HOOVER, Ala. — Vanderbilt's 45-34 victory over Tennessee to close the 2016 football regular season poured fresh fuel into an in-state rivalry.
More importantly to Commodores coach Derek Mason, it brought affirmation of a coaching regime that appeared to be trending downward after Vanderbilt started Mason's third season 2-4.
The Commodores closed the season with a 41-17 Independence Bowl loss. But they rolled into SEC media days on Tuesday with a swagger provided by a 38-17 win over Ole Miss and the all-important sixth win that came the following week against the Volunteers.
"For me personally, it took us to a different spot," Mason said, reflecting on the Tennessee game. "It took me to a different place. It took me all of the way back to my first game at Vanderbilt University ... and the storms and the unmet expectations, to now truly understanding exactly where we were.
"You know, on a cool November night, we're sitting there and we're watching Vanderbilt play as good of football as any team in the country, and that's a special moment."
Mason called the close to 2016 "an exciting time" but said he is not satisfied. He pointed to staff continuity and a narrowing talent gap as reasons why the Commodores can improve this season. They also can draw on the Tennessee game in pointing to why there should be optimism around an offense that struggled early in 2016.
Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur passed for 416 yards and three touchdowns, both career highs, against the Vols, and illustrated the improvement he gained in an up-and-down sophomore season.
"I guess it just showed him the potential he has, being a young guy," senior running back Ralph Webb said. "And he's carried that momentum into spring ball and into fall camp. It's a glimpse of what he can do. He's going to use that to piggyback off that throughout this entire season."
Shurmur is from Philadelphia and noted he had to "adopt" the Tennessee-Vanderbilt rivalry. Ultimately, he said, the Commodores had more to worry about more than just a rivalry that night: The team was focused on sending its seniors out right.
"There's a lot of emotion that goes into that game, but at the same time we've got to worry about ourselves and what we've got to do to win that game," Shurmur said. "We're going to take what they give us, and we really had to channel our emotions in that game."
There was no restraining emotion after the game when the Commodores celebrated on the field.
Mason recalled Tuesday that there was "genuine love, excitement, passion" in his on-field postgame interview with the SEC Network that concluded with, "Well, I'll tell you something: You better fear the 'V' because we are back in this place."
Mason said that watching video from that Tennessee win stirs up emotion and "takes me back to that time."
"But here's the thing," he said. "I know this, that was one moment in time. This program's got to go forward. That's only the beginning, OK? We built something here on West End that we know is special. I'm not trying to convince anybody to get behind it. The movement's already started. We're here. We're moving in the right direction.
"If you want to see great football, if you want to have an opportunity to see a great team doing great things, come check us out."
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.