Downfall or Clarion Call?

It's only week three of the still emerging football season, and yet, the Vanderbilt Commodores find themselves back in the future, confronting the long and tortured period that preceded last year's bowl-bearing bounty of blessings.

Dorothy, you're not in 2008 anymore.

A noble loss at LSU in a night game did little to dampen the enthusiasm surrounding this program, fresh from the 7-6 season that gladdened the hearts of Vandy people far and wide. As the Johnson Boys took to the gridiron on home turf Saturday evening in Nashville, a win over lowly Mississippi State figured to restore order, and keep the Good Ship Commodore sailing steadily on the high seas of the Southeastern Conference.

But as the sun sets on the final days of summer, the Vandy ledger does not stand at two up, one down. No, the VU crew owns a 1-2 record after being bulldozed by the Bulldogs and new coach Dan Mullen. The ugly 15-3 defeat at Vanderbilt Stadium was the kind of cringe-inducing, groan-provoking, I've-seen-this-movie-before train wreck that is known all too well in these parts. In the course of one Murphy's Law night, the memory of 2008's magic carpet ride no longer stood as a sign of things to come. Remembrances of recent triumphs instead created a tormenting awareness of how hard it will be to recapture such glory, this season and beyond.

This writer was quite cautious about expecting a bowl bid in 2009 before the season kicked off, but one of the foremost goals mentioned in the season preview was to take care of business against the little guys, the teams VU should expect to beat. Mississippi State was one such ballclub.

Last year in Starkville, the Dores brought a No. 13 national ranking to Scott Field, and played customarily great defense. The only problem was that VU left its offense at the team hotel, accumulating just 107 total yards, 45 rushing yards, and 23:48 in time of possession, with two turnovers thrown into the mix. A 17-14 loss didn't prevent the Dores from reaching—and winning—the Music City Bowl, but the game reminded Vandy of its limits by shattering the notion that the program was worthy of a higher-rent-district bowl, such as the Chick-Fil-A extravaganza in Atlanta.

As the chill winds and rains of Autumn await, a frosty feeling now permeates the Nashville air: Not only will this team fail to make the Chick-Fil-A Bowl; if things don't get fixed in short order, Vandy could return to college football's homeless population, the underclass of teams who munch on Chick-Fil-A sandwiches every holiday season while other teams live the good life.

Is this an overly dramatic approach to Saturday's stinker? The facts make it hard to look at the situation in any other manner.

The 2008 slip-up in Starkville was repeated this past weekend on home soil: Vandy's defense did its very best to keep this contest competitive for the first 56 and a half minutes, but the offense remained in the locker room. VU tallied just 157 total yards (only 50 more than last year against the Bulldogs), 33 rushing yards, and 21:51 in time of possession, plus two more turnovers. Even more agonizing for Bobby Johnson and every Vandy fan was the fact that the Dores' only points of the evening came on a drive start at the MSU 6, which was followed by three failed attempts to produce a touchdown. For all intents and purposes, this was a thorough whitewashing of an offense that should struggle against LSU, but should have produced a respectable point total against Dan Mullen's men, who surrendered 49 points at Auburn the week before.

Here's the finer point about this loss: It's not as though a blowout was expected or required; limitations at wide receiver, combined with quarterback Larry Smith's relative inexperience, suggested that VU's offense would not flourish. That said, MSU's frailties on defense indicated that Vandy would be able to gain a fair share of success in a 60-minute slugfest. This 2009 season, in which VU now walks the SEC earth with more of a bulls-eye on its back, was not going to be easy, but part of being a big(ger) boy in college football means that one has to stand tall and tough against inferior foes. Mississippi State was an opponent Vandy had to solve this time around; that the Dores not only failed to do so, but actually regressed compared to last season (and on home turf, no less!), represents a miserable mess, a ghastly regression to a not-so-distant past that 2008 briefly blotted out, but can no longer hold back.

Yes, the bad juju is back at Vanderbilt, at least for this week. The psychic blow associated with this loss is considerable. On a day when rival Tennessee was happy to lose a football game, and was content to run the ball on 3rd and 19, Vanderbilt fans hoped to eclipse the Children of the Checkerboard and show that, for once, they could play a little more offense than Jonathan Crompton ever could.

Nope—guess not.

The season's still young, and Rice could offer a get-well tonic in week four, but who are we kidding? The SEC remains the gold standard by which performances are measured in the Southeastern United States, and for Vandy to perform a second straight face-plant against a league Dore-mat is hard to fathom… well, that is, if you're anyone other than a Vanderbilt fan.

Some Hollywood folks need to get hold of Bobby Johnson, and demand an immediate rewrite of this emerging screenplay; otherwise, the 2009 campaign will become a movie—a graphic, haunting horror flick not safe for little children—that Vanderbilt partisans have endured far too often in a past that, sad to say, is no longer entirely dead and buried.

The ghosts are out of the grave. It's time for these Commodore backs, receivers and offensive linemen to defeat their worst demons… and the beatable teams that remain on this year's schedule.

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