The Front-Dore Season
In 2009, everyone around the Vanderbilt football program hoped that the winning season and bowl victory generated by the 2008 squad would translate into sustained momentum and performance. While it was, on one level, reasonable to think that Larry Smith had the tools to become a shifty playmaking quarterback, it's clear with the benefit of hindsight that the 2009 Commodores were not in position to take the pigskin version of a Great Leap Forward. Former coach Bobby Johnson cultivated an environment rich in elbow grease but bereft of slick and sleek athletes who could deliver a lethally smooth potency to VU's offense. It didn't help that play selection wasn't aggressive enough, but then again, when you lack thoroughbreds, it's not as easy or advisable to take chances with an offensive package and the patterns of play calls that flow from it.
When the 2009 Vanderbilt football team failed in its attempt to build on what the 2008 squad accomplished, few people in and around college football were surprised. The 2008 VU crew scratched and clawed for its SEC wins and its Music City Bowl triumph over Boston College. The Dores didn't win fights by TKOs; they outpointed the opposition in lengthy bouts laden with drama and tension. The program's fortunes thrilled the fan base, but the long-term strength of Vanderbilt football remained hard to ascertain and, ultimately, insubstantial. Roughly a year and a half after leading VU to a bowl win, Johnson retired. Notions of a glorious and prolonged gridiron ascendancy in Nashville quickly turned to ashes, with the delightfully colorful Robbie Caldwell – bless his heart – serving as the backdrop to a 2010 season in which the program wasn't taken seriously. In two short years, Vanderbilt found itself in a pre-2008 position, looking for sustained (and sustainable) growth, still in search of a new plateau of performance.
Look what has changed inside the walls of the university often thought by state-school big boys (and other parachute-in-every-now-and-then commentators) to be unworthy of continued membership in the Southeastern Conference.
Vanderbilt, for the second time in four years, finds itself emerging from a six-win (i.e., non-losing) regular season and a cherished lower-tier bowl bid in its home state. For most SEC schools, 6-6 and a Liberty Bowl doesn't amount to much, but for the Dores, that kind of season is a very big deal at this point in the program's evolution. Mindful of what happened in 2009 and 2010, however, the immediate return to this intersection of hope and pressure certainly raises the stakes for VU in 2012. Dorothy, you're not in 2008 anymore.
It's clear that the 2011 season has raised expectations for the Vanderbilt football family. This time, an encouraging bowl-bearing campaign has been accompanied by a significant upgrade in recruiting. Coach James Franklin has managed to do what VU administrators always dreamed of: sell Vanderbilt's position in the SEC and the college football world as a reason to make history, a reason to strive for greatness. The attitudinal shift in and around the program has been unmistakable. Moreover – this is part of the influence of good coaching – the way in which Franklin has attacked the recruiting trail has spilled into the way his players approach practice and, most importantly, gamedays. Franklin's recruiting pitch is aggressive, and his game plans are exactly the same. His coordinators, especially John Donovan on the offensive side of the ball, have incorporated a marked degree of forcefulness into the way the Dores fight their foes. Play calling is chess playing, but it's also an extension of a mindset; that's one of the fascinating things about coaching, a reason why coaching is so central to success in football, more so than in other sports.
Vanderbilt, by approaching the 2011 season the way it did, began to change perceptions about its identity. To put a finer point on this line of expression, Vanderbilt's attitude and modus operandi did more to raise eyebrows than the six-win regular season itself. Sure, choruses of "Same Old Vandy" rang out after the Arkansas loss (and not without some degree of justification), but the way in which VU hounded the Hogs left a mark on the public imagination throughout the SEC. Sure, Vanderbilt failed to display ball security at crucial junctures in that contest (failing to hold onto the greasy pig will cause Razorbacks to escape), but the Commodores had not played with such verve and flair in quite some time. The totality of the 2011 regular season was, in terms of raw results, not that different from 2008, but the way in which Vanderbilt arrived at the .500 mark and an in-state bowl game was so diametrically opposed to the travel plan created three years before under a previous coaching regime.
To underscore the differences between 2008 and 2011, consider how each regular season ended. Discouraging losses to Tennessee marked each journey, but whereas the 2008 Commodores ran out of gas at Wake Forest, managing only 10 points in a portrait of anguished, impotent desperation, the 2011 team flexed its muscles and thumped the Demon Deacons, 41-7. The 2008 team needed special-teams gold (three roughing the punter penalties from Kentucky) to dig out its sole win of the second half of that season (the one that put the team over the hump and into the Music City Bowl). The 2011 edition of the Dores hammered Kentucky and Wake to bust into the bowl fraternity instead of stumbling into the postseason. The personalities of VU's two most recent bowl teams are far more noticeable for their contrasting elements than for any similarities they might own.
The scene and the table are set for 2012. Far more than in 2009, Vanderbilt football knows it now holds a little bit of lightning in its hands. Far more than the follow-up to the 2008 season, this next chapter in the life of the program knows that 2011 has changed the equation. A bloodbath ending in regression and retreat, a 5-7 season that features more wobbles than last year, will create even more of a psychic wound in the locker room. The costs of (comparative) failure are higher compared to 2009. A message, a recruiting pitch, a way of proceeding – they're going to be tested this year with potential consequences for the ways in which future recruits see Vanderbilt football.
Is momentum going to be sustained this year? Will confidence increase this year? Will growth be witnessed this year? These are the central questions of 2012 on a larger level.
Will a winning regular season be achieved this year? Will "Arkansas 2011"-style collapses be flushed out of the program's system this year? Most importantly, will Tennessee finally be taken down on home soil in Nashville this season, for the first time since 1982? These are the main queries of 2012 on a more immediate and targeted plane of concern.
Both sets of questions can ultimately be connected to the image established at the beginning of this piece: Sneaking up on the rest of the competition in one delightful sojourn of a season is one thing; winning games as a marked team, a more scrutinized gameday opponent in a subsequent season packed with pressure and consequence, is another matter altogether. Vanderbilt snuck through the back door in 2011, much as it did in 2008. Can the VU crew deliver the front Dore season in 2012 that it couldn't produce in 2009?
Kickoff against South Carolina – like the rest of this exciting yet scary leap into the future – awaits.
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