Eager to showcase a better product on the field and make a bowl game, Vanderbilt approached the 2016 football season with high expectations. Last year’s 4-8 record partially belied the reality of the 2015 Vanderbilt team--a team with a gritty defensive front, agile and tenacious linebackers, and young and talented defensive backs. Unfortunately, that 4-8 record also partially captured our true identity. We were a team plagued by offensive incompetencies, turnovers, and an all-around lack of discipline. At the end of the day, poor situational play and a disregard for ‘the little things’ doomed the Commodores in close games. As a result, fans could only resort to talking about our team in the conditional tense, venting about all the "ifs," "should haves" and "could haves."
We should have beaten Western Kentucky. We would have won if the game were later in the year.
If we could just erase three plays, we win that Georgia game. We looked great that day.
Had the referees not made that ridiculous Kick Catching Interference call against Ole Miss, we could have had that upset.
We should have easily beaten South Carolina...had we just turned the ball over three times instead of five.
Of course, after missing three of his previous four kicks, Florida’s kicker (Austin Harden) hits his longest kick all year (43 yards) against us to win the game.
These were five games that could have gone our way that did not. If Vanderbilt had played elite situational football, they would have been looking at seven to nine wins. Even average situational ball would have positioned the team for five or six wins and a bowl game. But none of that happened.
We all knew Vanderbilt was just a couple of steps away from being a good team. This was a team that went from rock bottom in 2014 to half way there in 2015. It was more than reasonable to assume the team would make substantial improvements in 2016. Returning the majority of the offensive line as well as the team’s leading tacklers from the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Vanderbilt returned sixteen total starters--the second most in the conference.
On paper, Vanderbilt displayed much greater depth than in previous years, and members of the media were recognizing the ‘Dores as a serious threat to pull off some upsets in the East. To further this belief, Vanderbilt fans believed that in Kyle Shurmur they had a game-managing quarterback that would have been enough to lift last year’s team to a successful bowl season. In addition, Vanderbilt was dealt a propitious schedule that lent itself to a manageable path to a bowl game. With Houston off the out-of-conference schedule, winning all four non-SEC games was entirely conceivable. Taking a couple of SEC games in a very-down-SEC East that includes Kentucky, South Carolina, and Mizzou also seemed like a lock (no pun intended). Five wins sounded like a low-ball prediction, and seven was not stretching it.
But as we all know, the first weekend of the college football season often dismantles and invalidates months of preseason speculation. We learn a lot in that first week. Given that that one week is the only basis of judgement, we almost inevitably convince ourselves that our football teams are merely what they displayed in those 60 minutes of play. We believe that there is no chance that that one game was an inaccurate representation of our team. And if it was, there is no way to prove that until next week. Thusly, we overdramatize. Texas is back. Watch out for the U. USC would go winless in the SEC West. Oklahoma is done. Houston is a true contender. Nick Chubb will win the Heisman. You get the point.
Week 1 of college football screams premature judgements, and nearly everyone, myself included, jumps to conclusions that we later laugh at.
With Vanderbilt, such conclusions were prematurely made after that first game. I understood that it was just one game of many, but for Vanderbilt, it seemed hopeless. Every step of progress that one would reasonably expect was instantly shattered by that 13-10 loss to South Carolina.
It simply looked too familiar. Another close game in which the Commodores played down to their opponents, missed a field goal, and blew a lead. Of course the football gods enabled an opposing kicker to hit a game-winning 55 yard field goal. If it were against any other team, no way he hits that. Against Vanderbilt? No surprise.
Making matters worse, South Carolina was breaking in a new coach and quarterback on the road. We lost to a team amidst a ‘rebuilding’ phase. It hurt. The cause to the pain went far beyond the plus one in the loss column and far beyond the fact that South Carolina was objectively a below-average SEC team. It hurt because nothing had changed. We lost against a weak SEC team in the most Vanderbilt way possible. We failed the eye test. The offense remained anemic, and a stingy, relentless defense could not make up for that. Worst of all, the ghastly phrase "same old Vandy" populated our twitter feeds--much of its usage coming from our very own. It was shameful, self-loathing, and embarrassing. It especially hurt, though, because people used the phrase justifiably. Like I said, nothing had changed. All of that optimistic speculation before the game was merely that: optimistic speculation.
Skip forward two weeks, and matters worsened. Breaking .500 with a win over Georgia Tech would not have fully restored hope, but it certainly would have been a positive step toward doing so.
