Coach: Derek Mason (3-9, entering second season; 3-9 overall)
2014 record: 3-9, 0-8 in Southeastern Conference; seventh place in East Division
Look back: Coach Derek Mason arrived on the heels of consecutive nine-win seasons under James Franklin, who bolted for Penn State.
It was an unprecedented run of success at the SEC’s longtime doormat, but it did not take long for the Commodores to return to their losing ways.
Vanderbilt committed seven turnovers during a 37-7 season-opening loss to Temple, beginning the Commodores’ slide back to the SEC East cellar.
Behind poor quarterback play and injuries on the offensive line, the Commodores finished last in the SEC in total offense and scoring. Vanderbilt managed nine offensive touchdowns during eight conference games — all losses, including seven by double digits.
Mason’s defense, his calling card at Stanford, finished 106th nationally in scoring defense. Mason eventually fired offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell and defensive coordinator David Kotulski after a three-win finish at a school familiar with dismal showings prior to Franklin’s 2011 arrival.
Offensive starters returning: 8
Offensive starters lost: 3
Defensive starters returning: 9
Defensive starters lost: 2
Key losses: C Joe Townsend, LB Kyle Woestmann, NT Vince Taylor, DE Barron Dixon
Top returnees: RB Ralph Webb, TE Steven Scheu, DE Caleb Azubike, DE Adam Butler, LB Nigel Bowden, LB Zach Cunningham, LB Darreon Herring, LB Stephen Weatherly, OT Andrew Jelks, G Spencer Pulley, WR C.J. Duncan, NT Nifae Lealao
Strengths: A strong front seven will anchor Mason’s 3-4 defense. Ends Caleb Azubike and Adam Butler and nose tackle Nifae Lealao are three of the most-talented players on the roster.
Meanwhile, outside linebacker Stephen Weatherly stepped into a new role as pass rusher last season and responded with 12.5 tackles for a loss, including 4.5 sacks.
Inside linebacker Nigel Bowden led Vanderbilt with 78 tackles despite some nagging injuries.
Fellow linebacker and redshirt freshman Zach Cunningham chipped in 67 stops.
Tailback Ralph Webb was a one-man show for a dismal offense. The Gainesville native rushed for 912 yards as a redshirt freshman operating behind a patchwork offensive line and without a quarterback to keep defenses honest.
Despite the Commodores’ inability to find a passing game, tight end Steven Scheu managed 525 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
But Scheu broke his leg in the spring and could be unavailable Week 1.
Expected to be a strength in 2014, a veteran offensive line will have another crack in 2015. Four starters return, led by Spencer Pulley. He has 29 starts at guard but will move to center this season.
Weaknesses: Mason started three different quarterbacks during the first three games and four total last season. The first order of business for first-year offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is to choose a quarterback between Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck.
The two players combined to complete 50 percent of their passes for 10 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last season.
The Commodores struggled equally to defend the pass in 2014. Vanderbilt allowed teams to complete 62.1 percent of their throws and average 7.6 yards per attempt — both SEC highs — and intercepted just six passes.
Outlook: Mason’s second Commodores squad will be more experienced and better coached, at least on defense, where Mason takes over. But closing ground in the SEC East will not be easy.
Sept. 5 Western Kentucky
Sept. 12 Georgia
Sept. 19 Austin Peay
Sept. 26 at Ole Miss
Oct. 3 at Middle Tennessee
Oct. 17 at South Carolina
Oct. 24 Missouri
Oct. 31 at Houston
Nov. 7 at Florida
Nov. 14 Kentucky
Nov. 21 Texas A&M
Nov. 28 at Tennessee
College Football / College Basketball Handicapper. 2011 won 74%, 2012 won 72% 2015 SPECIAL. CALL, 877.WIN.ATS9 EMAIL,V@VincentRizzoSports.com