I think the thing that’s made this first month of Vanderbilt football so hard to take is simple: it wasn’t supposed to be like this anymore. When the previous coach started in 2011, my ambition for year one was “more than 2 wins” and I was hoping for bowl eligibility by year 3. Instead, we started out 3-0, could have finished 10-2 if half a dozen plays had broken the other way, and wound up in a bowl immediately. Vanderbilt football was coming off back-to-back 8-4 seasons capped by bowl wins to get to 9 – literally as good as the football program had ever been. And then Mason shows up, and we’re assuming yes, there’s going to be a lot of new talent, but the non-conference schedule is squishy-soft and the SEC East is the easier division by far, so we should still clock six wins, right?
The absolute defenestration at the hands of Temple might have been the single worst loss in Vanderbilt football history: an orgy of complete bed-shitting that saw the starting QB pulled after going 4 for 6 and replaced with two ineffectual quarterbacks who failed to deliver a single offensive point through two games. Blame it on the repeated lightning delays and the ridiculous 10 PM start if you must, blame it on a squad that to this point has played 30 true or redshirt freshmen, or blame it on a coaching staff that through three games looked absolutely lost and over their heads and got their one win by virtue of a UMass kicker who pulled a 22-yard field goal attempt wide.
But here we are, 1-3 and only now looking good, and that’s thanks to a pair of blazing kickoff returns for touchdowns that let us cover the spread on ranked South Carolina. We had a win that felt like a loss and now a loss that feels like a win, and we’re back to the money line as defining a successful performance…
Same. Old. Vandy. It wasn’t supposed to be like this any more, but it only took about thirty minutes of football to set back three years of work. Right on cue, here was literally everyone in the college sports media jumping on the pile, dying of eagerness to proclaim that things were back to normal, that Vandy had returned to its accustomed place. And you want to push back, you want to scream, you want to punch somebody in the dick, but what can you say or do? Because we did exactly that. We went backward to the level of the Robbie Caldwell year. We looked like a football team that never heard of football. And the ridiculousness – the godawful uniform fracas complete with an email printout, for the love of God, we had a permission slip – or burning Wade Freebeck’s redshirt for the sake of one quarter against UMass (to be fair, he played well in relief in the Carolina game and may have to do so again), or the decision to put the game against Ole Miss in the Titans stadium for the sake of selling 3,000 extra tickets (all to Rebels fans) and then having people unable to get to their seats until the second quarter, and now the revelation that Brian Kimbrow (who has known knucklehead tendencies) has been indefinitely suspended and Jordan Cunningham has taken an indefinite leave of absence…
It’s a bad look. It’s a horrible look. It makes Vandy football look worse than bad – it looks incompetent. A team that can’t get out of its own way, a team committed to running a precision passing game with freshman receivers and inexperience quarterbacks when the running game is gashing defenses for regular reliable first downs, and a team – to put it bluntly – that looks like all its mojo was carried off to Happy Valley to be part of the Penn State Get Right Quick whitewash. Back to the basement. Normal service has been restored.
This, then, is the challenge for the Commodores. Not only to get back to the heights of mediocre, in the most challenging conference in football, while still actually sending kids to class and enforcing the law (looking at you, Florida State), but to get people to take us seriously in a world where back-to-back nine-win seasons couldn’t do the job. I don’t envy Derek Mason the uphill climb. It’s going to be a steep one, and no matter what they tell you in movies and fairytales, you don’t every time get to the top just because you try hard and believe in yourself. And it’s an awful long way to fall.