July 31, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Coach Derek Mason wants his Vanderbilt Commodores to remember just how last season ended in the Independence Bowl.

The Commodores stunned Georgia on the road , routed Mississippi and then rallied for a big victory over in-state rival Tennessee to become bowl eligible. Then they went into the Independence Bowl against North Carolina State and jumped out to a 3-0 lead only to lose 41-17 .

''We didn't finish the way we wanted to,'' Mason said Monday before the Commodores' first fall practice. ''That taste is a little sour for this group. This group understands exactly what we wanted to do and what we didn't get done. We left something on the table. That's got to be fuel. It's got to fuel you. You got to know and understand you want to win. You want to win every contest you play.''

The loss left Vanderbilt with a 6-7 record that still was the best yet in Mason's tenure.

Now the Commodores are kicking off their fourth season with Mason in charge, and he has 16 starters back - a number that jumps to 18 counting players with at least five starts in 2016.

''These guys have only played under me ...,'' Mason said. ''We just have a bond. We came here, we went through the growing pains of having to grow up in the SEC. They grew up with me as a coach, they've had to learn what it takes to compete every day in this conference, and we've done it together. I think we've grown together. We understand this conference.''

Mason also has offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig going into his third season in charge of the offense, and Ludwig has junior Kyle Shurmur set as the starting quarterback after throwing for 2,409 yards last season. Shurmur improved as the season went on, throwing for a career-high 416 yards against Tennessee.

Ralph Webb, the leading rusher in Vanderbilt history, is back for his senior season. Mason has senior linebacker Oren Burks ready to take over where Zach Cunningham left off in leaving for the NFL's Houston Texans on defense.

But senior wide receiver Trent Sherfield said that bowl loss is very motivating, and that Mason isn't letting them forget that pain either as he reminded them of the loss at a team meeting.

''He just told us to make sure that we use that loss that we had against N.C. State as fuel for the entire 2017 season, which I think a lot of guys are doing,'' Sherfield said.

The Commodores had won their previous two bowl games, both under former coach James Franklin. The best way for Vanderbilt to ease losing the Independence Bowl will be going to a second straight bowl, a chase that begins Sept. 2 when the Commodores visit Middle Tennessee in the season opener.

Senior cornerback Tre Herndon says the Commodores definitely are motivated for this upcoming season by that bowl loss.

''We're looking forward to Week 1,'' Herndon said. ''Definitely, everybody still feels that performance in the bowl game.''

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