By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — It’s the season of hope in college football.
Then there’s Vanderbilt.
The Commodores are the St. Louis Browns of the gridiron, a team that looks hopelessly overmatched and out of place in the mighty Southeastern Conference, with its conglomerate of de facto pro franchises stretching from Athens to Tuscaloosa to Baton Rouge.
Despite the bold optimism displayed Thursday by coach Derek Mason at SEC Media Days, there’s little reason to believe Vandy is anywhere close to being on a level playing field with the Crimson Tides of the world.
“We know what other people think of us,” senior safety LaDarius Wiley said with a telling shrug. “We know the position that we’re in, we know the school that we go to, and we know the cross we have to bear.”
Vandy hasn’t won a championship of any type since 1923, a decade before the founding of the SEC and the same year Calvin Coolidge took over as president following the death of Warren Harding.
No other Power Five school has a longer title drought, assuming Iowa State gets credit for sharing the Big 12 North Division crown in 2004. (Otherwise, the Cyclones must have go all the way back to 1912 for their last championship, in what was then known as the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association.)
Mississippi State, which captured its lone SEC title in 1941, is the only other Power Five school that has a league title drought that extends beyond the 1960s. And the Bulldogs, it must be noted, did earn a spot in the 1998 conference championship game by finishing atop the West Division.
The Commodores haven’t come close to a title since 1955, when they went to the final game of the regular season with an outside chance to claim the SEC crown, assuming a bunch of things went right.
Alas, nothing did.
Vandy lost to a 20-14 heartbreaker to rival Tennessee, while Ole Miss and Auburn both won easily over their state rivals that same day to share the title.
Since the end of the 1950s, the Commodores have an SEC record of 71-330-6. Only twice — in 1982 and 2012 — have they finished above .500 in conference play.
Mason, certainly on the hot seat heading into his fifth season as coach, seems blissfully undeterred by the weight of history.
“There’s been media out there that spoke to the idea that our game is one to be overlooked,” said Mason, who in 18-31 overall and 6-26 in the SEC since taking over for James Franklin in 2014. “Watch out. I’m telling you right now, this team is going to show up. We’re going to play well. We are going come out the blocks and play the way we need to, and we’re going to finish this the way we should, the Vanderbilt way.”
As amazing as it may seem, there was a time when the Vandy way was a winning way.
The Commodores were a college football powerhouse at the beginning of the last century, winning or sharing 14 conference titles in, first, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association and, then, the Southern Conference.
These days, Vandy is a complete anomaly compared to the rest of the SEC.
The private institution has by far the smallest enrollment in the conference (less than 12,000 students), plays its home games in the league’s smallest, most outdated stadium, and doesn’t come anywhere close to matching the training facilities and resources of their rival schools. Throw in some tough academic standards, which put a further burden on recruiting, and it’s no mystery why the Commodores have been left in the dust.
Then again, other schools with similar challenges — Stanford, Northwestern, even Duke in a handful of seasons — have managed to succeed on the football field.
Why not Vandy?
“For me, it’s about being able to see your program holistically,” Mason said. “In a place like Vanderbilt, that’s exact actually what you have to do. You have to be able to make sure you can forecast out, build your program the right way. And I truly believe we’ve done that through recruiting, through hiring the right staff. It’s just taken a little time to get there.”
There was a smidgen of hope during the Franklin era. But he bolted for Penn State after guiding the Commodores to consecutive 9-4 seasons, and Vandy quickly slipped back to its usual ways under Mason.
A year ago, Vandy won its first three games, including an upset of then-ranked Kansas State. But any hope that the tide had turned was snuffed by a 59-0 rout at the hands of eventual national champion Alabama . The Commodores lost seven of their last nine games to finish in their usual spot near the bottom of the SEC.
Mason blames himself for letting one bad loss ruin what could’ve been a promising season.
“I probably got in my feelings a little bit and thought my team needed to be harder, and we needed to work that team harder. We really didn’t. A loss is a loss,” he said. “You can’t let one become two become three become four in this conference. And that’s what I did.”
Mason’s players shrug off the perception that Vandy faces every season.
That this is a lost cause.
That the only victories they can realistically hope for are moral.
“I believe we can win an SEC championship,” Wiley said, his voice rising hopefully. “We play the game to go 1-0 every week. If we go 1-0 every week, we’ll like the chances of what happens after that.”