The Yellow Jackets clobbered us. Sure, the triple option is the ultimate wild card in college football, but with Vanderbilt’s defense never coming into question before then, allowing 38 points was startling. That game kindled the realization that not only can we not rely on our defense, but also that the defense may not be what we built them up to be in our minds.
Compared to 2015, the offense moved the ball less liberally but also limited turnovers. Those two facts essentially negated each other to equate to a similar offense to 2015’s. The defense seemingly disappeared, though. Twenty-four points allowed against MTSU, followed by an apparent lack of preparation for Georgia Tech did not sit too well.
At that point, the 2016 Commodores lagged behind last year’s team. Nearly universally, fans took to twitter to express their disappointment and anger with the program. I personally felt a growing apathy toward the program that mirrored that of the more fair-weather fans. Thankfully, though, Derek Mason never gave up. He had a vision for his team, and he continued to see it through. The nasty aspersions cast upon him, the talk about the hot seat, and the general calamity that the fans were expressing never deterred him from giving everything he had to his players and the university.
The season could have turned into another 2014, but Mason never quit, and nor did his players.
There was no better way to confirm this fact than the overtime victory over Western Kentucky. Sure Western Kentucky should have been an automatic win from the start, but Vanderbilt showed fight that day. Among all of the negativity and doubt, Vanderbilt never allowed the scoreboard to discourage them. When down late in the fourth quarter, Kyle Shurmur blessed Commodore Nation by orchestrating a miraculous one-minute drive topped off by a beautiful time-expiring touchdown leap by none other than Ralph Webb. This forced overtime, but it also forced us to believe. When Western Kentucky failed to convert on a game-determining 2-point conversion, we had won the game. Vanderbilt won a close game--in overtime! If that day did not show mental toughness, then I do not know what would.
Maybe the team hasn’t given up hope. Maybe we can win close games. Maybe we are better than the 2014 team after all.
The Florida and Kentucky losses were once again rough. Not as debilitating as the first two, but just enough to convince the world that Vanderbilt is still in the bottom three of the SEC. Western Kentucky, Florida, and Kentucky marked a three game stretch in which Vanderbilt played to its opponents. By no means were the UF and UK losses rewarding, but at least they signified that we were closer to the 2015 team than that forgettable 2014 one.
So we play to our opponents, and when they are bad enough, we can pull off the win. If they are any good, though, we know what to expect.
On October 15th, we played Georgia at their homecoming. All three of their elite running backs were healthy, and unsurprisingly, the Dawgs were favored by two touchdowns. At the time, Georgia was just outside of the top 25, and they were coming off of a two score victory over a South Carolina team that beat us. If it were not for an epic comeback and lucky hail-mary two weeks prior, they would have defeated a Tennessee team that was ranked 11th at the time. I can only imagine Georgia would have entered the Vandy game top 20 if they had held onto that lead on Tennessee.
Knowing this, expectations were low going into the Georgia game. ESPN gave Georgia over a 66% chance over us at the start and an 82.2% chance of winning the game heading into the fourth quarter.
Despite the fact that we stopped Georgia’s running backs nearly as well as an NFL team would have, we still found ourselves down 16-10 early in the 4th. With big plays by Kalijah Lipscomb and Ralph Webb, and a touchdown run by Khari Blasingame, we managed to take the lead early in the 4th quarter. From then on, we never looked back. Zach Cunningham won the game with a legendary tackle in which he essentially completed a rep on the back row machine, pulling Isaiah Mckenzie back away from the first down line on a 4th and 1 sweep to the outside.
Many would call beating Georgia 17-16 a turning point, but I would consider it more of an emblem of hope--a signal that the football gods are not out to get us.
Maybe the football gods do not even exist. Maybe there is something called luck that just had not gone our way yet.
I say this game was not the turning point because I was not per se impressed by how we played that day. Something about the Georgia game felt different from the start, but when it comes to cold-hard facts, Georgia outplayed us that game. They compiled 421 yards to our 171, they never turned the ball over, and they even converted at a higher rate on 3rd downs than we did. Vanderbilt made up for that by winning on special teams.
Details to how we pulled off the upset aside, this victory marked a significant day for Vanderbilt football. The University of Georgia carries great respect in the college football sphere, and beating the Dawgs always justifies celebration. With all that we had experienced in similarly close SEC games, it was easy to write us off at the end. I was giving Georgia an 80% chance of winning when we had reached the final couple of minutes (remember we were winning at the time), but when we defeated an SEC powerhouse in a close game, my doubt was left behind in exchange for euphoria. There were very few moments in which I was prouder to be a Commodore than the time we ruined Georgia’s homecoming.
