Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason was feeling himself a little bit Thursday as he answered questions during SEC Media Days.
Who could blame him? His Commodores are riding a three-game winning streak against Tennessee for the first time in 93 years.
Mason has not led Vanderbilt to a winning record in any of his six seasons, but with two postseason trips in the last three years he is the second coach to lead the Commodores to multiple bowl games.
Add three consecutive wins over the school’s big-name in-state rival and Mason has created some good favor for himself in Nashville.
“For us, man, it simply means that we’re relevant, okay, in the SEC East conversation,” Mason said. “I think for us, time and time again, it’s been about trying to make sure that we could keep up with that program, you know, up the road.”
If Vanderbilt is going to make it four in a row when it comes to Neyland Stadium for the regular season finale on Nov. 30, it will have to do so with quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who tormented Tennessee more than any other quarterback in recent history.
In three wins over the Vols, Shurmur has completed 72 of 100 passes for 1,066 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception. Even in a loss to Tennessee as a freshman, he threw three touchdown passes.
Shurmur’s exit means Mason will have to train a new signal caller. On Thursday he said that job will go to Deuce Wallace or Riley Neal.
Wallace is a fourth-year junior from Sevier County High School, who appeared in four games in 2017 and completed 11-of-22 passes for 94 yards. Neal is a graduate transfer from Ball State, who completed 60% of his passes for 7,393 yards and 46 touchdowns. He also rushed for more than 1,400 yards.
Whoever wins the job will be part of what Mason said is his deepest team. That’s good news for the Commodores in addition to the momentum they’ve built in the Tennessee rivalry, but Mason said he’s not counting on a fourth consecutive win just yet.
“I want you to know this is a different-looking Vanderbilt football team with maturity, depth, athleticism, leadership,” he said. “It’s all in place for us.
“I believe right now this is the best football team that I’ve had...I believe Tennessee is making a move, going to make their program better, but the reality is, for us, it will be about what happens in 2019, not what happened in ‘16, ‘17, and ‘18.”
PRUITT SPEECH NETS COMMITMENT
One of the funnier events during the SEC Media Days was Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt virtually filibustering through 70 percent of his 30 minutes in the main media room. Pruitt discussed every aspect of the roster and coaching staff and at one point gave some advice to pass catchers who are considering Tennessee.
“Wide receiver you would think would be a strength on our team,” Pruitt said. “Like I said, we only have 12 seniors, but four of them are wide receivers. I’m going to say that again. Four of them are wide receivers, so if I was a wide receiver in high school, Tennessee would be a great landing spot in the near future.”
Darion Williamson, a three-star recruit at Haywood High School in Brownsville who plays wide receiver and linebacker, pledged to Tennessee on Wednesday. The Vols recruited him as an athlete.
He also had a scholarship offer from Memphis. He will graduate in 2020.
“I watched a clip of the Media Days thing with coach Pruitt, and everyone knows what he said about the four wide receivers being seniors, and if you’re a wide receiver then Tennessee would be a great landing spot,” Williamson told 247sports. “I was already thinking that, and that just pulled me even closer.”
40 YEARS IS TOO LONG
Kentucky made a bit of history last season when it won 10 games for the first time since 1977. The Wildcats especially were riding high after beating Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.
Head coach Mark Stoops said Kentucky will have to have a similarly successful season if it wants to build a stronger program. Winning more often, he added, will allow the Wildcats to be more selective in recruiting.
“The nice thing is our players saw what it takes (to win 10 games),” Stoops said. “They saw the sacrifices that those players did. They were part of it. So they have a good example of the leadership that it takes, of the sacrifice that it takes. We want the accountability to come from them. That’s the culture we’re trying to continue.”
Kentucky’s big season did not include a victory over Tennessee. The Vols won 24-7 at Neyland Stadium. The Wildcats will get their chance at revenge when Tennessee visits Lexington on Nov. 9.