Tennessee Review: This Ship Has Sailed

It's not Robbie Caldwell's fault. Really and truly, the Commodore who was called to be the captain of the Good Ship Vanderbilt with little advance notice should not be blamed for Saturday night's loss to the Tennessee Volunteers.

Just the same, however, this marriage – not a bitter one, not a toxic one – must indeed be dissolved for the good of the kids… the kids who play for VU in the present moment, and who will come to Nashville in the future.

Yes, if the union between Caldwell and Vanderbilt University was placed before a Catholic marriage tribunal, one thinks that there would be enough evidence to grant an annulment to both parties. A good man and a fine academic institution should both be allowed to re-marry in the future with full sacramental and ecclesial standing in the eyes of canon law. This isn't an at-fault divorce rich in acrimony and recrimination; it doesn't have to be so messy or miserable. Vanderbilt and Caldwell, though, need to part paths after the final meaningful failure of this rough 2010 season.

Sure, Vandy has one more game to go against a lousy Wake Forest team. If the Commodores hang 50 points on the Demon Deacons and cause a few jaws to drop on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, perhaps this question can be contemplated a little longer. In all likelihood, though, this latest trail of tears against Tennessee – a classic coulda-shoulda-woulda festival known as a 24-10 loss – should close the book on Caldwell. Will it? That's another question for another day; this isn't an attempt to read the political tea leaves inside the Vanderbilt administration or gauge the extent to which Caldwell's contractual status is secure for 2011. From a football-only standpoint – a raw assessment of the state of the program – the verdict here is that the Good Ship Vanderbilt needs a new skipper.

No, it's not a question of blame; this is not an attempt to find fault or point fingers. The simple truth about this cringe-inducing performance against the loathed rival from Knoxville is that Vandy needs a fresh start. Caldwell simply got caught up in a situation that was not about to end well for the Dores or their diehard supporters.

It's not complicated, surprising, or anything which demands an extended explanation. The Vanderbilt football family knew that when Bobby Johnson decided to retire not in December, not in January, but on July 14, 2010, this season was going to be a very tough voyage in the high seas of the SEC. Caldwell, his staff, and the young men who strapped on the pads for VU did not have enough time to mentally adjust themselves in time for the season. The redistribution of roles and responsibilities diminished the added value delivered by the retention of Bobby Johnson's right-hand man and trusted assistant. Yes, the faces on the sideline were familiar, but the leader – the man who gave VU its historic 2008 season – was no longer there to motivate and calibrate with a keen sense that made the program better. Bobby Johnson needed to be with this team in 2010, but when he stepped aside as abruptly as he did, he left a vacuum that Caldwell hoped to fill. However, this loss to Tennessee shows that Vandy's current coach failed in his attempt to provide needed continuity for the program. It's not so much Caldwell's failure, though, as it is a convergence of circumstances which simply demands a new response. A 14-point setback at Vanderbilt Stadium against the hated Children of the Checkerboard showed why.

As everyone knew – and as everyone learned afresh on Saturday night – this Tennessee team isn't very good. The Vols have been so inept and blundering in 2010 that their coach, Derek Dooley, can't speak straight or exhibit an artful level of elocution befitting educated Vanderbilt men and women.

"We played good, cause we're not good. We played really well (for) being not good. It was average," Dooley sputtered after his team polished off the Dores. Don't blame the refreshingly candid son of Vince Dooley for being so confused; the Vols would lead many a coach to view them that way based on their foul-ups and fumbles over the course of the season. If Tennessee hadn't left 13 men on the field against LSU; if the Vols hadn't hemorrhaged turnovers in second-half implosions against Oregon, Florida and Alabama; and if the Sons of Smokey hadn't thrown pick-sixes at South Carolina or sprung a leak in their secondary at Georgia, they might have had more to crow about this year. As it was, though, UT put its foot down in authoritative dismissals of Memphis and Ole Miss the past two weekends, leading a number of observers to wonder if the Vols had turned the corner as a program. There was reason to think that Tennessee would annihilate VU in this contest.

That line of thought died a violent death in Music City.

Yes, the exquisite pain being felt by Vandy fans – a pain which magnifies the need for an annulment of the Caldwell-VU marriage – stems from the fact that this generally bad Tennessee team played like it on the Dores' home turf, especially in a second half that Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton would have loved. The slapstick and farce on hand in Nashville were so superabundant that anyone without an emotional investment in this game would have been rolling in the aisles. Anyone outside the SEC, or anyone who didn't plunk some money on this game, had to be howling with laughter in response to plays that were cut straight out of the Football Follies mold.

Tennessee punt-return man Anthony Anderson coughed up the Vols' seven lost fumble on a kick return this season, roughly two minutes into the third quarter.

Just two plays after that fumbled punt, Tennessee defensive lineman Malik Jackson committed a late hit that wiped out a Vol touchdown and what would have been a 21-3 lead for the Big Orange.

Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray threw a pick that was impressively gathered in by Vandy's Kenny Ladler with 10:47 left in the third quarter.

The Vols committed false starts on back-to-back downs late in the third.

UT's Tauren Poole simply dropped a 28-yard touchdown pass, forcing the Vols to settle for three early in the fourth quarter.

On and on it went. The Vols gave away the ball three times, committed nine penalties for 75 yards, and totaled a very modest 128 yards on the ground. UT basically served up the kinds of performances Vandy fans have ecstatically dreamed about and longed for with the passion of a thousand burning suns.

And VU lost by 14. Doesn't that really tell the tale in its entirety?

You know the rest of the story. You know about the illegal-touching penalty on Jordan Matthews that wiped out a Commodore score midway through the fourth quarter. You know about the stomach-punch interception thrown by Jared Funk on FIRST DOWN (not third or fourth down, but FIRST DOWN) in the Tennessee red zone, just two plays after Matthews' mess-up. You know about Ryan Fowler's missed chip shot from 25 yards, and another kick from 45 yards that was blocked. You know about Larry Smith's own interception. You know about all the ways in which Vandy refused to accept the gifts Tennessee bestowed on the VU crew.

Sadly yet undeniably, you also know about the one real mistake Caldwell made between the headsets. You know, along with the rest of humanity, that the timeout VU wasted with 3:07 left – just before drawing within seven points on a 16-yard scoring strike from Funk to Matthews – loomed large in the endgame phase of this fistfight. You know the Dores could have kicked the ball deep (or at least, that they would have had much more reason to do so) if they had all three timeouts in their pocket entering the final three minutes of regulation.

The bottom line is that this movie has unfolded before. More specifically, the damning verdict against a Caldwell continuation is that against the 2010 Vols – not the 2007 team that won the SEC East or most of the rosters fielded by Phil Fulmer – a merely decent performance would have taken this game into overtime (and very possibly won it). Yet, a tidal wave of basic breakdowns, a flood of failures, prevented VU from winning the one game that would have made a 3-9 or 4-8 season a sign of hope. Without a win over an historically dreadful Tennessee team, there's nothing to hang one's hat on for Vanderbilt in 2010. A win over Wake isn't likely to undo the familiar form of psychological wreckage unleashed by this latest loss to UT. Vandy still hasn't beaten the Children of the Checkerboard at home since 1982, and has won only once in the subsequent 28 years since that sweet triumph over Johnny Majors's men.

It's not Robbie Caldwell's fault. However, it's time to get a new man for the Good Ship Vanderbilt. By 2012, this team – this program – needs to be able to sink a less-than-fully equipped Volunteer Navy.

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