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Mississippi running back Eric Swinney (24) pulls away from Vanderbilt linebacker Oren Burks (20) and cornerback Tre Herndon (31) for a 55-yard touchdown run in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. Mississippi won 57-35. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

It looked disastrous at the time.

Now it seems even worse.

Vanderbilt was 3-0 and bordering on the national football rankings on Sept. 23, when the Commodores hosted Southeastern Conference kingpin Alabama in a game televised by CBS. It was a mismatch from the start, with the Crimson Tide winning 59-0 and racking up 677 yards to Vanderbilt's 78, and it became the start of a four-game tailspin that fourth-year coach Derek Mason must stop if his program is to make a second consecutive bowl appearance.

The Commodores are off this week before traveling to South Carolina, a team Vandy has not defeated since 2008.

"It's been a tough stretch," Mason said following last Saturday's 57-35 loss at Ole Miss. "We will get our guys rested, and we will make sure we take this bye week and do exactly what needs to be done to fix this slide. We're 3-4 with five games left. This football team is capable of doing exactly what it needs to do and exactly what it wants to do.

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"We have to set our mind to it, because right now we're just not playing hard or consistently enough. There are just too many guys who are hit and miss at times, and I take full responsibility for that."

Running back Ralph Webb had his most productive game of an otherwise subpar senior season against the Rebels, rushing 23 times for 163 yards and two touchdowns, but the Vanderbilt defense has been spiraling since Alabama arrived.

The Commodores opened this season by holding Middle Tennessee State, Alabama A&M and No. 18 Kansas State to 13 total points, and their 4.3 points allowed per game led the nation. Alabama's 59-point outburst was followed by Florida tallying 38 points, Georgia racking up 45 and then last week's Ole Miss eruption.

As a result, Vanderbilt has gone from first to 89th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 30.3 points per game.

"I still feel like we are a very talented team," redshirt junior safety LaDarius Wiley said after the latest loss. "I feel like we need to do some self-checking, and I feel like this bye week will help us out. Practice habits need to be better, and that will carry us through game day."

Vanderbilt's win over Kansas State marked the program's first triumph over a ranked nonconference foe since 1946. That is far and away serving as this season's highlight, as the Commodores offered little to no resistance to the No. 1 Tide, No. 21 Florida and No. 5 Georgia.

The good news for Vanderbilt is that none of its five remaining opponents are ranked, but the concerns are plentiful.

Despite Webb's performance in Oxford, the Commodores rank 124th out of 129 Bowl Subdivision teams in total offense with 297 yards per contest. The defense is now yielding 413 yards a game, so that 116-yard deficit each Saturday obviously can't be maintained if the Commodores are to become bowl-eligible.

Vanderbilt's woes even extend to special teams, with senior kicker Tommy Openshaw just 1-for-5 on field-goal attempts this season after going 15-of-19 a year ago.

"I think the team's confidence right now has definitely taken a shot," Mason said. "We just have to be better. There is just too much football left to be played. Things have to be fixed. I think I've got the right guys in the locker room, and I've got the right coaches."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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