What really matters in the wake of a 41-point thumping, endured just seven days after a 35-point pounding at the hands of Arkansas, is that precious little is happening which suggests that a culture shift is taking place in Nashville. The 2008 season that gave Commodores everywhere a much-needed splash of pure and unbridled ecstasy is looking increasingly like an aberration. More specifically and on point, the absence of an Austin Monahan or a Warren Norman – though obviously quite important in an immediate and narrow context – doesn't really seem like much when the margin of defeat hovers near 40 points on a semi-regular basis. A strong, durable and resilient football program – one that hopes to be legitimately competitive in the cutthroat Southeastern Conference – has to be able to endure two injuries. A whole team has to be able to find good replacements and not drop off the map when adversity strikes. No one's saying Vandy has to be winning eight or nine games with regularity, but the Dores do need to at least push .500 on a regular basis.
To put VU's sinking season in its proper place, what's disconcerting is not the 2-7 record… not really. That's a serious and sober statement which is not meant to be a laugh line. Follow along… The problem with Vandy's 2-7 record is that it has been produced against the worst SEC East the conference has ever seen since the advent of divisional play. Never before has the entire division stunk, with either Florida or South Carolina – two frighteningly flawed teams – competing for the (uhh, ummm….) "championship" next weekend in Gainesville. If Vandy can't beat Tennessee this year at home, when will it ever be able to take down the Vols in Nashville? We might have expected a 2-10 or 3-9 record at the start of 2010, but if we knew that the rest of the East would be this awful, it would have been not only reasonable, but appropriate (maybe even necessary) to expect a 4-8 or 5-7 campaign from coach Robbie Caldwell's kids. Sure, the Bobby Johnson bombshell from July did not help matters. Of course, the injuries the offense has absorbed have been important ones. Nevertheless, good programs have good backups ready to perform.
Want examples of this? Arkansas continued to move the ball this season with Tyler Wilson backing up Ryan Mallett at quarterback. Florida is fitting together lots of messy spare parts and surviving. Georgia, though certainly underperforming on a larger level, has gotten a lot better since losing to Colorado (yes, the same Colorado team that gave up 35 fourth-quarter points to KANSAS over the weekend). Mississippi State has seven wins right now, with its only two losses coming against the SEC West's best teams. LSU – for all of its ineptitude on many occasions – has rallied ‘round the flag and manages to compensate for its deficiencies in one area with step-up performances in other aspects of competition.
Outside the SEC, Wisconsin is winning without star linebacker Chris Borland. Texas A&M made a midseason quarterback switch from Jerrod Johnson to Ryan Tannehill and is salvaging its 2010 campaign. Oregon, of course, lost Jeremiah Masoli and has merely responded by kicking everyone's rear end. Penn State was in a tailspin, but Joe Paterno – at age 83 – pulled the trigger and went to a backup quarterback. He's won his last two games and now owns 400 victories. JoePa has the Nittany Lions headed for a bowl, an anything-but-certain prospect three weeks ago.
One could go on and on and on. Injuries and attrition are part of football; the resilient programs can adjust on the fly and plug in gaps with good parts. Vanderbilt is proving that it lacks such stubbornness and Kevlar-like toughness, and if Tennessee can't be slain, the closing stretch of this season will have nothing truly positive to point to.
If there's one detail from the Florida game that needs to be mentioned – albeit briefly – it is simply this: Given the Gators' manifest and well-documented struggles on offense, there were a few things the Commodores needed to do. At the top of the list was, "Don't give the game away on offense or special teams. Make Florida's offense drive down the field and earn points." Well, the opening blocked punt that set up Florida with a first-and-goal naturally violated VU's pigskin mission statement. When a team must follow a specific path in order to attain victory, and then so clearly strays from that path in the first minutes of a game, it's clear that problems exist which go beyond an injury here or an injury there. The 21-7 defeat at the hands of South Carolina was not a bad loss at all. The Arkansas loss came against a legitimately high-powered attack on the other side of the ball, so even though the first-half quarterback switch involving Larry Smith and Jared Funk disrupted VU's momentum, the reality of that lopsided loss was still stomachable.
This Florida flop, a 41-point loss to a truly dysfunctional offensive team, represents a new low for Vandy. No one was expecting the Commodores' offense to do very much, but the flood of mistakes, and the inability of the special-teams unit to execute something as basic as a punt, gave Florida too much leverage far too quickly. What should have been a defense-dominated battle for three or three-plus quarters (much like the South Carolina game) didn't have to be won in order to generate at least some degree of contentment. Nobody was expecting VU to ruin Florida's season.
What most folks in Nashville had a right to expect , however, was a competitive (albeit ugly) contest in which Florida's offense didn't run wild and the Gators – sloppy and disjointed all year – did not frolic over the course of 60 minutes. The Dores are good enough on defense to contain this year's putrid Florida attack (the word "attack" being used very loosely, of course) for three quarters. That VU couldn't even attain that modest standard of competitive parity is a searing and sad truth to confront, a harsh dose of darkness that can't be wished away or denied.
Getting whacked by 41 points will happen against an elite Florida team worthy of joining Steve Spurrier's and Urban Meyer's best Gainesville-based groups. That same result should most certainly not occur against the 2010 Florida footballers. Not measuring up to the SEC East isn't a crime in most seasons, but being buried at the bottom of this year's division represents a distinctly sinking feeling for a Commodore ship that desperately needs to find dry land in a hurry.
Photo by Stan Jones.