The First Time
Massive projects in life take time, and they typically acquire humble origins. Many big dreams have taken root in basements, garages and cramped apartments before they changed the world in boardrooms and manufacturing plants. Abraham Lincoln's life did not begin in privileged surroundings. Author J.K. Rowling's life did not possess the trajectory of a runaway success story – not for a great many years. Then, she conceived the Harry Potter concept, but the distance between the vision and the end product was considerable.
You get the picture. Success doesn't emerge overnight. A 180-degree turn-on-a-dime is not going to happen at Vanderbilt, so after a closer-than-it-seemed 45-14 win over the Elon Phoenix of the Football Championship Subdivision in Nashville on Saturday night, one shouldn't be worried or fretful. It's time to take the long view and size up this journey that's just beginning.
An excessive focus on the present moment would lead a Vanderbilt fan to sweat after this opener. Against an FCS defense, quarterback Larry Smith completed just 13 of 27 passes. You, I, and a fence post know that's a completion rate of under 50 percent. Against an FCS defense.
Vanderbilt's defense conceded multiple Elon drives of over six minutes, a clear indication of how many miles this defensive front must travel in the weeks and months ahead. Elon outgained the Commodores, and even though yards are quite hollow compared to points, it's still revealing that Elon's ability to move the ball wasn't that much worse than Vandy's. The Dores led by a 24-14 margin after three quarters, and when one removes Trey Wilson's second-quarter pick-six from the equation, VU's offense accounted for just 17 points in the first three stanzas.
Elon built an 11-minute advantage in time of possession; that statistic is even more eye-popping in light of the fact that the Phoenix committed three turnovers. It's still more jawdropping when one also realizes that Vandy didn't commit a single turnover and converted all three of its fourth downs. How can a team convert fourth downs, not turn the ball over, and still control the ball for only 24 minutes and 30 seconds? The only answer is that the Dores weren't very consistent at all on offense, the area of greatest concern not just this season, but ever since Jay Cutler became a professional.
No Vandy running back gained more than 35 yards, even though several Dores gained touches in this lid-lifter. What Vanderbilt did produce on offense was quick-strike in nature; three touchdowns in a span of four minutes and 17 seconds early in the fourth quarter were the blows that finished off the Phoenix. Sustained drives, those most enduring revealers of both physical superiority in the trenches and psychological mastery of an opponent, were hard to come by for Vanderbilt.
Goodness gracious sakes alive – if one were to assign a considerable amount of importance and urgency to this one season, there would be so many reasons to worry about the next three months. Elon was not obliterated so much as outlasted; the Phoenix had a dog in the fight when the fourth quarter arrived. It's pretty clear that the Dores have a long climb in front of them; if week one was supposed to show that the road won't be as tough as it was initially feared to be, it didn't achieve that goal.
That's precisely the point, though: No one should be expecting a comparatively easier process, a shortened timetable, or an accelerated rate of improvement. This is a project. This is a journey starting in a humble place, a story that will need to unfold over multiple years, not just this one. Let the trap of the quick seduction fall by the wayside.
Saturday was not about the statistics or the micro-level details of one 60-minute slugfest. This was about James Franklin beginning to see what he has on his hands, beginning to grow in the role of a leader on a sideline, on a Saturday, in a game that counted. It's only now that the fun really begins, only now that Franklin will take his team – with returning players and new recruits – through film study and the corrective process of practice. It's only now that Franklin and his braintrust will consider the ways in which to tinker with personnel groupings, play selection, and other parts of the endless puzzle that is a college football operation from Labor Day weekend through Thanksgiving weekend.
This game wasn't going to solve all, or even most, of Vandy's problems. It also wasn't going to project a far bleaker future than anything the prevailing consensus might have suggested before kickoff time. The bottom line about the encounter with Elon is that it removed the future tense from "when will Franklin finally coach?" and put the new leadership of this program into the present tense. A long period of waiting has ended. The daunting but satisfying task of creating a newer, better football force is now truly underway.
Relief, not worry, should be the order of the (Labor) Day for Vanderbilt football today.
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