But as the rest of the 2006 season showed, Vandy's triumph over Georgia was very much the exception this year, not the rule. Against every other SEC opponent, the Dores couldn't sustain momentum or gain leverage at fragile points in the proceedings when an advantage was waiting to be claimed. The frustrating part of it all is that in almost all of those games, Vandy had shown signs of excellence, only to falter precisely when the moment demanded that the Dores elevate their level of play.
This Tennessee loss--like the rest of the season--was decided in an all-too-typical sequence that characterized 2006.
After stoning the Vols' offense in the red zone on two occasions, Chris Nickson led the Commodores on a touchdown march to give the home team a 7-6 lead at Vanderbilt Stadium. Bobby Johnson had momentum on his side, and--more importantly--a defense that had already shown the ability to play tough, hard-nosed football when placed under pressure. All the ingredients existed for a surge from the men in black against the Children of the Checkerboard. But just when Vandy had established some positive trends and had earned an edge on the scoreboard, the defense immediately relinquished that advantage. The Vols, behind three Erik Ainge passes and three runs by LaMarcus Coker, moved quickly and easily downfield for a low-resistance touchdown. In six plays that covered 80 yards and used just 2:19 of game clock, Vandy's defense forfeited the 7-6 lead the Dores had worked so hard to attain.
If it's been said once this season, it's been said a million times: not all defensive stops are created equal (same for touchdowns, too). The stop that is made right after a team gets a lead is far more important than the stop one makes when down by 12 in the third quarter. When Vandy can consistently make its biggest plays in the biggest moments, the Dores will knock the door down and become an above-.500 team in the SEC. But until then, this team won't yet see the sunshine side of pigskin passion plays in America's most cutthroat college football conference.
Mind you, this season--while ending with a defeat against the hated Vols--is not (and should not be viewed as) a lost cause, an empty trip through autumn. This team was young, and after twelve games, this inexperience inevitably and understandably caught up with the Commodores. Consider this 2006 season a learning experience for a legitimately talented bunch. Quite frankly, the fruit of this season was not supposed to be found this year, in the form of a big result or a pigskin prize (a bowl game) attached to it. No, the value of 2006 should emerge in 2007, when the Vandy program will have a great opportunity to witness the marriage of blossoming talent with valuable experience. Next year is always the theme for a losing program, but next year just might be "the year" that Vandy gets the winning season/bowl game monkey off its back.
That glorious day might happen one year from now if the Commodores learn to bring their biggest and best brand of ball to the most significant moments that emerge in a football fight. With a better sense of timing, and an awareness of the relative significance of each play in the unfolding drama that is a football game, Vanderbilt will prevail in 2007. For now, though, all that Bobby Johnson's team can do is to learn and absorb the lessons of a series of searing setbacks. Pain is the only thing that produces wisdom in this world; the pain of a season-ending loss to Tennessee could show the Commodores a pigskin path to future successes on the gridiron.