A win in Athens doesn't mean everything has been solved, but it shows that prosperity is attainable for Vanderbilt

Roughly three weeks before Election Day, it's necessary to attempt something which is extremely difficult to pull off in American politics these days: Conduct a complicated conversation. A really close road win with a superhero performance by Zach Cunningham is the kind of event which ought to feel great, but can't be allowed to mask lingering inadequacies. It's worth it to celebrate the good, but not lose sight of the bigger picture.

It's not a new or original insight: Victory makes it easy to downplay flaws and limitations. Defeat makes it similarly convenient to ignore progress or effort or various intangible improvements.

Part of the discussion following Vanderbilt's exhilarating 17-16 win Between The Hedges on Saturday afternoon is meant to balance out "the overreaction scale" and the tendency many people have to focus only on one thing, or one silo of considerations, after a given result.


The following is not a new insight, either: A moment of success -- an encounter with triumph -- can easily lead a coach or any thought leader to think that his methods don't require substantial improvement or reworking.

VU's ballsy and hard-earned win in Athens against the Georgia Bulldogs is such a complicated organism because it simultaneously validates and refutes what Derek Mason wants to do with the Commodores. This is the difficulty of putting Saturday's events in their proper context.


The case for Derek Mason's methods is very simple: He knows what he's doing on defense. Accordingly, he must lean on that defense to win games. Mason easily won the chess match -- such as it was -- against Georgia's mediocre offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. The Dores contained the Bulldogs throughout this game and won the third and fourth downs they had to claim. When Georgia and Chaney showed that formation on fourth down and one in the game's final moments, Mason wisely called timeout to give his players a more precise idea of what to expect. Mason's best player -- Zach Cunningham -- read the play perfectly while UGA running back Nick Chubb (who was supposed to block for ball-carrier Isaiah McKenzie) aimlessly moved forward, unaware of anyone he should have cleared out of the way. Cunningham was that man, but when Chubb failed to react, VU's lightning-fast linebacker produced the kind of iconic tackle which acquires a long shelf life in the public memory. One last time, Vanderbilt's defense got the better of Georgia's offense. Despite UGA's 25-play advantage (75-50) and 10-minute time-of-possession advantage (35-25), Vanderbilt had no problems stuffing the Bulldogs late when it mattered. 

Yes, this validated Mason's outlook. Defense wins games and holds a team together in tenuous times.

Yet, just as strong a case can be made that this game undercut what Mason wants to do -- and how he wants to do it. Such is the nature of a complicated conversation: It is loaded with contradictions.

Vanderbilt gained just 171 yards, under 65 on the ground. Most of VU's 17 points (10) were set up by kick returns, one of them on the opening kickoff. Those 10 points were set up by "drives" -- if you can even call them drives -- which totaled nine yards COMBINED. Yes, Vanderbilt's defense and special teams helped the offense, but that's precisely the point: It's not sustainable for the weak link of a team to receive a maximum of support from the other two units in every game. The flow of this season, like the flow of the Mason era at large, is one in which the offense simply doesn't score 30 points (or even 27) on a semi-regular basis against SEC opposition, even in the East at a time when the East has lacked depth and quality. Vanderbilt simply has to win games with 17-16 or 13-10 scores, and even then, it has shown that it can't consistently come out on the sunshine side of those (preferred) scores.

The point about SEC East ineptitude demands magnification as well.

It would be one thing if Vanderbilt was going up against a good Gary Pinkel Mizzou team. Those are gone with Pinkel retired.

It would be one thing if VU was facing a solid Rich Brooks Kentucky squad. UK is clearly worse under Mark Stoops.

It would be one thing if the Dores coexisted in the East with the 2012 versions of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, which were all really good 

No, this is as bad as the East has ever been since the adoption of split-division SEC play in 1992, and yet Vanderbilt still faces a difficult climb to a .500 record and a bowl bid. 

VU has played several games in the teens (a combined point total of 35 points or fewer) this season. This is not the outlier; it's the representative example. Yes, the way this team is constructed, it has to win these kinds of games. The perseverance of every VU player is something worth applauding -- and heartily so. No one's saying this win shouldn't be enjoyed for what it is.

Yet, this result has to be placed in a long-term context, as they necessarily must -- it's not an attempt to rain on a parade, merely to determine if a win means "turning the corner" or "causing important issues to be overlooked."

Vanderbilt coaches and players -- along with fans -- should celebrate this win. They deserve to. Walking out of Athens, helmets held high in happiness -- doesn't happen often enough to be treated as "normal business."

Let's allow that reality to exist on its own terms.

Let us also allow the big picture -- the lack of a Plan B for Vanderbilt in terms of how it wins SEC games at this point -- to not recede from view.

This is the difficult conversation Vanderbilt must have over the course of the week. It would be a terrible thing if Derek Mason uses Saturday's delightful display of Dore defense to think that he can win in such a fashion all the time, and not make the necessary overhaul his offense so clearly requires.

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