By mtjulietintern

Joe Howell • Vanderbilt Athletics
Vanderbilt head football coach Derek Mason greets fans prior to the Commodores’ homecoming matchup with Tennessee State last October in Nashville.

NASHVILLE (TNS) – The Nashville sports scene has been humming in recent months, and now it’s up to Vanderbilt football to keep it going.

“With the jump we made last year and the Titans doing what they’ve done and our basketball season and what Coach (Bryce) Drew did and our baseball program doing what it’s always done — now you look at what just happened with the Predators,” Commodores coach Derek Mason said. “This town is on fire, and we just want to keep the energy and the synergy going. Our football team is fully prepared to give season-ticket holders and fans something to enjoy in 2017.”

The recent run by the Nashville Predators to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance capped an impressive athletic year in the Music City. The Tennessee Titans were just 5-27 during the 2014-15 seasons but went 9-7 last fall and added two top-20 draft picks in April, while Vanderbilt joined Florida and Kentucky as the only Southeastern Conference members this past school year to reach a bowl game, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and a baseball super regional.

Vanderbilt’s trip to the Independence Bowl last December was its fourth postseason journey in the last six seasons. The Commodores had made just four bowl trips in 120 years before James Franklin arrived as coach in 2011 and took the program to three bowls in three years.

“I think the perception of Vanderbilt football has changed,” Mason said. “I think James Franklin did a great job of changing the culture, and I actually think it started a little before that with Bobby Johnson. What we’re doing is trying to move the needle and get it back to where it was a few years ago. It’s been an intentional process that hasn’t been easy, but it’s been fun.

“We’re growing up. This football team is getting better, and the best is yet to come.”

The Commodores went 9-4 with bowl victories in each of Franklin’s last two years, sweeping Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in 2013 for the first time in program history. When Franklin left Nashville for Penn State after the 2013 season, Vanderbilt tabbed Mason, who was Stanford’s defensive coordinator, as his successor.

Mason’s debut could not have gone much worse, as a 37-7 home loss to Temple set the tone for a 3-9 season that was followed by a 4-8 mark in 2015. A bowl appearance seemed unlikely last year when the Commodores got off to a 2-4 start, but they pulled out a 17-16 upset at Georgia and concluded a 6-6 regular season with resounding triumphs over Ole Miss (38-17) and Tennessee (45-34).

Vanderbilt’s win over the Volunteers was its third in a five-year stretch, something the Commodores last achieved in the 1920s, but the late-season surge did not carry over in a 41-17 loss to North Carolina State in Shreveport.

“Any time you build momentum and then stop, what happens is that coaches can over-think the process of preparation,” said Mason, who was a guest earlier this week of “Press Row” on Chattanooga’s ESPN 105.1 FM. “You try to put everything into a month’s worth of work and then go out and play. Sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong. I thought we actually prepared the right way, but the outcome was not what we wanted.

“We played a good N.C. State team, and when you turn the ball over, that doesn’t help you. We learned a lot from that experience, because we were a young team coming off our first bowl game in a couple of years. There was a lot that was new.”

The Commodores return 16 starters in Mason’s fourth season, more than any other SEC team other than Georgia and Kentucky, who have 17 apiece. Senior running back Ralph Webb, who rushed for 1,283 yards last season and already is the school’s all-time leading rusher, headlines an offense that could be effective and balanced with the return of junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur and senior receivers C.J. Duncan and Trent Sherfield.

Vanderbilt must replace inside linebacker Zach Cunningham, the first consensus All-American in program history, but Mason is counting on senior outside linebacker Oren Burks and senior cornerback and former East Hamilton standout Tre Herndon to move forward with leadership responsibilities.

“We’ve got a really good football team with an outstanding quarterback,” Mason said. “We open the season with MTSU, which has a pretty spectacular quarterback of their own. We play Kansas State and Alabama at home, so if you like what you saw at the end of last season and like watching great football, come out and see the Commodores, because the best is yet to come.”

By David Paschall

Chattanooga Times Free Press