HOOVER, Ala. (AP) The Vanderbilt Commodores took a small step forward overall last season and a bigger one defensively.
Sure, they lost four games by single-digit margins and improved on defense with coach Derek Mason pulling double duty as coordinator. But they still went 4-8, just one win better than in Mason's debut season.
''This football team knows how to compete. Okay?'' Mason said Monday at Southeastern Conference media days. ''It's not about competing anymore, it's about winning. We had the great fortune to win one more game. For some in here, that's not monumental enough. That's OK. For us, we saw how we let some games slide. We missed some opportunities, OK, and that has not gone unnoticed by this football team.''
The Commodores don't want that to be considered normal for a program that had back-to-back 9-4 seasons before coach James Franklin left for Penn State.
They've got some talent, like All-SEC linebacker Zach Cunningham and workhorse running back Ralph Webb. And Kyle Shurmur has already been anointed the starting quarterback going into his sophomore season.
Vandy finished in the top half of the league in the four major defensive categories after ranking last in points allowed per game.
Mason has gone 7-17 in his first two seasons but has 16 returning starters and more than 40 upperclassmen coming back. He also has six new assistants in a second straight year of high staff turnover.
Cunningham said the team has ''a more together mind-set than we had last season.''
Mason likes the Commodores' attitude as well.
''This team's got a team-first mentality, has established a team-first mantra,'' he said. ''We don't care about who is standing on the hill. We don't care about who takes the accolades. It's about this team collectively and what we need to do in order to move the needle and get up the hill.''
Vanderbilt gets a chance before most teams even take the field to give some evidence if they've made real strides. They open Sept. 1 with a Thursday night game against South Carolina.
''I don't think it's a measuring stick game but it's definitely a game that's going to prove not only to the fans but to everyone else what we can do,'' Cunningham said.