The Party's Over... But the Season Isn't

The Vanderbilt Commodores ran out of magic on Saturday in Starkville, bringing a halt to the jubilation and joy that had so fully enfolded this season of renewal. Yet, while this setback will sting, the positive aspect of a three-point loss to Mississippi State is that it delivered needed clarity to the second half of VU's 2008 campaign.

Yes, the fantasies ran wild through the minds of all Vandy a-Dore-ers over the past week, and now, they won't persist. While there's a certain sadness in that realization, there's also the welcome sobriety that comes from shaking off a period of intoxication.

No, Vandy likely conquer the entirety of the SEC kingdom. No, a 10-win season isn't likely to occur. No, the top ten of the national rankings won't be cracked. Undoubtedly, dreams were dashed when the Dores absorbed a 17-14 loss to an MSU crew that, in many ways, showed last year that a downtrodden SEC program could, indeed, rise from the ashes. But with the loss of certain hopes, this program can now re-focus on its most attainable, realistic and important goals. If, one week ago, a 7-5 bowl-bearing season might have felt like a disappointment, Saturday's loss at Mississippi State makes that same accomplishment seem substantial once again. In a weird but very real and authentic way, that's a positive and healthy development. Like a splash of cold water or a big drink of coffee after a post-hangover sleep, this loss wasn't wanted or desired, but in the long run of Vanderbilt football history, it probably ranks as a turn of events this program needed.

Football coaches, throughout the decades, have always been fond of saying, "You are what you are," and so the cleansing component of this crushing defeat is that it revealed a fuller measure of the 2008 Commodores. Perhaps, in future seasons, this team can attain a 10-win tally; for a program that is certainly headed in the right direction, Vandy merely needs to maintain its forward movement to climb higher in the SEC pecking order. But for now, this is a team whose ceiling is still somewhat low. A 5-0 start (3-0 in the conference) might have given fans some false hopes and the emotional equivalent of fool's gold, but now, the blinders--perhaps acquired for this past week alone (a distinct rarity for Vanderbilt backers)--can be shelved for good. A simple winning season can once again become the golden goal everyone always said it was in Nashville. Now, Bobby Johnson's team can return to that tested truth.

The above remarks represent a somewhat philosophical take on the trajectory of Vandy's season, now at its midpoint. What, exactly, was learned about the nature and identity of the Commodores in this contest? A few points are worth noting:

1) Even in defeat, this team still gives great effort.

No one on Vandy slacked or slid through the motions. All-out intensity defined this performance, as VU's defense still shone. The Dores barely missed making huge plays on MSU's first touchdown drive, which was--actually--the Bulldogs' only sustained touchdown march. (A second MSU touchdown came about as the result of a crippling interception by Chris Nickson inside Vandy's own red zone.) A slightly better angle here, and a better-timed jump there, would have prevented MSU quarterback Tyson Lee from slithering through VU's defense to convert third downs and throw a pop-fly pass that produced six points. This game wasn't lost because Vandy snoozed at the wheel. This Commodore defense reaffirmed its credentials despite the game's ultimately unsatisfying outcome.

2) Offense, offense, offense is this team's first (and second, and third) priority.

Flowing from the previous point about solid effort and admirable intensity, the fact unearthed by this misstep in the Magnolia State is that Vandy's offensive execution is the biggest challenge facing the Dores. Yes, MacKenzi Adams provided production off the bench against Auburn, but even then, the Dores tempted fate by scoring only 14 points and hanging on for dear life against the Tigers. Vandy's defense and special teams made stacks of plays against a South Carolina team that--in early September--hadn't yet found its footing on offense. The win in Ole Miss featured a similar scenario, in which defense primarily did the deed for the Dores. This is clearly a team where the defense is carrying most of the water, with special teams making some significant contributions (mixed in with some mistakes), and the offense lagging far behind.

Offensive coordinator Ted Cain--in consultation with Bobby Johnson--needs to arrive at a better plan on gameday. The VU braintrust might want to consider something that other SEC coaches have tried, with reasonable results. LSU, despite being demolished by Florida the other night, is shuffling two quarterbacks--Jarrett Lee and Andrew Hatch--in and out of the lineup to provide defenses with different looks and styles. While it's true that Johnson re-inserted Adams into the game after Nickson proved ineffective (which was only after Adams struggled at an earlier point in the contest, meriting a quick hook), perhaps the Vandy staff needs to alternate snaps and give both Adams and Nickson specific instructions on a per-play basis. By turning Adams and Nickson into situational quarterbacks who can be coached before each new play, the Dores might acquire the combination of reliability and unpredictability they so desperately need. An attack that's currently stale, unsure of itself, and lacking in potency must find creative ways to score against a good SEC defense. This MSU loss means that--in all likelihood--VU will have to defeat either Kentucky (on the road) or Tennesse (at home) to reach the seven-win mark. While both of those teams have horrible offenses, the Cats and Vols also possess superb defenses. If Vandy's offense doesn't find new sources of production and peak performance, Vandy's only remaining win in 2008 could come against the Dukies. Kentucky and Tennessee could easily hang 17-14 defeats on the Dores, in games that looked a lot like this past Saturday's Starkville stumble.

3) Without timely turnovers produced by the defense, razor-close games are the best outcomes this team can realistically hope for.

With a low-octane offense but a defense too good to let opponents pile up points, get ready to chew on fingernails for most of the rest of the season. You might see a decisive win against Duke (and maybe one lopsided loss against an SEC big boy), but the rule of the jungle for Vandy is that tough tussles in the teens--give or take a touchdown--will dominate the rest of the slate. Aside of the need for situational creativity on offense, Vandy--in all three phases--will need to be supremely solid in tense times. Brett Upson will need to hit coffin corners precisely when field position is at a premium. Bryant Hahnfeldt--unlike the Auburn game--will have to nail a money kick at some point along the line. Ryan Hamilton and Myron Lewis will need to pluck a few more interceptions, taking advantage of suspect signal callers at Kentucky and against Tennessee... and maybe even against an inconsistent Matthew Stafford this upcoming Saturday in Athens.

Vandy fans are getting used to drama, win or lose, as seasons now have something riding on the outcomes of late-October and early November contests. In the cauldron of white-knuckle pressure, this team has to know the needs of any given moment. Everyone involved in the VU program knows that the best Saturday scenario for this team involves a bunch of turnovers forced by the backbone of the boys in black and gold. In an ideal world, Vandy would enjoy a plus-four turnover margin in each game it plays. But as Vandy fans know better than any other college football fans on the planet (except for, perhaps, Clemson fans), this isn't an ideal world. Blood pressure rates in and around Nashville will soar on Saturdays from now on; the Dores will need to reduce those rates by using attention to detail, gameday alertness, and situational smarts to make up for a lack of pure offensive firepower. It might be the use of D.J. Moore as a decoy or distraction on a kick return. It might be an adjustment of the tempo of the offensive huddle. Whatever the solution, Vandy needs to find it.

After Mississippi State put a "1" in the "L" column, a feel-good season just got more serious. There's clarity, sobriety and sanity to be found in that fact. Now that the balloon has been popped and emotions have come down to earth, some freshened focus--along with the relief that comes from shedding unrealistically high hopes--can enable this team to snag the seven wins that, in 2008, will meet with zero complaints in the Commodore Nation.

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