Saturday was the day of upsets in the 2006 sporting world. The great horse of 2006, Bernardini, saw Invasor race past him to pull off a major upset in the Breeder's Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. That was followed by a long day of college football upsets.
Northwestern dominated Iowa and upset the Hawkeyes 21-7. South Florida upset Pittsburgh 22-12, all but guaranteeing them a bowl bid. Maryland continued their cardiac comebacks with an upset over Clemson to remain tied with Wake Forest in their wacky ACC divisional race; the Demon Deacons upset Boston College to join the Terps at the top of the ACC Atlantic Division. Buffalo slaughtered a Kent State team that was playing for the MAC East division lead last week. Kentucky took out Georgia and virtually guaranteed themselves a bowl game. Mississippi State gave Coach Sylvester Croom an early Christmas present with an upset win over his alma mater Alabama. Houston upset Tulsa to take command of their C-USA divisional race. Arizona pulled off the upset at Washington State, and Rice edged to within shouting distance of the bowl bubble with an upset over UTEP.
There were also several near misses that would have been as astonishing as Upset beating Man O' War. Ohio State had great trouble with Illinois, and Michigan came dangerously close to having to go to overtime with Ball State of all teams.
Saturday, Vanderbilt had a perfect opportunity to join the upset pandemic. The Commodore offense outplayed the Florida defense, and the Commodore defense outplayed the Florida offense. What an inopportune time to have a near total breakdown in special teams. Two blocked punts, a breakdown in punt coverage, the disappearance of what was the conference's best kickoff coverage, and the failure to implement an onside kickoff all led to a Gator victory.
Let's go back to Friday's preview and breakdown the important criteria I listed for this game.
I mentioned that I thought the Gold Men needed to rush for 125 yards to have a chance to win. They finished with 120 yards on just 23 attempts for a 5.2 average. Sure, Jared Hawkins accounted for 35 of those yards on his only carry, but I also mentioned that Vandy might get one big run of more than 20 yards. The rushing game did its job and bested Florida's defense against the run.
I believed that Vanderbilt would have a chance only if the black and gold defense could hold Florida under 150 yards rushing on 30 to 35 rushing attempts. The Gators met their match in this game; Tim Tebow couldn't solve the Vandy front seven defenders. The Gators did run the ball 33 times, but they only picked up 128 yards for a 3.9 average. The defense against the rush did its job and gave Vanderbilt a chance to win the game.
I predicted Chris Nickson would need to have passing stats similar to those he produced against Duke with Earl Bennett enjoying a day just as productive as last season's Florida game; I added that the remaining wide receivers needed to pick up another 100 yards. Nickson simply passed for 298 yards and two touchdowns, while Bennett showed why he should join Sidney Rice as a first team All-SEC pick. Bennett, with constant double-team defenses harassing him all day, caught 13 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown. George Smith, Sean Walker, and Marlon White combined for 112 receiving yards. Yes, Vanderbilt's passing game more than did what was necessary to win the game.
I mentioned that when Leak dropped back to pass, Vanderbilt would need to force him to hurry and sack him a combined 10 times, leading to Leak throwing two interceptions. I mentioned that doing so would give the ‘Dores a chance to top 20 points, the magic number needed to beat Florida. I believed that Vandy couldn't stop the combo of Dallas Baker, Andre Caldwell, JeMalle Cornelius, and Percy Harvin. The stellar pass rush made Leak's day quite uncomfortable, as they got to him more than 10 times, forcing him to throw three interceptions and sacking him four times! They stopped three of the receiving quartet, giving them a chance to win the game.
In Friday's summary, I believed that the Commodores would have to dominate special teams play and pick up two interceptions to pull off the upset. All that great effort everywhere else was destroyed by the special teams—the unit that was on the field the least amount of time, and the unit that was heretofore responsible for some of this season's overall defensive improvement.
Alas, Florida scored an easy touchdown at the beginning of the game thanks to the first blocked punt, and that was the decisive score. The second block and the long punt return surrendered contributed to the game by greatly hurting field position and keeping the ball out of Nickson (and Bennett's) hands.
Two Wins Likely Won't Get Vandy Bowl Bid
The sad part of Saturday's outcome is that even if Vandy wins their final two games to finish the regular season at 6-6, they will not be invited to a bowl unless Kentucky loses their final three games. With one of those games a home tilt against a one-win Louisiana-Monroe team, you can already chalk up a sixth victory for the Wildcats. Here's where the math eliminates the Commodores. The Southeastern Conference has eight bowl allotments (BCS/Sugar, Capital One, Outback, Cotton, Chick-fil-a, Liberty, Music City, and Independence). If a second team is awarded an at-large BCS bid, then nine teams will get invitations. If Vanderbilt wins their final two games to finish 6-6, there will be 10 bowl eligible teams in the SEC. If Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, and Vanderbilt all finish 6-6, we all know which three schools will sell the most tickets and travel to Shreveport, Memphis, and even Nashville. All three schools regularly bring more fans to road games at Vanderbilt Stadium than the Commodores have season ticket holders.
The Poinsettia and Motor City Bowls will have at-large bids to offer, but you can forget a 6-6 Commodores' team getting an offer. San Diego is over 2,000 miles away, and there will be an extra Big 12 or Big East team more attractive to the folks in Detroit. So, the Commodores real goal is to get to 6-6, end the 23-year consecutive losing season plague, and set the stage for 2007.