A Reputation Falls In a (Wake) Forest
There was only one piece of bad news attached to a memorable Thanksgiving weekend conquest of Wake Forest at Groves Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The completeness with which the Commodores thrashed Jim Grobe's Demon Deacons – who came within an eyelash of stealing the ACC Atlantic Division championship from Clemson – proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Vanderbilt choked against Tennessee. Yes, yes, yes, I know – you don't want to be reminded of that game. You are wondering why the parade is being rained on. However, the things we don't WANT to be reminded of in life are the things we often NEED to be reminded of. Seeing Tennessee wilt (and choke) against a bad Kentucky team underscored the extent to which the Vols were takeable this season. Vanderbilt's ability to roll through Wake Forest – a team that's slightly better than Tennessee, but which doesn't have orange uniforms and doesn't occupy residence inside Vanderbilt's collective mind – showed how the combination of rivalry-game passions and old hexes can cast a spell on a team even if it has progressed by leaps and bounds from the rubble of 2010 and the impossible situation in which Robbie Caldwell found himself. One should indeed realize that if Vanderbilt could apply an industrial-grade thumping to Wake Forest on the road, it should have been able to at least beat Tennessee as well. It's strange how the lack of age-old antagonisms can allow a young team to play a settled game and basically get out of its own way. That's what we saw in the Carolinas on Thanksgiving weekend.
Why bring up the one piece of bad news in an otherwise glorious weekend? The logic is (and should be seen as) simple: The very fact that Vanderbilt cracked in week 12 made week 13 that much harder to deal with. The 2011 version of the Commodores experienced a failure so profound in Neyland Stadium that they could have lost their focus and belief in this high-stakes season finale. Many athletes, professional as well as college, have failed to handle shattering disappointments on the order of what the Dores experienced in Knoxville. Credentialed, talented, skilled practitioners in many different sports sometimes take months or years getting over that kind of loss, that kind of punch to the gut. Everyone around the Vanderbilt program knew that after two or three games, this team was NOT "Same Old Vandy" in its everyday attitude and its holistic approach to the sport. Yet, after a Tennessee game that bore the classic mark of a Vanderbilt train wreck, it was quite possible to envision the Dores in freefall this past Saturday against Wake. It was ever so realistic to imagine Vandy slumping its shoulders and playing without the fire in the belly James Franklin has given to the program.
You've been along for the journey all year, so you know that the most essential insight – and challenge – of this season is that while Franklin has changed so much about Vanderbilt football from day one, the team still had to fight and overcome its age-old tendencies on the field. Franklin brought a different energy and a different level of confidence to the locker room and in practice sessions, but Franklin wasn't the guy who could stop the game-changing fumbles (Arkansas) or the untimely interceptions (Tennessee) or the kicking game woes (well, those really never got fixed, actually…). Who needed to put an end to "Same Old Vandy?" The players did. Franklin could motivate them and change the way they approached each moment of their existences as representatives of Vanderbilt University, but all the teaching and inspiration in the world mean little if they don't translate into improved performance when Grantland Rice's "One Great Scorer comes to write against your name." How Vanderbilt played the game was going to determine whether it won or lost against Wake Forest, and darnit, the Dores needed to clear away the negative head space generated by the Tennessee experience so that they could be at their best in a moment of supreme importance to everyone associated with VU football.
The fact that Vanderbilt so spectacularly succeeded in that endeavor marks a point of catharsis and cleansing which could begin the process of building a new reputation in Nashville… and causing the old one to fall in a Wake Forest with a loud, satisfying crash.
It's true that Vanderbilt made a bowl game in 2008, but one really doesn't need to write a long dissertation in the attempt to illustrate why this 6-6 season is so different from Bobby Johnson's bowl-bearing campaign three years ago. This year, Vanderbilt didn't storm out of the gate and then crumble over the past month of the season (with Kentucky handing VU gift after gift after gift on a chilly night in Lexington to push the Dores to the six-win mark). This season marked a more prolonged battle in which a bowl was never a likelihood. Vanderbilt didn't race to a 5-0 start the way it did in 2008. Vandy didn't hold dreams of a nine-win season the way it did in 2008. The 2011 season was a yo-yo that toyed with the mind and tested this roster's ability to find its inner Rudyard Kipling, "to meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same."
Perhaps the biggest difference between 2008 and 2011 (arguable, but certainly worthy of the distinction) was and is the fact that in 2008, Vanderbilt's margin for error was smaller in each game it played, whereas this newly potent 2011 squad usually (if not always) held the ability to uncork major-league thumpings on opponents. In 2008, Vanderbilt won only two games by more than seven points, and both of those games came against the non-SEC and non-bowl teams on the schedule (Miami of Ohio and Rice). The Dores never had the offensive capabilities which could blow the doors off their foes. They had to win by minimizing mistakes and converting key third downs while also using Brett Upson (in the Music City Bowl against Boston College) and D.J. Moore (much of the season) to become special-teams dynamos. Vanderbilt didn't possess lightning in its hand in 2008. This team, on the other hand, could strike big and hit hard, with Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy. The variance between this team's best self and its worst self was far greater than the difference between the best and worst versions of the 2008 squad. This reality made the 2011 season that much more of a challenge.
It clearly makes the max-out masterclass against Wake Forest that much easier to appreciate in all its sweetly soaring fullness.
Now, perhaps, a Music City Bowl (probably against Virginia) can be won without a punter being the MVP. Now, perhaps, the 2012 season can become a time when a team with a capable offense can establish a habit of getting out of its own way. Now, perhaps, a team with lightning in its hand can deliver thunderbolts as a matter of practice.
Now, perhaps – at long last – Vanderbilt's football reputation can die so that a new identity can live. James Franklin's players finally chased away a demon this past weekend. If Franklin sticks around for a long time, the exciting thing to consider for the VU family is that it doesn't know exactly where this program's limits might exist.
How's that for a summary to a just-concluded regular season?
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