"Nowhere to go but up" has been used before when describing Vanderbilt entering a new football season.
It's certainly pertinent now.
The Commodores experienced their first winless season in program history last year, going 0-9 against a schedule consisting solely of Southeastern Conference opponents. It would have assuredly been 0-10 had Vanderbilt been able to close at Georgia, but that matchup was canceled due to the Commodores enduring coronavirus-related issues.
"As far as starting from the bottom, it's a humbling experience, but it's definitely one that was needed," Commodores junior defensive lineman Daevion Davis said at SEC Media Days. "I took it with a grain of salt, and I came in every day and I just looked at the new opportunity that was able to be there for us to grow. I definitely have learned to make it about the whole team and the program and the guys that come after me, so just becoming that humble worker and taking that role on head on - it's definitely a humbling experience, but it's working.
"When you see the work just starting to get results, it only makes you want to go harder, so it's a great thing that we started over."
Want more carnage from a year ago? In Vanderbilt's five home games against LSU, South Carolina, Ole Miss, Florida and Tennessee, the Commodores were defeated by the average score of 43-14.
"There is no cutting around it, right?" sophomore offensive lineman Bradley Ashmore said. "Last year was a tough year, but hard times build hard men. We're coming out of it firing, because we put in a lot of work this offseason. Obviously our numbers got low last year, but we had to work around that.
"We put the best team on the field that we could every week."
Last year: 0-9 (0-9 SEC)Season opener: Sept. 4 vs. East Tennessee State in Nashville (8 p.m. on SEC Network+)Fun fact: Clark Lea is a former Vanderbilt fullback who blocked for Norval McKenzie during the 2002-04 seasons. McKenzie is the new running backs coach of the Commodores.
Mason had the difficult task in 2014 of replacing James Franklin, who guided the Commodores to three consecutive bowl games from 2011-13 and did the unthinkable his final two seasons by delivering consecutive 9-4 records. Mason led Vandy to three consecutive wins over rival Tennessee from 2016-18 and delivered a pair of bowl trips, but the end of his tenure wasn't pretty.
The Commodores enter this season having lost 13 consecutive SEC games, which is now the responsibility of Lea, a former Vanderbilt fullback who was Notre Dame's defensive coordinator this time last year.
"I didn't know much about him, to be honest," Ashmore said. "I'm a football player. I'm not big on business decisions. He got on campus, and everything has been great ever since."
Lea literally wiped the slate clean with the returning Commodores, removing numbers from jerseys, which led to a bit of confusion during the first few spring practices.
"I think the O-line and quarterbacks hated it all spring, because they couldn't ID anybody," Davis said. "We were having fun with it. We were kicking their tails. They were just trying to figure out who's who, but at the end of the day, we knew who everybody was.
"There were no numbers, but you had last names on the backs of the jerseys. You knew somebody's face, and it's football, so 'see ball, get ball.'"
Lea knows all about Vanderbilt's challenge to become just a middle-of-the-pack SEC program. His three seasons as a Commodores player were the first three seasons of the Bobby Johnson era, which yielded 2-10, 2-10 and 2-9 records and a 2-22 mark in conference contests.
The Commodores will look to build around quarterback Ken Seals, but they know nothing will be easy. After all, Vanderbilt did not have a single representative on the SEC's preseason first, second or third teams.
"In the SEC, you see unbelievable talent every week, and it is what it is," Ashmore said. "We're going to make the most of our Vanderbilt experience and will push forward to win football games."
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