NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Derek Mason sits in his McGugin Center office, a giant black-and-gold splashed mural of downtown Nashville and the Vanderbilt campus on the wall behind him.
At the top of the mural, there is one word: Limitless.
It's precisely the way Mason feels about the potential of his football program as he enters his third season as head coach. And not that he really cares what anybody else thinks, but he understands that part of coaching at Vanderbilt is hearing the litany of reasons why the Commodores can't win in the SEC.
He hears every bit of it, or has heard every bit of it, but that doesn't mean he listens to any of it.
Keep in mind Mason coached at Stanford — another academically elite institution known more for its SAT scores than football scores — before arriving at Vanderbilt, and the Cardinal suffered through seven straight losing seasons last decade. But then came Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, followed by the kind of run that would be embraced at even the most unabashed football factories. In Mason's four seasons at Stanford, the Cardinal never won fewer than 11 games and made back-to-back Rose Bowl trips, winning the school's first Rose Bowl championship in 41 years to cap the 2012 season.
So he knows what the blueprint looks like and is confident he can implement it. But even more importantly, he thinks he finally has the experience, depth and physicality to compete in the SEC.
"They can talk about all these other conferences, but this conference is the toughest in college football," Mason said. "Having seen most of these other conferences and knowing what you have to prepare for week in and week out, it's a King Kong conference, a big-dog conference. There's no way around having depth. There's no way around making your guys grow up in this conference and play football, and that's what we've worked hard to do over the last 24 months."
Mason, 46, walked right into the middle of an ugly rape case involving four former Vanderbilt players when he took the job in 2014, and that cloud hovered. His predecessor, James Franklin, won nine games each of his last two years, which had never been done at Vanderbilt, but there was also heavy attrition (and several misses) in two of Franklin's three signing classes, meaning Mason had no choice but to play a heavy dose of freshmen in his first two seasons.
"We've done a good job every year of trying to move this program forward," said Mason, who took over the defense last year and saw the Commodores go from 106th nationally in scoring defense (33.3 points per game) to 22nd (21 points per game). "It's no secret of where this program started once I took over. I think what we've been able to do, slowly but surely, is minimize the outside distractions so we can start to maximize the on-field performance.
"Across the board, we've got experience and depth, and that's something we haven't had since I've been here. We've had to play more freshmen than just about anybody and haven't made any excuses about it. That's just who we were. Now, going into the third year, I've got redshirt juniors with true juniors who have played a lot of football in this conference, and there's no substitute for that."
It's one of the reasons Mason surveys the SEC's Eastern Division in 2016 and isn't conceding anything.
"Right now, I don't believe we're behind anybody when you look at the pack on our side of the conference," Mason said. "Tennessee is probably at the top of that deal because of what they bring back. Florida still has to find a quarterback. You can say the same thing about Missouri, South Carolina and Georgia. You have a lot of guys at quarterback taking over for the first time. So, I think I'm right with everybody else and in a position with my football team to try and make sure that we are better offensively and on special teams, so that we can give ourselves a chance to play good football."
The Commodores (4-8, 2-6 SEC) were closer than most realize to sneaking into a bowl game last season. They lost three games by a total of 13 points and struggled all season to score points. In fact, in 17 of Mason's 24 career games as head coach, the Commodores have failed to score more than 17 points.
Making it to a bowl game in Year 3 would send the clearest message yet that the Commodores are on the right track under Mason, and getting there will require finding more of an identity on offense and finding a way to turn the turnover battle in their favor. They were minus-24 in turnover margin the past two seasons.
The surest path to the postseason would be sweeping the four nonconference games — home against Middle Tennessee and Tennessee State, plus road games at Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky — and finding a way to win at least two conference games for the second year in a row. Vanderbilt opens the season at home against South Carolina, but travels to Kentucky, Georgia, Auburn and Missouri.
Quarterback issues have hounded Vanderbilt each of the past two seasons. The Commodores have had to go with freshmen and sophomores, guys who really weren't ready to play, and the result was a staggering 35 interceptions over the last two seasons. Mason was heartened by what he saw this spring from sophomore Kyle Shurmur and the way Shurmur performed in his limited time last season as a true freshman.
"He's cool, and he showed me a lot of growth from the first time he stepped onto the field until the end of the season," Mason said. "I thought he got better every game he played. The clock in his head became SEC-ready real fast, and some guys don't adjust to that."
And if something should happen to Shurmur, Mason now believes that Wade Freebeck is ready to step in, giving the Commodores the kind of insurance at the position they haven't had.
"Wade showed me that his football IQ has finally caught up with the talent," Mason said. "There's no doubt about the talent. At 6-6 and 226 pounds, he can run like a deer and has a strong cannon."
The continuity of having Andy Ludwig back for his second season as offensive coordinator also helps, but Mason said the thing you learn the quickest about the SEC is that it's not about the quarterbacks.
"Everybody wants to say they're a line-of-scrimmage conference, but this conference is a line-of-scrimmage conference," Mason said. "There are a couple of teams out West that are branded that way. We were a line-of-scrimmage team at Stanford. USC has traditionally always been a line-of-scrimmage team. But when you look at the (Pac-12) overall, it's still about spreading you out and trying to get speed in space. You can say that about this conference, but everybody runs the football. I don't care what the formations look like. Everybody's still trying to maul you at the point of attack and on the line of scrimmage, whether you're a spread offense or two-back offense.
"It's won and lost up front in this conference. You can't go into any other conference and say that because sometimes it's all about whether or not the quarterback had a bad day or whether receivers dropped balls. It's not about that in this conference. It's whether or not you can run the ball and whether you can stop the run."
Similar to what Stanford did with its tight ends, Mason thinks he has seven who can play, which will be another added dimension for the Commodores. He also welcomes back two key pieces offensively who were hurt last season – fifth-year senior offensive tackle Andrew Jelks and redshirt junior receiver C.J. Duncan.
"Based on the trajectory of this team and how we're building it and what coach (James) Dobson is doing in the weight room and the offseason moves we've made with personnel, this football team looks to be better," Mason said. "But you don't know what kind of football team you are until you start playing games. I do know this. The physicality has increased. The competition has increased. The depth has increased.
"And in this conference, those things are measurable."