistic prospect last season. VU missed a bowl because it went 1-7 in the SEC. This year, a 3-1 non-conference record is a likely outcome, which means VU has to win at least three SEC games to get to 6-6. Winning two more SEC games than the previous season would represent a tangible improvement, but 3-5 in the SEC East, with Arkansas and Ole Miss as the West opponents, would not convey to VU administrators the idea that a steady upward progression is in the works. One-game differentials might not seem like much, but 7-5 (4-4 SEC) would look substantially better than 6-6 (3-5). If we are trying to ascertain Mason's place of safety, 7-5 (4-4) is the realistic target. 6-6 (3-5) is the uncomfortable in-between place, and 5-7 is gonzo regardless of SEC record.
Let's go beyond the season's objectives to emphasize the decision Vanderbilt must make if Mason finishes 6-6, which is good enough for a bowl but not good enough to earn a .500 SEC record.
Five SEC programs have new coaches this year. Rather than looking at these hires from an "upgrade or downgrade" perspective, let's simply view them through the prism of "good hire or bad hire." Most analysts would be inclined to view these five hires favorably. Chad Morris at Arkansas and Jeremy Pruitt are the more unproven hires in the bunch, but Dan Mullen at Florida and Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M own considerable credentials in this industry. Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State did so spectacularly well at Penn State that his arrival in Starkville was widely praised. As in basketball, the SEC has upgraded its coaches, the exact way the league can emerge from the "Nick Saban and the 13 dwarfs" label applied by national writers in recent years (and not without reason). Kirby Smart broke free of that label last season, and if Mullen and Pruitt deliver the goods in Gainesville and Knoxville, the SEC East will become a tough division again. After years of struggle, the East could be loaded with quality depth for the first time since the 2012 season.
It is within this context that Derek Mason has to leave a strong impression. Maybe he will reach those 6-6 and 3-5 targets in a way which commands respect. (Example: Tennessee is much improved this season but VU beats the Vols anyway in a high-quality game.) Yet, the odds of VU merely going 6-6 (3-5) and creating a surge of optimism for 2019 seem very low. That is a difficult pair of outcomes to link together... even in a crazy, chaotic sport such as college football.
A key point here: Arkansas (under a first-year coach, Morris) and Ole Miss (reeling from NCAA penalties) are Vanderbilt's 2018 SEC West crossover opponents. What happens when Arkansas is replaced by Auburn or a Jimbo Fisher A&M team as the non-Ole Miss West opponent? That is yet another argument against the idea that 6-6 (3-5) will buy Mason another year in 2019.
The reality that Georgia was impatient with Mark Richt -- and subsequently hired a coach who took the Bulldogs within an eyelash of a national title -- will reinforce every inclination to show less patient with coaches throughout the SEC, a mindset which was very much in evidence this past offseason. The accompanying reality that SEC basketball coaching turnover has created a deeper, better league will make athletic directors more cognizant of the need to beef up coaching quality at programs where it doesn't exist. Mason is being squeezed by these and other contextual dimensions of his situation in the SEC of 2018.
If Mason doesn't do something particularly powerful and wonderfully memorable this autumn, the reality of the college sports industry -- especially within the SEC -- points to a coaching change for Vanderbilt this November.