Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Before James Franklin took over the reins of Vanderbilt's football team, the program was consistently outmatched in the brutally tough SEC.
However, Franklin showed during his tenure that Vanderbilt isn't just an elite academic university but also a formidable football institution.
Before Franklin's arrival in 2011, the Commodores, a team that has been around since 1902, only participated in four bowl games. Franklin managed to earn postseason bids in each of his three seasons in Nashville, including victories in the 2012 Music City Bowl and the 2013 BBVA Compass Bowl.
After defying the odds by going 18-8 over the past two seasons (which included strong SEC wins over the likes of Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Ole Miss) while finishing each year inside the AP Top 25, Franklin cashed in on his success this offseason when he was granted one of the nation's more coveted jobs at Penn State, where he replaced Bill O'Brien.
Vanderbilt climbed so far in a short amount of time under Franklin, improving from a combined 4-20 in 2009 and 2010 to a perennial thorn in the sides of the SEC's elite. Replacing Franklin would be a tall order, and the university understood that its next head coach needed to bring the same balance of high values and academic standards as well as football acumen.
The Commodores landed their man not long after Franklin's departure, bringing abroad former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason to fill the void. Mason, who also served as the defensive backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings from 2007-09, shined in his role with the Cardinal over the past three seasons, as the team ranked among the top 15 nationally in defensive efficiency all three years. Stanford was especially stout this past season, ranking third in the country in rushing defense (89.4 yards per game) and 10th in scoring defense (19 points per game).
With the hire, Vanderbilt has shown a willingness to go in a different direction. Franklin was a more offensive-minded coach, having previously served as the offensive coordinator at Maryland, but in the SEC, defense will always be king, and Mason's presence will almost certainly help a squad that placed in the bottom half of the conference in scoring defense in 2013 (24.7 ppg).
Perhaps more importantly, Mason has plenty of experience coaching at an elite academic institution. The similarities between Stanford and Vanderbilt and each university's respective standards for producing the highest quality student-athlete possible both on and off the field will allow, in some ways at least, for a smooth transition.
"This university combines the best of what's good about college athletics and academics," Mason stated simply when he was introduced as head coach back in January. "We expect to be competitive and look forward to competing for an SEC East crown."
It appears Mason has the makeup and the track record to be a quality hire for the Commodores, but the big question remains: Will he be able to pick up where Franklin left off?
Because of the high academic standards for its players, Vanderbilt has a more difficult time bringing aboard top talent than its SEC bretheren, but Franklin made the most of his modest rosters. In 2011 and 2012, Zac Stacy produced back- to-back 1,000-yard seasons with the Commodores, the first player to accomplish that feat, and last season he emerged as one of the NFL's top rookie tailbacks with the St. Louis Rams.
In addition, Jordan Matthews became the SEC's all-time leading receiver last season, finishing his career with 262 receptions. He was selected in the second round by the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL Draft earlier this month.
It doesn't appear Mason will have anyone even approaching Stacy's or Matthews' talent on his 2014 squad, and with Jonathan Krause (42 receptions, 714 yards, three touchdowns) departing as well, no returning Vanderbilt player had more than 19 receptions last season. With an uncertain quarterback situation, Mason and new offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell (an NFL assistant with the Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans since 2008) will have difficulty approaching last season's impressive offensive numbers (30.1 ppg, 366.5 ypg).
The quarterback competition, which appears to be down to sophomore Patton Robinette and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary, will greatly determine how the offense looks moving forward, but Mason isn't quick to make any conclusions this early in camp.
"I don't want to jump the gun, because when you do that, you paint yourself into a corner," the head coach said. "It needs to be competitive. These guys need to push each other and whoever else comes in here needs to have an opportunity to really push them. We have to be as good as we can be at that position because it's still a quarterback's game."
The talent is thin on the defensive side of the ball as well after the departure of three leaders in the secondary, Kenny Ladler, Javon Marshall and Andre Hal. The unit retains some veteran performers, especially at linebacker with Darreon Herring (84 tackles), Jake Sealand (45 tackles), Caleb Azubike (31 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks) and Kyle Woestmann (40 tackles, seven tackles for loss, six sacks), but Mason will likely begin sculpting a new-look defense this season.
It might be an imposing task to live up to the expectations set by Franklin, but Mason appears to be up to the challenge in the early going. The simple facts remain that Vanderbilt will never be able to compete with the big name schools on the recruiting trail -- Mason's first class ranked just 49th in the nation, according to Rivals.com, which is dead last in the SEC -- but a similar style of hard work, discipline and intelligence will allow the Commodores to continue their overachieving ways with their new regime.
"When this job became available at Vanderbilt University, I wanted the job," Mason said. "We all aspire to greatness, and that's where we're going to go."