Admittedly, CBS' "B" crew of Craig Bolerjack and Andre Ware called the game, instead of luminaries Verne Lundquist and Todd Blackledge, but the essential reality remained: the Commodores' game against the Tennessee Volunteers gave Vandy's players a chance to strut their stuff before a national NETWORK television audience. And considering that (albeit in retrospect) Oklahoma State's road upset of Oklahoma kicked off at the same time the Dores got in on in Knoxville, who knows what could have happened in this rivalry game? After all, Vandy came just two points short of last year's Tennessee team, 28-26 in Nashville.
Let's be honest: no one thought that a win was a likelihood; in the same breath, however, this rivalry game, in a rare mid-afternoon spotlight, gave the Dores a chance to put together one inspired effort, just one respectable performance, that could have placed the Vandy program in a decidedly different-and improved-light.
The question resounded throughout the Vanderbilt community: could the Dores be opportunistic enough to seize a handful of moments-even one single solitary moment-and make a somewhat respectable game out of it?
Vandy had its chances, but the outcome was no different.
After draining the clock with two decent drives to begin the contest, the Dores didn't keep the Vols off the scoreboard, but they did keep Travis Stephens and Company out of what Phil Fulmer likes to call "the Orange Zone," Tennessee's silly variation on the red zone.
Down just 6-0, the Dores had that portal of hope, after more than a quarter. Here they were, with almost a third of the game done, and they were still down just one possession. Just one big pass play from Greg Zolman, and a 7-6 lead would be theirs. One prime-time play from a big-game player and Volunteer hater, and the Dores would have gotten the slugfest-at least for three quarters, anyway-they desperately would have loved to engage in before the watchful eyes of the Eye Network. Tim Brando would have spun some colorful Vandy phrases at halftime instead of immediately launching into BCS bashing tirade.
As it was, though, Zolman and the rest of Vandy's passing offense couldn't produce that big bang with a big bomb-they never did so throughout the game. And then, when the Vols got the ball back, a fourth-and-3 conversion, followed by a touchdown, set Smokey and the rest of the hounds loose in Knoxville, as the children of the checkerboard scuttled Vandy's ship yet again. In terms of the ebb and flow of the game, that two-possession sequence told the whole story.
On a more tactical and talent-related level, Vandy lost this game specifically by being a step slow. Receivers were a step slow on passes that Zolman delivered a bit too late; defensive backs were a step too slow in their coverage of Tennessee's assortment of quick-outs and quick slants, mostly to Dante Stallworth; and Vandy was a step slow on special teams, not quite being able to make the tackle, take the right angle, and contain Stallworth, who had a huge day.
Yes, Keith Jackson and many old-schoolers like him will trumpet the truism of big uglies: "Games are won in the trenches!" To a considerable extent, that is indeed true. But Saturday's game showed that Vanderbilt's priority in the upcoming recruiting season will be to obtain three things: speed (offensively), speed (defensively) and more speed (special teams). Bob Stoops quickly built Oklahoma into something special with maniacal speed on defense; Vandy, particularly on the edges and in the backfields, needs speed on both sides of the ball.
In big football games, the great players-including but not necessarily featuring quarterbacks-make big plays because of their speed. Receivers make the extra stretch; corners and safeties make the rapid last-second close on the ball; runners burst through a tiny opening and run to daylight. Vandy needs the speed that will produce the prime-time players and Volunteer haters of the future. Until then, the SEC on CBS is not likely to grace the Vanderbilt program on very many occasions.
Memo to athletic director Todd Turner: prioritize speed when you ask Vandy's next potential head coach about his recruiting priorities. Then, and only then, will Vanderbilt football fans be able to dream of upsets of the Vols, appearances by the Lundquist-Blackledge crew in Nashville, and the ascendancy that will be within reach… if that extra step can be taken just a bit quicker by every Commodore player.
Consider Saturday's loss, then, a stepping stone in the evolution of Vanderbilt Football.