NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt’s season is at a crossroads.
With seven games remaining on the schedule, the Commodores (1-4, 0-3 SEC) need to win five of those to make the postseason for the third time in four years. Head coach Derek Mason’s team put itself in a precarious position after a demoralizing 31-6 loss at Ole Miss on Saturday.
“I’m going to force everybody’s hand, OK? Be all-in, put all your chips in the middle. And let’s go,” Mason said Saturday night. “Because believe me, there’s things that got to be fixed. This team is more than capable of playing better ball than this.
“This is not what I expected to see (Saturday), this is not who we are, but it is what we are in terms of the outcome.”
Saturday’s defeat marked the second time this season that the Dores had been held to six points or less, a discouraging sign for a team with a senior quarterback and three all-conference type players on offense.
Defensively, Vandy played well for a half Saturday and had recovered nicely from giving up 10 early points. But two explosive scoring runs by the Rebels in the third quarter – each going for at least 78 yards – broke Vanderbilt’s fighting spirit.
The Commodores are allowing 37.4 points per game through five games.
Now, as the halfway point of the season approaches, Mason is charged with figuring out how to turn his team’s fortunes around in all facets of the game.
“Here’s what it comes down to – everybody’s got to have a sense of urgency, including me,” Mason said. “I’m patient. Believe me, I’m patient, but there comes a time where you got to draw a line in the dirt. And then what you got to do is go. The time has come. Let’s draw a line in the dirt and let’s go. It’s not panic, it’s urgent.”
The Commodores host UNLV (1-4) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium in what could be termed a must-win. The following week Missouri comes to town and then Vandy has a week off before ending the month with an idle weekend.
Those are all winnable games, arguably, for the Dores. But only if this year’s squad figures out some changes – and figures them out fast.
“I think there’s a little panic. We all realize we have to be better,” Vanderbilt senior wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb said. “No one wants to be 1-4. That’s where we are. We got to come together and play better.
“Panic can always be a positive when it turns into a sense of urgency or when you turn it into a way to get a fire going. And collectively it’ll bring us close together and hopefully we start to play better.”
Halfway through his sixth season on the West End, Mason has taken his fair share of lumps while building his Vanderbilt program. He knows how to rally the troops as well, going from 4-6 to 6-6 in 2018 to make a bowl game and turning 4-6 to a 6-6 finish in 2016 with a postseason berth that year as well.
This latest challenge may not be Mason’s toughest yet, but no less daunting with a visit to No. 10 Florida, a home game with Kentucky and a trip to rival Tennessee waiting in November.
The frost will soon be on the punkin and the time to put it altogether is looming.
“With these guys, they played hard, but not well enough, not good enough. And I’m right there with them,” Mason said. “See, I’m never going to cast it on them. I think too many coaches get caught up in doing that. I think at the end of the day you’re right there with them.
“If I got to do more, if I got to be better about how we practice and about how we do things, then I will. I got to dig deep now just like they got to dig deep. We got to find the quotient. It’s out there. It’s not just going to magically appear. It’s got to be about work, it’s got to be about investment, it’s got to be about time, it’s got to be about doing whatever I can to make sure that I put these guys in the best possible position to play a 60-minute ballgame.”