It is never too early to start thinking about college football, and with the 2016 season just three months away, its time to take a look at what game will be the biggest for the Vanderbilt Commodores. Keep in mind that this is not a look ahead to determine which game will be the toughest, but rather which will have the greatest impact on the season as a whole, win or lose.
As Derek Mason prepares for his third season in Nashville, he’ll be looking to improve his season win total from a year ago. Last season, the Commodores finished with a 4-8 mark, including a 2-6 total in the SEC. Mason, during his second year got his first SEC win after defeating the then defending SEC East champs, Missouri on October 24th, by a final of 10-3. Three weeks later, Mason picked up another SEC victory against Kentucky in Nashville. However, if Mason wants to see continued improvement he is going to need to do a better job in SEC play this year.
Looking ahead at Vanderbilt’s schedule for 2016 they do not catch many breaks with their non-conference opponents. The Commodores will face off against MTSU, Georgia Tech, Western Kentucky, and Tennessee State. Other than TSU, none of those opponents can realistically be chalked up as guaranteed wins at this point. While these would be a big boost to Vanderbilt if they can win these games, especially if they can get revenge on Western Kentucky in Bowling Green, who defeated the Commodores in heartbreak fashion last season, they just do not add up to the significance of beating an SEC foe. The four games that will have the biggest impact on Vanderbilt’s 2016 season will be South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and in-state rival, Tennessee; however, which game will be the most important for Vanderbilt?
Vanderbilt kicks of their season Thursday, September 1st on ESPN primetime against South Carolina. Obviously, the first game of the season is big for many different reasons, but it takes on a bigger role when the opponent is a division rival. The first game is usually, but not always, an indicator for how the season will go, and for a coach who has struggled to win, getting that first victory under your belt can be a huge sigh of relief. Add in the fact that this is also the first of six home games for Mason and the Commodores, and it becomes that much more important. If tragedy does strike, and Vanderbilt drops the opener it wont be the end of the world, however. It is much easier to rebound from an early season loss, than a late one, just ask Alabama last year. This is why the South Carolina game is not the most important next season.
November 12th Vanderbilt squares off against Missouri in Columbia. By this point in the schedule it will be unlikely, but not impossible, that either team will be in the hunt for the SEC East title. Nevertheless, that does not mean that this game will not be of high importance. Both squads will be looking on improving from their previous seasons, and this matchup will be an indicator of just how far each program has come. As of right now, both schools have unproven quarterbacks. A lot can change from now until November, but as it looks, sophomore Kyle Shurmur will head the offense for Vanderbilt, and sophomore Drew Lock will lead Missouri. This game will definitely determine which QB has made bigger strides and will have big implications for both programs as a whole, but it is unlikely it will be the biggest in terms of the season for the Commodores.
Next on the list is the Tennessee Volunteers. Tennessee must travel west on I-40 to Nashville for a match against the Commodores on November 26th to end the regular season. The instate rival has gotten the best of the Commodores the past two seasons including a 53-28 loss in Neyland Stadium in 2015. Under Coach Franklin, Vanderbilt was able to defeat Tennessee in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1925 and 1926. Mason would love to be able to start a new streak against the Vols, but that seems unlikely as Tennessee is expected to be a contender for the SEC title next season. On any given Saturday, anything can happen, though, and while unlikely, should Vanderbilt top Tennessee next season it would be a huge win for Derek Mason and his team, and they could end the year on a high note. Regardless, considering how unlikely that is to happen is why Tennessee is not the biggest game for Vanderbilt.
The crown for the biggest, most important opponent for Vanderbilt next season goes to the Kentucky Wildcats. By the time October 8th rolls around Mason should have a good understanding of where his team is at, and a game against Kentucky will be the ultimate test to that. Kentucky has flirted around the edge of being a bowl eligible team the past couple of seasons but have yet to do so. Vanderbilt was able to beat Kentucky last season, but that was in Nashville. The Commodores will have to travel to Lexington to beat Kentucky this season, which is another reason why it is the biggest game on the schedule. In two years, Coach Mason has yet to obtain a road SEC win, and Kentucky presents the best opportunity for Vanderbilt to accomplish this. Defeating a team that is considered above your skill level on their field would be a huge morale booster for the Commodores.
Another reason why Kentucky is the biggest game for Vanderbilt is because of where the game falls on the schedule. Kentucky and Vanderbilt will battle on October 8th, the sixth game of the season for the Commodores. This will be a pivotal game for both teams in determining which team might make bowl eligibility and which will not. The third SEC game for Mason will prove a lot about his team, and will be the ultimate indicator for how their season will continue to unfold. Win or lose, Kentucky will be the most important opponent Vanderbilt will face in 2016.