Is the Bowl Half-Full or Half-Empty?

The usual test of the tension involving optimism and pessimism is, "Is the glass half-full or half-empty?" When Vanderbilt football, circa 2008, is concerned, change the glass into a bowl. After a tough loss to Wake Forest, a 6-6 season feels like a bowl full of half-victories.

It's time to think about the just-ended 12-game odyssey before turning one's attention to a postseason contest in either Nashville, Memphis, or Shreveport.

The good news is that Vandy is not shrouded in total, gut-twisting darkness. For once, there's a December (maybe a January if it's the Liberty Bowl) in VU's football future. No one should want to turn down this bowl bid because of a .500 season that could have been--and should have been--better. (At least Duke or Mississippi State! Ack!) Merely being able to experience a postseason game, even if it occupies a low place in the pecking order, marks a huge step forward for this program. Getting extra practices, while absorbing the strange sensation of playing for a championship of some sort, will give the underclassmen on this roster a taste of things to come. This team's travels through 2008 have not been artistic, but at the end of the day, this has been VU's best year of football since 1982, and no one can take that away from Bobby Johnson's bunch.

The bad news, while not as bad as 1983-2007, still exists in Commodore Nation. The winnable games, the beatable opponents, and a down year for the SEC could not produce a winning regular season, not even after a 5-0 start. Quarterbacks who at times looked brilliant could never sustain that excellence for very long. Days when even modest offensive production would have led to a victory were met with abysmal performances that turned 9-3 or 8-4 into this break-even campaign. Yes, 6-6 beats 5-7 by a country mile, but oh, the gap between 6-6 and 7-5 is almost as great. A lot of pain fell off the backs of Vandy diehards this season, yet so much agony remains after a disappointing two-game finish against Tennessee and the Demon Deacons.

What's the biggest negative to emerge from the 2008 season? All in all, this correspondent thought--really and truly--that the Kentucky win would lead to a transformed mindset. Once Vandy crossed its first and biggest threshold--the six-win mark that hovered over the program like a black cartoon raincloud for a solid quarter-century--this sportswriter felt that the Dores were going to avoid beating themselves. They didn't have to turn into a Florida point-scoring machine (and weren't expected to). All Vandy needed to do in order to beat Tennessee was to flip the kind of script that unfolded against the Dukies and the team no longer coached by Sylvester Croom: Peform routine plays reasonably well at the important times. All VU required was the ability to avoid the killer mistakes on offense that have sabotaged this team in the past. That was a reasonable and attainable expectation: Get out of your own way, and make Tennessee beat you. Get out of your own way, and make Duke beat you. Get out of your own way, and make Mississippi State beat you.

The Dores instead acted like the lead singer of the Doors, Jim Morrison: They threw away so much promise despite their many gifts.

As the Wake Forest finale showed, Vandy--like Morrison himself--didn't lack energy or competitive vigor, a constant and encouraging theme to emerge from 2008. No, what the Dores failed to grasp was the need to be prudent in certain situations.

It's not that Mackenzi Adams threw a pick; it's that he threw the interception deep in Wake territory right after making a huge play.

It's not that Vandy's Jeff Jennings fumbled; it's that he fumbled on the Demon Deacons' side of the field, one play after the Dores recovered a fumble of their own.

It's not that Vandy's defense allowed a first-half touchdown on a night when they definitely played well enough to win; it's that they allowed the touchdown on a 98-yard drive following the Adams interception.

Vandy, this writer truly thought, had finally learned how to win--for keeps--when Kentucky had been conquered. "Same Ole Vandy" had been banished at least to a certain extent when the program reached win number six, but now, the old and tormenting phrases clearly still apply... at least on a basic level. Looking at Kentucky's own brutal finale against Tennessee (Vandy and the Wildcats both remain under Tennessee's spell, as this year proved beyond all doubt), it would be very hard to deny the realization that Kentucky--with its three roughing-the-kicker penalties and other astounding blunders--did a lot to help along the Dores. Yes, Vandy snatched a golden opportunity instead of giving it away in Lexington, but the larger point should be clear: Vandy still can't win a game against a comparable opponent when that opponent doesn't shoot itself in the foot to a considerably greater degree.

Want to debate this point? Miami-Ohio and Rice were inferior teams. Vandy's four other wins--all in the SEC--came against a South Carolina team that was massively disorganized in week two; an Auburn team that, as we all saw, imploded and performed far below its preseason expectations; an Ole Miss team that committed a truckload of turnovers; and the penalty-prone Wildcats.

One of these years--and this seems to be the remaining test Vandy needs to pass in order to become a consistent winning program--the Dores need to play a comparable SEC foe, absorb its best punch, and still win. In other words, continue to fight like hell on defense, but make big plays on offense, convert clutch kicks, and prevail without the benefit of a tidal wave of gifts. Yes, good defenses get turnovers, but on some days, good defense simply means holding down an opponent and keeping the score low, as was the case against both Duke and Mississippi State. The Dores couldn't win on those days because they failed to generate enough production on their own, without help from someone else.

It all comes down to this: Unless you have Oklahoma's offense or USC's defense, you're going to need to be good on both sides of the ball in order to be a consistent winner in college football. Vandy's clear weakness was that its defense--and D.J. Moore on both special teams and offense--did far too much of the heavy lifting. The deficiencies at quarterback, on the edges, and on the offensive line were all exposed before this regular season concluded. It's not about any one player, as exasperating as the quarterbacking has been for VU; it's more a reflection of the fact that when one player or one specific phase of this offense faltered, other players couldn't compensate... not enough, at least, to bring about a 7-5 or 8-4 season. Yes, it's frustrating that Bobby Johnson and offensive coordinator Ted Cain didn't find better pieces in this puzzle, but one also has to step back, take the long view, and appreciate the difficulty of both finding and assembling perfectly compatible parts at a program that has only known losing for two and a half decades. Vanderbilt football--like Rome--wasn't built in a day.

So while there's some negative energy to be flushed out of the system, try to look beyond the final two games of 2008, plus the Duke and MSU setbacks.

Ask yourself: "In August, would I have taken a 6-6 record?" Darn straight you would have.

"In August, would I have accepted a 4-4 SEC mark?" You betcha.

"In August, would I have been content with the Meineke Car Care Wheed Whacker Podunk Bowl against a ho-hum Big Ten team, a Conference USA team, or a Mid-American Conference team?"

Yes. And don't try to lie about it.

That's one of the undeniably fascinating yet difficult elements of big-time sports. When certain thresholds (six wins) are reached, expectations and mindsets change for fan bases. Yes, 6-6--as big a a deal as it was for this program--nevertheless felt a little empty due to the winnable games that weren't claimed. When seeing how the full SEC season shaped up, those three failures against Tennessee, Duke and Mississippi State prevented Vandy from having (yes, it has to be said just because it was so realistically attainable in hindsight) THE FOURTH-BEST RECORD IN THE SEC, behind only Bama, Florida and Georgia.

But as agonizing as it must be for longtime Vandy fans to contemplate that missed opportunity, you have to discipline yourself enough to realize that without some major generosity from the likes of Kentucky, Ole Miss and Auburn, this could have been another 5-7 season. All in all, Vandy wasn't good enough to play in a January bowl, but the Dores were good enough to get a bowl.

Commodores--alums and current VU students alike--are smart enough and wise enough to realize that in the end, Vandy deserved what it is about to receive: a lower-level bowl trip that, while not Atlanta or Tampa or Dallas, is still a bowl trip and forward-moving moment for this football program.

Is the bowl half-full or half-empty? It's not an easy question to answer.

Perhaps the outcome of the bowl game is the only way to settle the dispute.

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