Vanderbilt looking to build on long-awaited quality SEC win

Vanderbilt inside linebacker Zach Cunningham brings down Georgia running back Nick Chubb for one of his 19 tackles last Saturday.

It took 31 attempts, but the Vanderbilt Commodores finally have a signature triumph in the Derek Mason coaching era.

The big question now is what happens next, because Mason knows his Commodores didn't just turn into talent-laden Alabama overnight.

Vanderbilt was a two-touchdown underdog entering last Saturday's 17-16 win at Georgia, which was Mason's first road victory over a Southeastern Conference foe following nine unsuccessful tries. The Commodores topped Kirby Smart's Bulldogs despite managing just 171 yards while allowing 421.

"We're coming off a good win at Georgia," Mason said Tuesday during his weekly news conference. "This team played hard. They found themselves in the midst of a hard-fought battle 'between the hedges,' and they held on. We showed great composure and some resiliency, and those are things to build off of.

"I truly believe that was a snowflake that we're trying to turn into a snowball."

Vanderbilt's triumph inside Sanford Stadium was its first over one of the SEC's three traditional Eastern Division powers - Florida, Georgia and Tennessee - since the 2013 Commodores swept the trio for the only time in program history. That was Vandy's third and final season under coach James Franklin, who went 24-15 in Nashville and led the Commodores to three straight bowl games before heading off to Penn State, but Mason's debut as a head coach in 2014 could not have gone much worse.

The Commodores went 3-9 overall two years ago and lost all eight conference games by an average score of 35-13, but they showed some improvement last season by going 4-8 with league wins over Kentucky and Missouri. A 2-4 mark this midseason did not reflect continued growth under Mason, but last week's win and this Saturday's hosting of Tennessee State could result in a 4-4 record entering the open date.

Vandy players were quick to drench Mason following the win in Athens.

"I'm really happy for him," junior safety Ryan White said. "He comes out every day and gives us his all. In return, we as players have to give him everything we've got. We're all in this together."

The Commodores are anything but dominant from a statistical standpoint, ranking last in the SEC in total offense (281.1 yards per game) and eighth in total defense (allowing 396.3 yards per game). They are allowing 5.57 yards per play overall but 4.61 in conference games only, which leads the league.

Junior inside linebacker Zach Cunningham, the star of Saturday's game with 19 tackles and a late stop of Isaiah McKenzie on a fourth-and-1, leads the league with 81 tackles and 13 tackles for loss. In SEC games only, he is averaging 13.8 tackles and 2.3 tackles for loss per game.

Cunningham's 19 stops Saturday were the most for Vanderbilt since linebacker Jamie Winborn had 20 against South Carolina in 1999.

"This is a big win for us, and it's definitely going to give us some momentum into the rest of the season," Cunningham said in a news conference Saturday, "but we're not going to rest on our laurels."

Senior receiver Darrius Sims, who set the tone for Saturday's upset with a 95-yard return on the opening kickoff, leads the league with a 32.4-yard average and needs 44 yards to become the school's career leader in that category.

The Commodores know there is more work to be done to attain bowl eligibility, but they are moving forward with more confidence than ever before with Mason at the helm.

"This is a win that can help move this program forward," Mason said. "I want our fans to get excited about Vanderbilt football. I want our fans to understand that this football team is every bit them just in terms of how they fight and what they represent. We've got TSU coming up, and I want our fans to show up and support these guys, because they deserve it."

Said quarterback Kyle Shurmur: "Handling success is just as important as moving on from a loss. We've got to learn to handle success, but we shouldn't be overly surprised by this."

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524.