A Terrible, Horrible Ray Of Hope

No, this past Saturday's loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks was not a good moment for the Vanderbilt football program. One can't view this three-point defeat as a positive development for a whole host of reasons. Yet, it could be just the thing that makes this program better in the long run. Life can be that complex and layered on some occasions.

Ah, now THIS is an analyst's (especially a psychoanalyst's) paradise. How does one make sense of a game that stirred so many emotions and elicited a powerful range of conflicting responses? Saturday afternoon's contest against the Arkansas Razorbacks was the quintessential Vanderbilt game of the past 55 years, and yet it felt so distinctly different from every other signature Vandy face-plant that's been etched into the public memory since the 1950s, the decade when this program began its long and particularly intimate dance with Lady Futility. How does one come to grips with the pain of a 31-28 loss to a startlingly average third-best team in the SEC and yet point the way to brighter days ahead?

The answer, the solution, is simple: Acknowledge the bad and the good, pointing the way to the goals that need to be reached under head coach James Franklin.

You don't need to be told anything you don't already know after this ashen-faced ending at Vanderbilt Stadium. You don't need to be dragged through the specific events that turned a likely 15-point lead into a flat-footed tie, and which transformed an extremely possible victory into an almost-certain overtime and then, devastatingly, into a regulation-time defeat which made life easy for headline writers across the United States. You know that the result of this game screamed those three familiar words in capital letters – "SAME. OLD. VANDY." – but you know just as well that this team and program have become so radically different from what Commodore fans are used to seeing.

Vanderbilt now has a coach who, like Urban Meyer at Florida, will go for first downs inside his own 30 to change the flow of a game, believing that he can draw up the plays needed to snooker the opposition and teach his special teams unit well enough to execute those plays. Vanderbilt now has an aggressive coach who, precisely because of his ill-timed timidity at the end of regulation, will rededicate himself to attacking opponents in the years to come. Vanderbilt has an offensive system and a way of proceeding that can put opposing defenses on their heels. VU didn't just outplay Arkansas for the first three quarters; it outhit and outhustled the Razorbacks, who keep winning games but are showing a sustained sleepiness which does not reflect well on the SEC's third-best squad. Vanderbilt might have been the downmarket program in this sun-soaked showdown, but it played the part of the superior team, the team that expected to win, for most of the day.

Past Vanderbilt teams didn't do this; they simply didn't create the impressions this squad has already been able to evoke. Many observers – fans and writers alike – didn't trust that Vandy would be able to close the sale against Arkansas, and they were right. However, even while taking note of the bottom-line result, those same fans and pundits had to acknowledge that the Commodores have come a long way under Franklin, the coach who has so clearly remade the subculture of the VU football family. An emergent line of thinking on the subject of Vanderbilt football is that a turnaround is not a matter of if, but when; no, this turnaround won't mean SEC Championship Game appearances, but it does mean bowl games. That's right: bowl games, plural, more than one. The basic ingredients for a football resurrection are in place at Vanderbilt.

Now, what's left to do – what remains in front of the faces of a coaching staff and a roster of players to accomplish – is to make the step from familiar results to newer, better results. This simple and obvious reality forms the basis for the salient distinctions that need to be made in the wake of Saturday's crushing loss to Arkansas.

The things that turned a possible 35-20 advantage into a three-point loss are the things that have prevented Vanderbilt from making the leap from mediocrity to merit, from frustration to fulfillment, from agony to achievement. For this very simple reason, the loss to Arkansas has to be viewed as something unacceptable. The benign and well-intentioned term, "moral victory," does indeed have to be expunged from the Vandy vocabulary, because the moral victory has to lead to real victories in order for it to matter. More than any other team sport, football is the cruelest and most demanding because – at the collegiate level – it offers only 12 occasions in which to prove oneself. The individual baseball or basketball game that slips away in the final minutes doesn't carry the same sting of a blown football game. Every big-ticket sport is a bottom-line business – college or pro – but football owns the most weight of them all. If one year's gallant near-miss against a credentialed opponent doesn't become next year's 7-5 season, the "moral victory" obviously didn't bear any fruit, which makes it anything but a victory or a cause for happiness. Yes, the mistakes and lapses that allowed Arkansas to win this game must be expunged from the Vanderbilt program in order for the Dores to thrive. Fans, administrators, students – anyone who cares about Vanderbilt football – can't proclaim that the corner has been turned unless and until the VU crew locks these games down as a matter of course.

It's true that Vandy sometimes made life difficult for Steve Spurrier at Florida. Did those moral victories in years such as 1996 and 1999 change the program? No, they didn't. It's true that Vanderbilt has taken Georgia to the last minute on multiple occasions in recent years and has prevented South Carolina from fully flexing its muscles. Have those displays of competitive parity led to multiple bowl games for the Dores? No – the 2008 Music City Bowl remains the one postseason ticket this program has punched since 1982. Vanderbilt can't eat a diet of yet more inopportune fumbles and more gacked field goals. The Commodores must find a training table where the fresh fruit of sweet victory – not the stale, artificial moral kind – is served on a regular basis. Ergo, this Arkansas game was and is – and should be treated as – a failure.

It's time to break the circular pattern of reasoning that can be invoked in these kinds of circumstances. It's easy to say, "Well, this pattern of late-game failures and crucial mistakes will end once this team gets sick and tired of losing." That's an understandable expression, and it's actually graced with an undeniable degree of logic. Any layperson knows what's trying to be conveyed in that statement. However, it's not quite what Vanderbilt players need to hear right now. The truth of the matter is simpler and more direct.

The first three quarters of this game, after all, revealed a Vanderbilt team that looked and breathed like a team that had grown sick and tired of losing. This season has been one steady and ongoing revelation of a program being changed. Players really are fighting and competing with the urgency befitting a group that doesn't want to lose anymore. The Commodores are spilling the tank and getting after it on the field, showing a fire that Bobby Johnson's teams didn't match. Let that point sink in: THIS TEAM IS, IN FACT, ALREADY SICK AND TIRED OF LOSING. THAT'S ALREADY THE CASE!

And yet…

And yet, the mistakes STILL happened. A lead was gacked away. A final drive that had the smell of success abruptly turned into a "Same Old Vandy" trainwreck. All this happened DESPITE the new attitude that James Franklin has injected into the program. Do you see the new reality being outlined here?

It's reasonable, logical and sensible to say that mistakes will stop when players get sick and tired of losing, but VU's roster has already manifested an emotional intolerance for failure. The next step in this progression is to revise the prevailing logic. No, Vandy won't solve the problems – the problems that led to this loss against Arkansas – when players get sick and tired of losing. The new way to view this situation is to say the following: "Vanderbilt will stop blowing leads and squandering advantageous positions when its players stop blowing leads and squandering advantageous positions."

In other words, players won't cease to make crucial mistakes when they get mad enough. They'll cease to make crucial mistakes when… they cease to make crucial mistakes. It all sounds like a riddle or a Zen Buddhist mantra, but it's true. You don't talk about eliminating mistakes in a bottom-line sport like football; you go about the process of eliminating those mistakes.

You exhibit maximum concentration on every snap, and actually, you elevate your level of focus when the moment is that much more important. You display better technique, better toughness, better commitment, better understanding, better film study, better nutrition, better weight training, better practice habits, better everything.

This program won't be turned around when players get mad enough; it will be turned around when it gets turned around. That's how one needs to view VU's football existence after this unacceptable loss to Arkansas… a loss that just might make the Dores realize what they need to do in order to be great in the coming years.

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