Two years ago, the Vanderbilt Commodores went into the Camping World Independence Bowl and learned a hard lesson.
Getting to a bowl game is one thing. Winning a bowl game takes a little bit more.
The Commodores were thrashed by NC State in Shreveport back in 2016, and this year’s Commodores want to make sure they don’t make the same mistakes when they take on Baylor in the Academy Sports and Outdoors Texas Bowl in Houston on December 27.
“We’ve got these 15 bowl practices and we’re really going to get after it,” senior defensive lineman Dare Odeyingbo said at Vanderbilt’s bowl celebration on Sunday night. “Two years ago, we didn’t finish how we wanted to, so I think that’s just going to give us an edge going in the practice and knowing how to prepare for the game.”
Perhaps the team’s attitude has already changed with weeks to go until kickoff. Instead of watching to see where the team would end up playing on Sunday, the Commodores were on the practice field for a 75-minute practice to get loose after some time off.
Instead of resting on its laurels and celebrating a bowl berth, the team got right back to work and started to get prepared for a bowl game. However, that doesn’t mean that head coach Derek Mason doesn’t want his players to enjoy the experience.
“When you look at opportunities to practice in December, I think it’s probably new for half this football team because they weren’t here two years ago,” Mason said. “With that being said, I think it’s a time where you’ve got to get that group focused, let that group understand exactly what we’re trying to do. Let’s sharpen our skills, get ourselves ready to play our best ball game, which is our last ball game in the 2018 season. That’s where we are right now, and I think those guys took a good step today as we got on the grass and touched about a 75-minute practice.”
For some of the Commodores, that focus on just this one game is all they have left. Senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur will play his last game as a Commodore on December 27 before focusing on a potential NFL future.
However, Shurmur isn’t quite ready to talk about anything beyond that date in late December.
“I’m a Vanderbilt Football player right now,” Shurmur said. “This place has given me an opportunity to play ball and go to school. Because of that, out of respect to everybody here, I’m going to give them my all and I’m not even worried about that right now. I’m just focused on giving Vanderbilt my all academically and athletically and help this team win games.”
For Mason, this bowl berth is an affirmation of the future that this program holds, and an affirmation of his future within it after rumors swirled regarding other head coaching jobs. Mason emphatically denied any future that doesn’t include him staying at Vanderbilt.
“Vanderbilt is a school that I wanted to be at,” he said. “Vanderbilt chose me and I chose Vanderbilt. What I want people in our city, across the world to know and our Commodores is that I’m at Vanderbilt. I’ve had opportunities in the past. Every year when you have a little bit of success, people come for you, but this is home to me. I’m anchoring down here at Vanderbilt University, excited about what’s next when you talk about the leadership of our athletic department. Right now, I’m concerned with taking this team down to Houston to the Academy Sports and Outdoors Texas Bowl. Let’s anchor down and let’s get a win.”
With his future solidified on West End, Mason now turns to the task at hand: giving Vanderbilt its first winning season since 2013. While most of the focus will be on the game itself, that fact is not lost on Mason, and he’s ready to make some history.
“This is what we need,” Mason said. “We haven’t had it yet. With that, I sort of alluded to it with our last bowl appearance. I think guys were excited about going to a bowl game. You’ve earned that, but now what you’ve got to do is go on and win. We need to win, we look forward to the opportunity to compete against a 6-6 Baylor team with both teams vying for a winning season.”