As someone who would have covered his 30th consecutive Southeastern Conference football media days event this past July had it not been punted due to the coronavirus pandemic, I've always marveled at Nick Saban's grand entrance and the security needed to part the sea of adoring Alabama fans.
I've also marveled at a coach wearing a golf shirt, shorts and a backpack who would quietly enter a media-filled room, sit down beside you and ask how things have been going in Chattanooga. That was Vanderbilt's Derek Mason, whose SEC head-coaching days ended Sunday afternoon when he was let go late in his seventh season.
"On behalf of the entire Vanderbilt community, I want to extend my deepest gratitude to Coach Mason for his many years of dedication and service leading our football program," athletic director Candice Storey Lee said in the school's release announcing the move. "Derek cares deeply about the student-athletes under his charge. His tenure at Vanderbilt will be remembered for his steadfast commitment to our student-athletes, not only on the field, but in the classroom and as young people."
Lee also announced that offensive coordinator Todd Fitch would serve as interim coach for the 0-8 Commodores, who are scheduled to visit No. 11 Georgia (6-2) this week.
Hired with the unenviable task of replacing James Franklin, whose 2012 and 2013 Commodores did the unthinkable by going 9-4 consecutively, Mason never had a winning season in Nashville but did lead 6-6 teams to bowl games in 2016 and 2018. He also became the first Vandy coach since the formation of the SEC in 1933 to defeat rival Tennessee three straight years.
His Commodores didn't just upset the Volunteers from 2016-18 but whipped them by double-digit margins.
Vanderbilt slipped to 3-9 last season, however, and this year's 10-game schedule consisting solely of league games was never going to do Mason any favors. Saturday's 41-0 loss at Missouri - a blowout in which the Tigers never had to punt - dropped Mason to 27-55 overall and 10-46 in SEC games with 12 consecutive losses.
Yet as if he was sitting down for an SEC media days visit, Mason displayed class to the very end.
"It is with gratitude that I have served as the football coach at Vanderbilt University, a world-class institution for the past seven years," Mason wrote Sunday on Twitter. "It has truly been an honor to have been given the opportunity to teach, mentor, champion and coach hundreds of Vanderbilt young men and one courageous female."
A season after LSU became the first SEC team to win a national championship with a 15-0 record, the Tigers are 3-4 with games the next two weekends against Alabama and at Florida. LSU is the only SEC program in the 2000s that has yet to experience a losing season.
Ed Orgeron's Tigers are coming off Saturday night's 20-7 loss at Texas A&M and now will host a top-ranked Crimson Tide team they were originally set to play Nov. 14. The SEC announced this past Friday that Bama-LSU would be this week, and Saban believes the switch will not be an issue at all.
"We actually practiced for them three days - one day in the bye week and then Monday and Tuesday when we thought we were going to play and the game got canceled," Saban said after Saturday's 42-13 drubbing of Auburn in the Iron Bowl. "We actually had three days of work for them, and it's not that players are going to immediately recall all that stuff, but because we've got some experience with them, I think that will be beneficial to how we put the plan together."
Receiver Terrace Marshall, who was LSU's top threat in College Station with 10 catches for 134 yards and a touchdown, announced Sunday via Twitter that he is opting out the rest of the season.
Several hours after Alabama held senior day festivities to honor four-year players who have helped compile a 46-4 record and as freshmen experienced the 2017 national title, South Carolina honored its seniors who have encountered a much different journey with a 22-25 mark.
The Gamecocks have progressively worsened the past four seasons, from 9-4 in 2017 to 7-6 in 2018 to 4-8 last year to 2-7 after Saturday night's 45-16 loss to Georgia. This year's seniors experienced the dismissal of head coach Will Muschamp and are now playing out the string under interim Mike Bobo.
"Sometimes you want to look at your legacy as far as how many wins or how you left your program," Bobo said, "but the legacy of these seniors is showing the young guys how you don't quit. When you're not dealt the hand that you want, you continue to fight, and I'm proud of these guys."
A Kadarius Toney punt return for a touchdown with 42 seconds left in the second quarter enabled Florida to take a 14-10 halftime lead in its eventual 34-10 win over visiting Kentucky. The Gators led at the break despite the Wildcats having 23 minutes and 23 seconds of possession time, which led to a heated sideline exchange between Florida coach Dan Mullen and his defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham.
Mullen was asked afterward to explain the verbal altercation that lasted nearly a minute.
"We're neighbors, and he had his Christmas lights up in the front yard," Mullen said. "I said, 'We don't put Christmas lights up until after Thanksgiving,' and he adamantly said, 'Yes, we do.' We agreed to disagree."
Other than Ole Miss topping Mississippi State 31-24 in the Egg Bowl, the SEC was filled with wretched mismatches Saturday. The Rebels lead the Egg Bowl rivalry 63-46-6, but the Bulldogs entered Saturday having won seven of the previous 11 meetings.
"It's good to get the trophy back where it belongs," Ole Miss first-year coach Lane Kiffin said. "Let's keep it here for a long time."
This week's SEC lineup is headed by Texas A&M at Auburn at noon on ESPN, Florida at Tennessee at 3:30 on CBS and Alabama at LSU at 8 on CBS.