Relentless: Vanderbilt Commodores 2016 Football Season In Review
It has been four months and 26 days since I wrote my very first article on Vanderbilt football, well my very first article EVER. I predicted scores that ended up being completely wrong, but also some that were correct. I picked an upset or two, and even knew more upsets were coming. But I was a newbie and afraid of sounding crazy, although I should have trusted my gut. My gut never lies.
I certainly knew then the Commodores were on the cusp of greatness. As I move forward, I will take a page from head coach Derek Mason and his team. I will be relentless with my future predictions. I have never believed in Mason, the program he is building, his staff or his team more than I do right now.
Limitless. Tough. Intelligent. Relentless. These are the buzzwords that carried Vanderbilt football through the 2016 season. Mason spent his third, and most successful season thus far, leading the charge. He completed his second season as defensive coordinator. It was his first year fielding a team that was almost completely comprised of his signees. He put a team on the field that he handpicked with a goal in mind.
Season three did not start the way Mason wanted. It was a slow start for the Commodores. Second year offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and starting quarterback Kyle Shurmur struggled to find a consistent rhythm. When they finally found that spark, they were an unstoppable fire. The “Black Death” defense that kept Vandy in the game in 2015, had to find a new rhythm as well. They did just that with game changing leader Zach Cunningham. He out-tackled his SEC counterparts. He gained national recognition as a finalist for the Butkus Award, as well as a Chuck Bednarik Nominee. Special teams had a new leader in Jeff Genyk. There were improvements. Most of the attention was on true freshman Sam Loy’s leg, as it gave Vandy a unique rugby style punt that kept the opposition on its toes.
Season Goals = Bowl Eligible
Athletic Director David Williams has come out since the season ended to say Mason was NEVER on the hot seat. If anyone paid attention to social media after the debacle that was Georgia Tech, I would beg to differ. Mason and Vanderbilt danced their way into bowl eligibility. Vandy beat the pants off Ole Miss and in-state rival Tennessee to do so. They earned a bid to the Dec. 26th Independence Bowl in Shreveport, LA. More on that game later.
DISCLAIMER: I prefer telling the unique stories of these Vanderbilt men. I think recaps are regurgitated stats and overused sports cliches. So, I will keep the following blurbs short, sweet and highlights only.
Game 1: South Carolina vs. Vanderbilt; September 1st
Another Thursday night opener. Another loss. First game of the season, and Vandy struggled to find a rhythm offensively and defensively. Vanderbilt led South Carolina 10-3 at the half. Ultimately, South Carolina’s senior kicker Elliott Fry made a 55-yard career long field goal with 35 seconds left to beat Vandy, causing the Commodores to lose by the skin of their teeth.
Final Score: South Carolina 13, Vanderbilt 10
My preseason prediction: Vanderbilt 37, South Carolina 21
Game 2: Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders vs. Vanderbilt; September 10th
MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill was a pre-game concern, and he had a solid game. Although Stockstill, nor the hour and 44 minute weather delay, could squelch the Commodores’ fire. Ralph Webb ran and hurdled his way to a career-high 211 yards. The ‘Dores started to turn the corner in this game, as they began to gel and the team responded when needed and won the game.
Final Score: Vanderbilt 47, MTSU 24
My preseason prediction: Vanderbilt 41, MTSU 30
Game 3: Vanderbilt at Georgia Tech; September 17th
Georgia Tech scored on the first series of the game, and Vandy answered with seven points of their own. That would be the only score for Vandy all day. Let’s just move along… Nothing to see here. After their first series no offense, no defense and no special teams. All the while the “lets kick em while they are down” media kept harping on the fact that Mason and his staff had been preparing for this game for months. *NEWSFLASH* ALL college football teams scout future opponents MONTHS in advance.
Final Score: Georgia Tech 38, Vanderbilt 7
My preseason prediction: Vanderbilt 27, Georgia Tech 17
Game 4: Vanderbilt at Western Kentucky; September 24th
It was a sweltering day in Bowling Green as Vanderbilt took the field to avenge their two-point loss from a year ago. Nathan Marcus scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown in overtime. The ‘Dores fought for every point, and the defense stepped up when needed most. It was an ugly game for both teams; Vandy escaped Bowling Green with an exciting win in overtime.
Final Score: Vanderbilt 31, WKU 30
My preseason prediction: Vanderbilt 24, WKU 14
Game 5: Florida vs. Vanderbilt; October 1st
Another “should-have-won” game from last season; another loss this season. The bright spot was again Ralph Webb as he ran for 110 yards. Vanderbilt beat the Gators on the ground and in time of possession, yet it wasn’t enough to over come the costly turnovers.
Final Score: Florida 13, Vanderbilt 6
My preseason prediction: Vanderbilt 17, Florida 10
Game 6: Vanderbilt at Kentucky; October 8th
On the road again, and another game of playing catch up. Vanderbilt’s only touchdown came early in the third on Taurean Ferguson‘s 22-yard fumble return. The ‘Dores tried to force overtime but couldn’t catch a break in the final minutes of the game.
