Writers Write, Players Play
You surely remember the 2005 Vanderbilt football season. You remember it for multiple reasons. You remember it because it marked the last time Vanderbilt showed signs of having a truly powerful offense at times, a credible point-scoring machine which earned the respect of SEC defenses. You remember the 2005 season because Jay Cutler made VU dangerous. He made the Commodores more equipped to trade punches in America's most cutthroat conference. He made Vanderbilt a team with an offense that demanded some attention and (actual) game planning. The 2008 season lifted VU past the bowl-game threshold, but 2005 marked the last time Vanderbilt's offense carried a little bit of lightning in its hand… the hand that flung passes from the pocket.
You also remember 2005 because it was the last time Vanderbilt went into Neyland Stadium and took down the Tennessee Volunteers. You remember 2005 because Vanderbilt was able to beat its hated big-brother presence, its loathed in-state rival with the pedigree, stadium and drawing power that have left VU in the shadows for so long. You remember 2005 because, unlike 2008 – when a bowl team stunk up the joint at home against Big Orange – the Dores maintained their composure to the end, slaying the Children of the Checkerboard in their own backyard and beginning the steady descent in the Vols' fortunes, the decline which would eventually push Philip Fulmer out of Knoxville at the end of 2008. The Music City Bowl is one of the two greatest wins for Vanderbilt over the past decade; the other one is the triumph in Neyland in 2005.
You also remember 2005 – unfortunately yet undeniably, in this case – because of what happened the week before the takedown of Tennessee. You remember 2005 because the Commodores suffered one of their classic can't-stand-prosperity face-plants at home against Kentucky. Armed with the better quarterback and the more formidable offense, the Commodores froze in the face of fulfillment, shying away from the occasion and losing to the Wildcats at Vanderbilt Stadium. The loss knocked VU's record to 4-6 in an 11-game season, eliminating the Dores from bowl contention and making a winning season impossible. Vandy would have been 6-5 if it had been able to sweep the Kentucky-Tennessee November double, but the loss to Kentucky prevented the win in Neyland Stadium from being a bowl-bearing breakthrough. The triumph over Big Orange was quite satisfying, but the loss to Big Blue detracted from the sinking of the Volunteer Navy. Skeptics – who have always possessed an abundance of ammunition when sizing up VU football in the post-Dan McGugin era – were able to point out that Vanderbilt beat Tennessee only when the pressure of making a bowl game had evaporated. Had VU entered that game against UT with a 5-5 record, the pessimistic outlook would have said that the Commodores wouldn't have delivered the goods. No one knows how the 2005 VU team would have performed if it walked into Neyland Stadium with a bowl bid on the line. It's an unanswered question which certainly haunted the Dores in the offseason between 2005 and 2006.
Do you now see why remembering 2005 is so relevant?
The point is plain after this past Saturday's thorough annihilation of Kentucky: Vanderbilt avoided one slip-up, and now it gets to face the scenario which the 2005 team never got a chance to encounter. Yes, Vanderbilt – which will have enough of a test against Wake Forest on Thanksgiving Weekend – meets its best chance to lock up a bowl bid by staring down the enemy in Knoxville. VU isn't just playing for in-state bragging rights or leverage in recruiting battles; it's playing for another Music City Bowl trip and the tidal wave of affirmation which would flow from it. Vanderbilt is playing for a bowl game's fun and festivity, but it's also playing for the December practices a bowl game brings. A win in Knoxville this year will allow James Franklin to teach his team for more weeks, instilling even more of his attitude and his football expertise into the minds of his evolving players. It's time for Vanderbilt to match the moment, to do what the program never got a chance to do six years ago at Neyland Stadium.
What's the key to this game? Consider this just-completed contest against Kentucky. Vanderbilt, instead of sulking over the garbage non-pass interference call in the fourth quarter of the Florida game, unleashed its frustrations on Kentucky. VU channeled its anger into the flow of competition, using the injustices of previous weeks to flourish all the more between the painted white lines. This was the beatdown Jay Cutler could have delivered in 2005, but didn't. This was the authoritative display which hopefully taught the Commodores an important and deceptively simple lesson: Just keep playing. Don't let the past enter the equation, don't let surrounding frustrations or media narratives cloud the gameday mindset. Just play. Allow your talents to emerge. Perform up to your capabilities. Maintain a relentless focus on execution and performance, shutting out the crowd noise to deliver optimum results.
Vanderbilt's clarity of focus and concentration was so noticeably present against Kentucky. It merely needs to be shown one more time against Tennessee. Writers will write many colorful columns this week, columns about the past; columns about the ghosts of Tennessee that have haunted the Dores for so long. Writers will write about this moment of reckoning, this rendezvous with a put-up-or-shut-up pigskin passion play as a betting-line favorite against the despised Vols. Writers will write about what this game means to a team, a program, and an ascendant first-year head coach who appears headed for great things in his career.
Yet, all those written words – while perhaps devoured with interest by you, as a reader and a consumer of commentary – need to be blocked out by the VU crew. The Commodores, to a man, don't need to soak up the drama of this game or ponder its significance. The young men who will strap on the pads and don helmets this upcoming Saturday don't need to dwell on the implications of this contest or work up a healthy hatred for a team they already loathe. The only task – the only one – for Team Franklin is to play – hard, relentlessly, with enduring resilience, and a commitment to precise execution. Excellence is its own reward and, at the same time, the best revenge. The prospect of playing Tennessee for a bowl bid isn't what should excite Vanderbilt's football team this week. The prospect of winning this game is what should stir the souls of these Commodores. Accordingly, preparing to win – preparing to pay the price and then going about the process of outworking and outmaneuvering the Vols when it counts – should be the sole aim on the practice field over the next few days.
Writers write, players play. Vanderbilt's players don't have to write about this game or dream about what it will mean; they need to author a winning narrative by performing as well as they possibly can, and nothing more.
If the Commodores are worthy of a bowl, they will prove it this Saturday… and then writers can pen laudatory pieces. Until then, the play's the thing… it's the only thing that matters for Vanderbilt University's football program right now.
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