July 18, 2018
By Brian Edwards
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For the first time since he arrived at Vanderbilt in 2014, Derek Mason can claim his roster is filled “with all of my guys.” When James Franklin bolted Music City to take the head-coaching job at Penn State, Mason scored the Vandy gig after a nice run as defensive coordinator at Stanford.
He faced a daunting task following Franklin’s run of three straight trips to bowl games and a pair of 9-4 campaigns. Remember, other than a trip to the postseason under Bobby Johnson in 2008, the Commodores hadn’t been bowling since 1982 until Franklin was hired. In fact, Vandy’s bowl appearances in program history were limited to four prior to Franklin’s three-year tenure.
Mason is 18-31 overall and 6-26 in SEC play. After 3-9 and 4-8 seasons in 2014 and ’15, Vandy won four of its last six games to finish 6-6 and garner an invite to the Independence Bowl in ’16. The Commodores lost four one-possession games, but they trounced Ole Miss (38-17 as 9.5-point home underdogs) and Tennessee (45-34 as 7.5-point home ‘dogs) to finish the regular season with authority.
Although Vandy dropped a 41-17 decision to N.C. State in Shreveport, it seemed to carry over its late-season momentum into September of last season. The Commodores jumped out to a 3-0 start with their defense giving up merely 13 combined points and 595 yards. They beat 18th-ranked Kansas State by a 14-7 count to begin a four-game stretch versus ranked opponents.
The optimism of the 3-0 start was smashed when top-ranked Alabama came to Nashville and destroyed Vandy, 59-0. The blowout loss started a five-game losing streak, including four losses by 14 points or more. I don’t know that saying the season was salvaged by the regular-season finale would be accurate, but it’s always a big deal when Vanderbilt beats Tennessee.
When it does so in Knoxville by a 42-24 score with a 529-238 advantage in total offense, it certainly puts a smile on the faces of alums. Mason has thumped the Volunteers in back-to-back seasons, so it’s probably a stretch to imply he’s on a boiling hot seat going into 2018. Nevertheless, with Gus Malzahn signing a lucrative extension to stay at Auburn rather than bolt to Arkansas, there are only three SEC coaches who can’t feel great about their job security: Mason, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and LSU’s Ed Orgeron.
Vandy finished last year 5-7 straight up and 4-8 against the spread. It was Mason’s first losing season for our purposes (ATS-wise). The Commodores return seven starters on offense and five on defense. They lost the school’s all-time leading rusher in Ralph Webb, who had 4,178 career yards on the ground.
With the exception of two games last year, senior QB Kyle Shurmur was outstanding. In fact, he had an incredible 20/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his team’s first nine games. However, he was intercepted seven times in home defeats vs. Kentucky and Missouri. Shurmur recovered to complete 20-of-31 passes for 283 yards and four TDs without an interception in the win over UT.
Shurmur, who has 30 career starts to his credit, was second in the SEC in TD passes (26), third in passing yards (2,823), fourth in completions (220) and sixth in QB Rating (137.62). He was intercepted only 10 times.
Shurmur loses his two favorite targets in Trent Sherfield and C.J. Duncan, but he does have his big-play man back in Kalija Lipscomb. The junior wideout was tied for fifth in the SEC in TD catches with eight. Lipscomb had 37 receptions for 610 yards, averaging 16.5 yards per catch.
Vandy also adds WR Alex Stump, a transfer from Ohio State who didn’t play last season and is expected to start. The Commodores also scored a recruiting coup with the signing of Cam Johnson, a local 4-star product out of storied Brentwood Academy who led the high school to three consecutive state titles. Finally, starting TE Jared Pinkney returns after making 22 catches for 279 yards and three TDs as a sophomore in ’17.
Mason is hoping RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, a transfer from Illinois who sat out last year, will emerge as an adequate replacement for the four-year starter out of Gainesville, FL. (Webb). Vaughn ran for 1,024 yards in two years with the Illini and will have two years of eligibility remaining. There’s also senior Khari Blasingame, who rushed for 449 yards and 10 TDs while averaging 4.6 yards per carry as a sophomore in 2016. However, he failed to find paydirt last year and was limited to 147 rushing yards and a meager 3.3 YPC average.
