It made sense that Derek Mason tabbed Andy Ludwig as his offensive coordinator before the 2015 season, following the departure of Karl Dorrell for a position on the New York Jets' staff.
Mason, given his experience at Stanford (which made the hire of Dorrell, the former UCLA head coach, also understandable), felt comfortable with a man who had not only been around the block (Ludwig was 50 years old when hired by Mason), but who had spent much of his career in the West.
Fresno State, Oregon, Utah, California, San Diego State -- these are all places where Ludwig has applied the art of offensive play-calling. Let's not be unreasonable or uncharitable here: Ludwig is legitimately a solid offensive coordinator. He's hardly the best of the best, but he's no Scot Loeffler. He's very much in the middle, a workmanlike professional and a survivor in his industry. Though not relentlessly consistent, Ludwig has forged a few very successful seasons. His is a resume most offensive coordinators would want to have attached to their names.
This was, on balance, a reasonable hire by Mason. It's not the perfect hire, but perfect hires generally don't exist at Vanderbilt.
The hire made sense because Ludwig has shown that after a few seasons at most of his coaching stops, he generally figures it out. He led Fresno State to an 11-win season in 2001. He led San Diego State to a 9-4 season in 2012. He led Wisconsin to 10 wins under Gary Andersen in 2014 (before Andersen moved to Oregon State in December, enabling Ludwig to re-enter the open market and move to VU). Most of all, though, Ludwig enabled one of the little guys in college football -- Utah -- to complete a perfect 2008 season, capped by a thumping of Nick Saban and Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. Ludwig's ability to punch above his weight at times in his career -- 2008 being the crown jewel in that regard -- fit a Vanderbilt profile.
The problem -- beyond the fact that perfect hires don't exist at VU -- is this: Ludwig's successes have been occasional in nature, not annual. He failed at Oregon and was unremarkable at Cal. At the places where he won 10 or more games, he needed at least one season -- three in the cases of Fresno State and Utah -- to learn how to use his personnel.
Ludwig is good, but in an "every-now-and-then" fashion. The logic behind his hire is sound, but it's fair to say that after another low-scoring loss in this 2016 season -- under the watch of a defense-first coach (who, by the way, is doing great work with his defense) -- the plan is not working out. Yes, Vanderbilt has had to deal with injuries at the quarterback spot, but not of the catastrophic kind. Moreover, Mason's old school -- Stanford -- is struggling to choose between two quarterbacks. Oregon, Notre Dame, USC, and other high-end programs were uncertain enough about their QB situations that they either made the wrong choice of starter at the start of the season or switched course after opening day, or both.
A coaching staff gets a little leniency from evaluators when the No. 1 quarterback gets hurt for any period of time, but the lack of severity of Kyle Shurmur's injuries limits that particular point. Moreover, as this season continues, the lack of discernible improvement cuts against the Mason-Ludwig work product on offense. Then consider the point that Vanderbilt has already played most of the lower end of the SEC East (South Carolina and Kentucky). The first half of the season has featured the more manageable part of the schedule. Bigger challenges remain. If Ludwig couldn't figure out how to produce at least 20 points on a relatively regular basis through Week 6, it's pure realism -- not unfair savagery -- to think that improvement won't emerge over the next several games.
The conclusion seems inescapable at this point: No, not that Derek Mason should be fired. He's done too good a job on defense to merit "automatic pink slip" status. The conclusion is that Andy Ludwig, while good, isn't good enough. Vanderbilt -- keeping in mind the identity of the program under Woody Widenhofer, Bobby Johnson, and now Mason -- needs a new identity on offense. Maybe Mason can be convinced to look for a coordinator who produces more consistently and (or) offers a more modernized approach. If he can do that, maybe he can stay.
Whether Mason does stay or go, however, the need for a more imaginative offensive mind in Nashville is undeniable.
A postscript of sorts: This isn't just about winning more, but providing a more attractive product. If a new stadium is indeed going to be built, fans have to have reasons to come in rebuilding years when high-level (James Franklin) success can't be expected. It's the old truism you've heard many times: If you're going to lose, at least be fun and exciting. Losing and being boring in the same package? No bueno.
Yes, the winning comes first, but the 20-13, 13-10, and 13-6 losses blur together very quickly.
Andy Ludwig has achieved a lot in his career, but Vanderbilt doesn't seem to be a compatible fit for him.