This 2018 Vanderbilt football team is a handful of plays away from being 8-2 this season. This is a season on the cusp. Vandy is a competitive team that comes out fast and leads for a solid three and a half quarters, then depending on the game, fail to sustain that lead. I have already said it once this season and I will say it again, the ‘Dores are NOT A BAD football team. Is it frustrating reading that again? Think about how frustrating it is for the team and the coaching staff. This a team that is on the cusp. So, so close yet so far.
Unfortunately, this season has been gut-wrenching in terms of what should have and could have been. If Vanderbilt had scored in the first quarter, they would have beat Notre Dame, yet they had to rally from behind. Although they had a chance to win the game with 3:39 left in the fourth, they failed to score. The ‘Dores got the ball back one more time with 0:05 on the clock. Not enough time or laterals. The hope of upsetting a ranked Notre Dame ended with a fumble that was recovered by The Irish.
Vandy also had Florida beat at home until the Gators rallied back from an 18-point deficit. Then again, against Kentucky, the Dores scored first and remained tied with Kentucky with a little over eight minutes left in the game before Benny Snell Jr. snuck one past an exhausted Vanderbilt defense.
Finally, this past weekend Missouri was the latest gut punch of the season. The Commodores started fast with 14 points in the first quarter. They held that lead until midway through the fourth quarter. The Tigers defense stopped Vandy on fourth down on the one-yard line and got the ball back. They drove 99 yards in 14 plays and scored to take the lead. Vandy intercepted Drew Lock on Missouri’s next possession, yet failed to convert the turnover into points. The Tigers would then miss a field goal on their last possession of the game. Vandy had one last shot, but there was a clock management issue while Missouri was attempting their field goal, and 20 precious seconds were lost. That 20 seconds could have/would have been the game changer for Vanderbilt against Missouri. A handful of seconds, a few plays, and the ‘Dores would be 8-2 right now.
What is missing from this Vanderbilt football program to help push them over the hump? Is it coaches, athletes, administration, or facilities? It is no secret that the Vanderbilt football facilities and stadium are the worst in the SEC. As a member of the SEC, Vandy gets approximately $41 million per year, with only a fraction of that money going back into athletics. For some reason, the Vanderbilt administration is scared to death of putting money into athletics. They seem to think that Vanderbilt cannot be a prestigious academic institute and a top athletic competitor in the SEC. Why not? Stanford and Northwestern haven PROVEN you can have academics, winning seasons, AND conference championships!
If You Build It, They Will Come
Northwestern another “smart” school invested in their football program and opened a $270 million dollar football facility earlier this year. This past weekend, Northwestern clinched their first Big Ten West title. Coincidence? Maybe. Northwestern leads the Big Ten in football GSR. Identically, Vanderbilt is number one the SEC. Northwestern tops the National GSR list while Vanderbilt is ranked No. 4. Fascinating, is it not? Northwestern is successful in the class and on the grass. Why can’t Vanderbilt be the same in the SEC? Why is the administration refusing to fund the football program at the same level as their SEC counterparts? It just doesn’t make sense.
What does an investment in the football program mean to a team? Those shiny objects, bells, and whistles of a brand new facility are the tipping point with certain athletes, the same athletes that are being recruited by more successful teams in the SEC, the playmaker athletes. If Vanderbilt can get a few more of those playmakers, and it’s a game changer.
Vandy attracts football players that value the education over the superfluous bells and whistles, not saying these athletes cannot compete in the SEC because they have and can. Just that the addition of some of those playmakers add depth to the team.
That additional depth would help push them over the hump. Granted, it has gotten better in the last four seasons, yet it is not as deep as it needs to be. Vandy carries a 105-man roster (approximately) while other schools are stocked at 125-ish. That extra depth is a game-changer when it comes to the fourth quarter and a set of fresh legs.
Change Of Perception
Steve Spurrier failed as an NFL coach, and he savagely attacked Vanderbilt with the quote “There are no Vanderbilts in the NFL.” The Universty of Tennessee has fired coaches for losing to Vanderbilt. Those examples are the perception that Vanderbilt is fighting from everyone. Ultimately, Vanderbilt is not only fighting to recruit playmakers away from more successful programs, but they are also fighting a stigma.
When Vanderbilt gets ahead of teams in games, fans are completely offended that their team is losing to Vandy. *GASP*, the nerve that Vandy can field a talented team! Think about how many decades that misconception has been in place, now think how long it will take to change that perception of the program. It is no wonder that it is taking Vanderbilt so long to get over the hump; they are being attacked from all angles all the time. How exhausting.
Head coach Derek Mason is waist deep in his fifth season at Vanderbilt. This is also the first season that Mason is playing with a team full of “his” recruits. This team has talent, they have the capability, and as I said, they are on the cusp. Comparing Vandy to Kentucky might be a stretch, but let’s try. Mark Stoops is in his sixth season at Kentucky and they came out this season dominating everyone. I remember past seasons when Stoops was on the ‘Hot Seat’ list, yet the administration stuck with him. I believe that if the Vanderbilt administration sticks with Mason, they can become a dominant force in the SEC. However, that being said, the Vandy administration has to be willing to invest in athletics, particularly football if it wants to win consistently in the SEC.
I know there are plenty of Vandy “fans” who will not agree with me. They think that Mason and his staff should be gone. Well, if you get rid of Mason, who do you replace him with that that is better? I have asked that question once already this season. No one gave me an answer, yet they keep complaining. If you start cleaning house, you take this Vanderbilt football program back to square one. The grass is not always greener. Perhaps if you nurture and water your own grass it will eventually be greener than you ever thought it could be.
Vanderbilt is not an easy school to get into. Nor is it an easy place to win, as the SEC is one of the toughest conferences in the Power Five. Mason is making strides. He has recruited transfer players like Ke’Shawn Vaughn who has been a playmaker and a game changer this season. Mason is getting the quality student-athletes at Vanderbilt. Notably, Mason has done all this without compromising the integrity of the academic institution.
What Does The Future Hold
To become bowl eligible, Mason and his Commodore team will have to end the season exactly as they did in 2016, with wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee at home. It can be done. We have been there, done that, and bought the vest. IT COULD HAPPEN. This team is exponentially better than their 4-6 record shows. Yet, getting over that hump has been hell this season. The team execution and will to win has to override the fourth quarter exhaustion. Vandy needs to win these final two games to prove to themselves that they can finish strong. Also, to prove to college football that Mason is the man for the job, you can win the right way if you are given time to nurture a culture.
Vanderbilt has always been the doormat of the SEC. But this is not the same old Vandy. This is an 8-2 team with a 4-6 record that is on the verge of getting over that proverbial hump and shocking the SEC. There is absolutely no reason it can not happen. Truth is stranger than fiction, and Vandy is closer to winning than you think.