Phil Steele’s preseason magazine ranks Vandy’s offensive line 11th in the SEC, but it’s a veteran group that returns all five starters. It will be imperative for this unit to keep Shurmur healthy.
Senior LB Charles Wright garnered second-team All-SEC honors last season by recording 43 tackles, nine sacks, eight QB hurries and 1.5 tackles for loss. Senior DE Dare Odeyingbo produced 36 tackles, 6.5 TFL’s, 4.5 sacks, four QB hurries and a pair of passes broken up.
Mason is hoping a pair of true freshmen can contribute immediately at the LB position. He inked a pair of 4-star players in Alston Orji and Salua Masina. Senior safety LaDarius Wiley, who had a team-best 88 tackles last year, is back to anchor the secondary.
After his defense struggled his first season by giving up 33.3 points per game, Mason took over the DC duties with big-time success in ’15 and ’16. The ’15 stop unit held foes to 21.0 PPG, while the ’16 group held foes to 24.0 PPG. However, the defense fell apart after the loss to Alabama last year and ended up surrendering 31.3 PPG.
Therefore, Mason has brought in a new DC in Jason Tarver, who has spent the past 16 years as an NFL assistant, including a stint as the Oakland Raiders’ DC from ’12-14. Andy Ludwig remains the OC and the new special-teams coach is Shawn Mennenga, who was a special-teams assistant for the Cleveland Browns the past seven years.
Vandy’s season win total is 4.5 (‘over’ -120, ‘under’ -110) at Sportsbook.ag. The offshore website has the odds for the Commodores to win the SEC at 500/1. They are one-point home underdogs in their regular-season finale against the Vols in the Westgate’s Games of the Year.
The non-conference slate includes three home games vs. Middle Tennessee, Nevada and Tennessee State, in addition to a road assignment at Notre Dame. The games versus the SEC West are at home vs. Ole Miss and at Arkansas, which is an excellent draw. Mason’s team has an extra week to prepare for a Nov. 10 home game vs. Missouri, while Kentucky gets two weeks to prep for the ‘Dores in Lexington on Oct. 20.
I’m confident in four wins for Vandy. Those games are at home vs. Middle Tennessee, Nevada, Tennesee State and Tennessee. I see six losses, but the only definitive ones are at Notre Dame, at Georgia and at Missouri. I have Mason’s squad falling at home to South Carolina and Florida and at Kentucky, but it probably won’t be a double-digit underdog in any of those spots.
That leaves two swing games that’ll dictate a postseason invite and/or Mason’s future in NashVegas. Those consist of an Oct. 27 trip to Fayetteville to face Arkansas and a home date vs. Ole Miss on Nov. 17.
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
-- I think Mason needs to win six games to retain his job. A 5-7 might be acceptable if it includes embarrassing UT for a third straight year and there are some gut-wrenching losses in the equation. In other words, he can’t get beat in blowout fashion four weeks in a row like he did last season.
-- Vandy finished last year minus five in the turnover department. If the ‘Dores can get to plus five this year, they’ll win at least six games.
-- Mason owns a 9-6 spread record in 15 games as a home underdog.
-- Mason is 4-8 ATS as a home favorite. The Commodores are likely to be home ‘chalk’ in at least three games and possibly four (UT being the fourth).
-- I’m going to call for a 5-7 campaign for Vandy. I do think it’ll be a competitive 5-7, however, and I’m not necessarily calling for a change of the head coach. Also, as this space has repeatedly noted for well over a decade when it comes to season win totals, I don’t make a play unless I have a 1.5-game cushion in terms of confidence. In other words, I would only bet Vandy ‘over’ 4.5 wins if I had it pegged for at least six regular-season wins. Likewise, I wouldn’t take ‘under’ 4.5 unless I was convinced it would be a 3-win season or worse.
Follow Brian Edwards' sports gambling opinions on Twitter at @vegasbedwards.
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