Final Score: Kentucky 20, Vanderbilt 13
My preseason prediction: Vanderbilt 21, Kentucky 17
Game 7: Vanderbilt at Georgia; October 15th
The road game of the season. Vanderbilt turned the corner. My preseason gut told me to pick the upset I played it safe with this “the ‘Dores will likely put up a good fight. I think ultimately the Bulldogs will win with a talented roster and home field advantage. They will earn every point. Vandy will not go down easily.”
I was correct, Vandy did not go down easy. In fact the “Black Death” defense held Georgia to just 75 rushing yards. Half way through the fourth quarter, Vandy took the lead. With 61 seconds left in the game, Georgia went for it on fourth and one, and Zach Cunningham comes out of nowhere to make the game saving tackle.
Final Score: Vanderbilt 17, Georgia 16
My preseason prediction: Vanderbilt 17, Georgia 20
Game 8: Tennessee State at Vanderbilt; October 22nd
My pre-season words “Shurmur should be solid and comfortable with the offense by now.” Vandy and Shurmur had a solid 501 yards of total offense. The ground game had 358 yards. Webb and Khari Blasingame both cracked 100-yards, and Vanderbilt played a solid well-rounded game.
Final Score: Vanderbilt 35, Tennessee State 17
My preseason prediction: Vanderbilt 42, Tennessee State 3
Game 9: Vanderbilt at Auburn; November 5th
Coming off an FCS game and a bye week, a confident and rested Vanderbilt team to traveled to Auburn. Their running game was non-existent, and it was a comedy of blown calls, as it seemed the refs did everything they could to help Auburn win. The biggest highlight of the game came on the feet of Zach Cunningham as he blocked the biggest kick of his career. This play will never get old…
Final Score: Auburn 23, Vanderbilt 16
My preseason prediction: Vanderbilt 10, Auburn 14
Game 10: Vanderbilt at Missouri; November 12th
Mason and his Commodores went into this game knowing they needed two more wins to become bowl eligible. However, Vandy played a really ugly game, struggling in all three phases. My bold pre-season prediction came up SHORT. The hopes of Vandy winning six games were all but lost.
Final Score: Missouri 26, Vanderbilt 17
My preseason prediction: Vanderbilt 27, Missouri 17
Game 11: Ole Miss at Vanderbilt; November 19th
My pre-season words: “Vandy running back Ralph Webb will be on course for a record-breaking season. This will be a hard fought game. I would love to say the ‘Dores will pull out a win, but I do not want to be called crazy. Ole Miss will prevail in Nashville.” I knew they were going to win this game. (And call me crazy if you want, but this fall I will be making a case for Vandy making the playoffs). Shurmur and his offense found the spark they had been chasing all season. Vanderbilt scored 31 straight points. Webb ran for three touchdowns and had 123 yards.
Final Score: Vanderbilt 38, Ole Miss 17
My preseason prediction: Vanderbilt 17, Ole Miss 21
Game 12: Tennessee at Vanderbilt; November 26th
Wow! I was spot on with my pre-season words: “The ‘Dores offense will be firing on all cylinders and “Black Death” will want this W on their watch…Mason’s defense loves a good upset. They will pull one off against the Volunteers.” Rocky Top scored on their first drive, and Vandy answered with a touchdown of their own. In fact, the ‘Dores held their own the entire first half, going into halftime down 24-31. Vandy came into the third quarter on fire, holding the Volunteers to just three points in the second half. Mason’s team had accomplished their goal. They were bowl eligible, the real way and not riding on their APR. The video of Mason dancing in his lucky vest went viral.
Final Score: Vanderbilt 45, Tennessee 34
My preseason prediction: Vanderbilt 27, Tennessee 21
Independence Bowl: Vanderbilt vs. NC State; December 26th
An extra month of football for Vandy. Yet, the ‘Dores came out flat, losing to a fired up NC State team. The offense that scored 45 points on Tennessee just a month earlier didn’t click the defense had more holes than big eye Swiss. The Commodores lost to NC State on a sticky Shreveport night 41-17. Not the ending Commodore Nation wanted, and Mason took the loss on his shoulders as usual.
A little nugget of information that I find interesting: in 2006, Alabama played in the Independence Bowl and lost to Oklahoma State. They returned the following year to play Colorado and won. In 2008, they won the Sugar Bowl and in 2009, their first National Championship under Saban. I am not saying Vanderbilt is Alabama, but I am just saying that anything can happen in college football, and it usually does. Alabama will travel to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt September 23rd.
Final Season Record: 6-7 (3-5)
My preseason prediction: Season Prediction: 9-3
This is a relentless, tough, and intelligent team that had limitless expectations for the 2016 schedule. Derek Mason is one of the best defensive minds, and he gave the SEC East a run for its money. As Mason said at SEC Media days last July, “It’s not about competing anymore, it’s about winning.” As I said in August, “The only thing stopping Vandy from pulling off more than one upset this season is themselves. As long as they keep their turnovers to a minimum, and the defense continues to be tough and relentless, it will be a great year for the Commodore Nation…” It was a great season for the Commodore Nation. They are not the “same ole Vandy”, and they here to be taken seriously. Vanderbilt is no longer be the doormat of the SEC.