A lovable starfish named Patrick Star once told a story on the hit TV show SpongeBob Squarepants called “The Ugly Barnacle.”
It goes a little like this: Once there was an ugly barnacle. He was so ugly that everyone died. The end.
This game was Vanderbilt’s ugly barnacle.
With the exception of a few offensive drives in the second half, this game was ugly enough to kill. Vanderbilt got absolutely drubbed by Missouri 45-17, and were buried next to their bowl game chances.
All this loss has done is confirmed what most of us already knew: Derek Mason and the Vanderbilt Commodores failed this season. They didn’t get a C or a D; they failed.
And there’s no curve on this test when you’re in the SEC.
Here’s your Commodore Brunch menu for this week:
It’s time to retire the notion that the hallmark of the Vanderbilt team is its defense. Because it’s not.
This defense is not good. They proved that once and for all.
In the last few weeks, tackling on defense had been the pressing issue. Tonight, it wasn’t like that. The team actually tackled well, and yet they still couldn’t get out of their own way. Penalties, miscues and missed opportunities plagued them all game long.
Mason even admitted that in his postgame press conference.
“We have not been opportunistic,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. We had opportunities on third down to get off the field and we didn’t. We looked to stop the run… I thought this game came down to explosive plays.”
“I thought we tackled well. When there were opportunities, we got them on the ground.”
So, in summary, the Vanderbilt defense did all the fundamentals right, but couldn’t do much else right. There’s no way anyone can blame a lack of concentration or a lack of basic skills. This defense failed.
Individual Commodores played well. Some members of the secondary made some good plays throughout the game. However, for the most part, this was an abysmal performance.
If you want to trace this team’s defensive woes to the source, you’ll find that Mason’s defensive recruiting is the problem. The majority of the players on this defense are Mason recruits. There are a handful of Franklin leftovers, and they were the ones that played well for the most part.
It’s year four of Mason’s tenure. This is his defense. People cautioned “wait until he has his recruits playing.” Well, here they are. Are you happy?
You shouldn’t be.
With a 4-6 record and one game left, this season has been a complete and utter failure for Vanderbilt. They won’t make a bowl game (don’t give me that APR crap, it’s not going to happen this time), and they’ll finish with fewer wins than they did last year.
However, it’s possible for things to turn around for the future. But, changes are required at many levels, because this program’s biggest enemy is complacency.
At a basic level, it’s time to ask the hard questions about Mason’s job security. At any of the other 13 SEC schools, Mason would no longer be the head coach after a season like this. However, this is Vanderbilt, so let’s put it this way: if there aren’t at least some serious questions posed about Mason’s job security over the offseason, then the people in charge of Vanderbilt Athletics should never work in sports again.
On top of the recruiting problems posed above, it’s not the losses that should put Mason’s job at risk: it’s the way they lost. After Week Three, Vanderbilt got blown out week after week against SEC opponents. This game against Mizzou was a blowout with insult added to injury. There were more people on the field than there were people in the stands by the end of this game. Fans have become fed up, and if things stay the same, they’ll stay fed up.
No sane human being could see that result and that crowd and say “let’s have more of that!”
In the postgame press conference, Mason looked disheartened and defeated. You could see the passion that he usually has, even after losses, just flame out. That look was not the look of a man who is enjoying his job.
Last season, Mason set the standard that Vanderbilt can win and get to bowl games even without James Franklin. You can’t set a higher standard and then pretend that the standard doesn’t exist anymore.
Unless you’re vice chancellor David Williams of course, which is the next level of problems. It’s very difficult to see Williams making any significant changes because he probably doesn’t see a need to make those changes. No matter what he does, the school will still get their check from the SEC, the team will play football games and he’ll still be able to give shiny white footballs to distinguished faculty during TV timeouts.
Even if Williams decides to put Mason on the hot seat or remove him, the football program will not reach its full potential under Williams’ leadership. That’s a simple fact. If Franklin couldn’t do it with Williams calling the shots, not even Nick Saban could do it.
Which leads us to the highest problem: Vanderbilt administration. In order for athletic leadership to change, Chancellor Zeppos and the school administration will have to change their attitudes regarding athletics. They probably don’t feel any pressure to make changes because the money is still flowing in for ornate residential colleges and Vanderbilt’s academic ranking keeps climbing. The vision of fulfilling the “Harvard of the South” label is coming to fruition.
As far as they’re concerned, the football stadium is just wasted space that could be used for more Yale-like residence halls.
It’s not just angry fans and this student journalist that see it this way. Former Vanderbilt offensive lineman Will Holden chimed in last night.
Something needs to change… and it needs to be big.
— William Holden (@holden_it_down_) November 19, 2017
In addition, former Commodore Ryan Seymour shared his two cents on Vanderbilt’s administration. In a since-deleted tweet, Seymour shared a shot of the dismal crowd with the caption “Highest paid AD in the country.. lol.”
In the long-term, real change will need to come at all levels to see Vanderbilt football reach its full potential. In the short-term, Vanderbilt’s performance against Tennessee next week could determine whether Mason starts next season on the hot seat or on the couch.
A Thank-You To Vanderbilt’s Seniors
To the seniors on this team, Ralph Webb, Oren Burks, C.J. Duncan, Trent Sherfield and others, thank you for everything you’ve done for this program.
I can be hard on the Commodores in these columns. I have been today, and I have been all season. But just know that none of what happened this season is your fault. You have all given blood, sweat and tears to Vanderbilt Football, and everyone who had the privilege to watch you play is grateful.
Webb summed up this senior class’ attitude best last night.
“I just wanted to win,” he said. “I wanted to win to have the emotion of joy, singing “dynamite” after a win but we didn’t get that done today. That’s the only thing I was looking forward to.”
This season should not have unofficially ended with a depressing, lifeless press conference. It should have ended with another bowling ball on the podium and exuberant celebrations. You were robbed of that opportunity, and you deserve better.
So, hats off to you seniors. You set the standard here and your hard work did not go unnoticed. You are the epitome of Vanderbilt men: relentless, tough and intelligent. No matter what you do after Vanderbilt, you’ll go far.
Vanderbilt will close out the season with the chance to beat a rival that is perhaps in even worse shape, the Tennessee Volunteers, next Saturday afternoon.