Vanderbilt has a lot of work to do this year, but next year is impossible to ignore at this point

Sure, a low-scoring game ended with a late Vanderbilt interception. It's very easy for outside observers -- those not inside the program -- to cluck and chortle, "typical Vanderbilt." Yet, Saturday's narrow loss to Auburn didn't quite feel like that. It's a familiar experience on a broader level, but the particulars seem different. The upshot: If there was any remaining shred of doubt about Derek Mason's job status heading into 2017, it's gone. Now comes the hard part for Mason: Working to m

Yes, it's pretty important for Vanderbilt to handle a not-very-good Missouri team this Saturday. 

Yes, the Chad Kelly injury makes the Ole Miss game winnable, which by extension means Vanderbilt has a very real shot at a bowl game this season, not (just) the next. 

Yes, Vanderbilt gained encouraging news for reasons not connected to Saturday's game at Auburn... and this loss in Jordan-Hare Stadium was quite uplifting if you're a Commodore.

Oh, and then there are the imploding Vols, whom VU might be able to pick off if Zach Cunningham gets any help from his offense.

It's true: THIS season, not next season, contains a lot of important moments which double as gleaming opportunities for this program.

Why write about 2017, then?

Because a threshold has already been crossed.

The threshold -- the passage into liminal space for VU football -- is simply this: If the win over Georgia didn't fully resolve the issue already, this game against Auburn conclusively affirms that Derek Mason is the man to lead Vanderbilt into the 2017 season.

To be more precise and authoritative about the matter: Even failures in these next games (yes, the failure to make a bowl, and yes, even against Missouri) should not undo the notion that Mason should coach this team next year. 

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It's not that complicated a calculus: It's one thing for a team to contain an SEC East offense. Make no mistake, it remains impressive that Vanderbilt smothered Georgia and won Between the Hedges. Nevertheless, we are seeing to an even greater degree how awful the SEC East is. The division was bad last year, and it's actually worse this year. Vanderbilt and Mason (at least for me -- probably some others, but I won't speak for them) needed to show it could stand up to a big boy in the SEC West. Ole Miss without Chad Kelly becomes a different kind of creature, so the Auburn game will remain our only look at VU against a good SEC West team.

Vanderbilt didn't win, but the sustained quality of the defense's performance, combined with the ability of quarterback Kyle Shurmur to make the best throws of his season -- NFL-level throws into very tight windows -- offer convincing proof that Mason has the building blocks in place. He might not in fact build on them next year, but he's crossed the threshold in terms of deserving a chance to make use of them next year.

With discussion of a new stadium underway, and with the program aching to dream bigger dreams, 2017 was always going to be a pivot point for the school in relationship to its football aspirations. Had this season devolved into a 2-10 or 3-9 mess, the idea of sacking Mason would have made sense. If Auburn had busted out a 56-3 whooping akin to what it delivered against Arkansas, it would have been similarly more natural to think that Mason had no chance of turning the corner in Nashville.

Saturday's performance against Gus Malzahn and Company doesn't show that VU will turn the corner, but it does mean Mason deserves a chance. The 2017 campaign simultaneously gives Mason a chance to make his career, and forces him to provide better, more serious solutions for an offense which demands an upgrade. 

Bobby Johnson eventually did break through -- not spectacularly, but enough to get VU across the altar and into a bowl game. This 2016 team feels so much like the Johnson teams in the years before the 2008 Music City Bowl season. Vanderbilt needed just enough offense to get over the line. Games were rarely if ever aesthetically pleasing. The defense required help. 

We're in that spot again. It's as though the year is 2007 a second time. 

The difference: Since Johnson did get to a bowl, and since James Franklin offered an example of what this program can become (which was never even all that strong in the SEC East), the Johnson standard is actually a little lower than what expectations should be for Mason. The big picture, though, is that Mason has clearly earned the right to pursue the higher bar which exists at VU.

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Again, the next three games are crammed with significance. Of that point there is no doubt. Yet, whatever happens in the rest of November, a stand-tall effort against Auburn should eliminate discomfort from fans about the need for Mason to get his fair shot next year.

If, 12 months from now, no meaningful improvements have occurred, then the search for a new coach in a time bursting with change and aspiration can truly take flight.


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