By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Any way you slice it, Vanderbilt football will make history this weekend.
When No. 5 Georgia visits Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday (11 a.m. CT on ESPN), it will mark the Commodores’ fourth consecutive ranked opponent in 2017. The Dores have never before faced four straight teams ranked in the Associated Press top 25.
That stretch began on Sept. 16, when Vanderbilt topped No. 18 Kansas State, 14-7, at Vanderbilt Stadium. But head coach Derek Mason’s squad has dropped consecutive games to No. 1 Alabama and No. 21 Florida as it welcomes Georgia to town on Saturday.
Mason said the four-game tilt has served as a proving ground for his roster.
“For us, it’s been daunting,” Mason said. “We’ve faced great talent and great opponents. We’ve seen some good and some bad within ourselves, but it’s led us to understand what we need to improve.”
The Commodores were perhaps at their best in the win over Kansas State. The Wildcats’ offense was flummoxed by Vanderbilt’s defense, managing just seven points after coming in averaging 55 per game. But one week later, Vanderbilt couldn’t get anything going in a 59-0 loss to No. 1 Alabama. Last week, the Dores looked vastly improved in standing toe-to-toe with No. 21 Florida in The Swamp, though a late Gators touchdown cemented a 38-24 loss.
The ups and downs of a gauntlet of ranked opponents has given the Commodores a chance to grow as a team.
“It’s definitely been a challenge,” senior wide receiver Trent Sherfield said, “but we embrace and accept those challenges. It makes us a better football team.”
The next test is a date with No. 5 Georgia, which beat Tennessee in Knoxville, 41-0, last weekend. But Vanderbilt heads into the Georgia game confident in the series’ recent history. Last October, All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham stuffed a late fourth-down attempt by the Bulldogs to seal a 17-16 win in Athens. The victory served as Vanderbilt’s first SEC road win under Mason.
Still, Mason knows past success does not always indicate future success.
“It’s a new slate,” Mason said. “That was a first-year head coach working through the kinks of finding out who your players are and what the program is. Kirby Smart has been able to do that extremely well. What I look at with this Georgia team is this: they are a top-five team. They play hard. And they don’t beat themselves.”
Vanderbilt has learned a lot about itself during its difficult schedule. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur has looked sharp, throwing 11 touchdown passes against just one interception. The Dores’ run game has yet to fully take off. Vanderbilt’s pass rush has become more aggressive, but its run defense needs to improve. The makeup of Mason’s fourth team has begun to take shape five games into 2017.
Now the Commodores hope this caravan of ranked foes pays off in the long run.
“I’m thankful for this stretch in the middle of the season,” Mason said. “It hardens you for the back-end of the season and makes you the team that you want be. But first, we’ve got to get through this Georgia game, and we’ve got to look to win it. That’s what it’s about. It’s not just about going to play well. It’s about trying to go win, and that’s exactly what we plan to do.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.