Vanderbilt reached its first bowl game under Derek Mason in 2016, but finished with a thud in a 41-17 loss to NC State in the Camping World Independence Bowl.
After a 6-7 campaign, what are the biggest questions facing the Commodores as they enter the offseason? Here are three:
Will quarterback Kyle Shurmur turn the corner as a junior?
The quarterback position has been an issue for most of Mason’s tenure, but it appeared late in the season that sophomore Shurmur was finally developing into the sure hand that the Commodores offense needs. Shurmur had a Total Quarterback Rating of 74.5 or better in three of the last four games of the regular season, including a career-high 92.2 in a 45-34 victory over Tennessee, when Shurmur went 21-for-34 for 416 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. However, Shurmur regressed to his earlier inconsistent form in the bowl game, completing 19 of 46 passes for 158 yards and three interceptions (20.7 QBR). Shurmur will have most of his offensive line back in 2017 along with virtually everyone who caught an important pass in 2016 and, most importantly, All-SEC running back Ralph Webb. The Commodores could have a formidable offense, but it comes down to getting reliable play from their quarterback now that he’s an upperclassman.
What’s the story on defense?
Assuming All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham jumps to the NFL, Vandy will enter 2017 without its top defensive playmaker from a group that fell short of expectations in 2016. That’s the bad news. The good is that the Commodores lose only a couple of seniors and should have a smart, senior-laden defense in the fall. Still, Mason can’t be happy with the average results his defense put together in 2016 after generating optimism a year earlier. The Commodores were mediocre in most statistical categories – 64th nationally in total defense (408.2 yards per game) and tied for 35th in scoring defense (24 points per game) – and closed the season by surrendering 41 points to an average NC State offense.
Was Vandy’s late surge a mirage?
Nobody expected Vandy to reach the postseason when they tumbled to 4-6 with a Nov. 12 loss at Missouri. However, impressive home victories over Ole Miss and Tennessee to close the regular season got the Commodores into their first bowl in three seasons under Mason. However, that pitiful performance against NC State, coupled with a demanding early schedule -- Kansas State, Alabama, at Florida, Georgia, at Ole Miss on consecutive weekends -- is more than enough reason to question whether Mason's team can repeat as a bowl participant. The second half of the schedule is much more manageable, but it’s no certainty the Commodores will hit their Oct. 21 open date with bowl eligibility still among their achievable goals.