Two weeks later at Auburn felt like the true turning point in the season for me. We went into enemy territory against a top 10 team and played competitively from start to finish. Kyle Shurmur looked elite, and Vanderbilt looked like a legitimate top 25 team. If there is a such thing as a moral victory, it is going to Auburn, outplaying them for a large portion of the game, and nearly ending their season’s hopes. Against Georgia we showed that we could win, and against Auburn we demonstrated that we could play. After the Auburn game, I believed that Vanderbilt SHOULD win-out.
I swear, Kyle Shurmur looked like Tom Brady before that final throw. He had ice in his veins on those third downs, and wow we are good. We are like a top SEC West team playing in the SEC East. We have really turned the ship around.
Or did we?
Heading into that Mizzou game, Vanderbilt was riding a wave of momentum. The team was flaunting a rejuvenated swagger that seemed impossible for the struggling Mizzou squad to overcome, and Andy Ludwig had finally found a way to accentuate his player’s strengths.
Nonetheless, Mizzou defeated the Commodores by more than Auburn did (26-17). If there was one SEC game all season that I expected to win, it had to be that one. Coming off of double digit point losses to Kentucky and South Carolina, Mizzou’s chances of upending the new-look Commodores seemed implausible to nearly everyone outside of the Vegas odds-makers and Mizzou fans.
Totalling 481 yards, Missouri’s offense clicked on all cylinders, though. Drew Lock made his reads, Damarea Crockett almost single-handedly outran the entire Vanderbilt offense, and J’Mon Moore--who had previously been considered not much more than a solid first-target--emerged as a top wide receiver in the SEC. The Tigers’ ferocious pass-rush forced Shurmur into his only multi-interception game of the regular season, and they proved to be too effective on the crucial third downs that determined the game. At this point, the Auburn performance acted more as a tease than anything else.
Maybe Auburn wasn’t a turning point. Maybe we just play to our opponents every game, ultimately to blow it in the end. The Georgia game was a fluke. I mean, after like ten SEC games decided by one possession, we were due for one win. We are not the worst team out there, but we are pretty bad.
Next was Ole Miss. Making a read on Ole Miss presented difficulties as they were breaking in a true freshman quarterback in Shea Patterson. Considering that ESPN ranked him the top quarterback recruit in the nation and that he strung together a convincing 338 yard performance against Texas A&M the week prior, any hope that I had of beating Ole Miss once Chad Kelly went out was decimated. My confidence was so low that once Ole Miss took a 10-0 lead, I decided I had better ways to spend my time than to watch us lose. When I checked back right before halftime, I was in utter shock.
How in the world are we beating Ole Miss? What could have possibly happened since I turned the game off?
Whatever, I’ll check back in 30 minutes, and see if the game is still worth watching then.
I turned the game back on at the very end of the 3rd quarter.
31 to 10????? What is going on? What have I missed? I cannot believe that I have not been watching this game. This must be pure gold!
So I watched the fourth quarter and read the play-by-play of scoring drives to catch myself up. While I did not feel as invested or involved in that victory, it felt fantastic to know we could demolish Ole Miss. Kyle Shurmur threw for over 200 yards for a third consecutive game, and if I came to any conclusion that day, it was that any game in the SEC that does not involve Alabama was somewhat of a toss-up. I could not wait until I was back on campus to watch the Tennessee game because I knew that we could win that one.
The Tennessee game was for bowl-eligibility, state bragging rights, and national recognition.
With nineteen minutes remaining in the game, we found ourselves down 10, but still very much in the game. Those final nineteen minutes were arguably our best 19 minutes of gameplay all season. In that timespan, we won 21-0--against the seventeen-ranked Tennessee Volunteers. Tennessee fans filled up much of the stadium, but when we went on that final run, I swear that the 10,000 or so Vandy fans were louder than I had ever heard 30,000 Vandy fans sound. Tennessee became our state, and we finished the season as one of the hottest team in the SEC. Skip Bayless, Dansby Swanson, David Price, Zac Stacy, Jordan Matthews, Brandt Snedeker, Damian Jones, and nearly everyone with any affiliation to Vanderbilt took to Twitter to express how proud they were to be a Commodore that day.
The win was for all of the die-hard fans that stood by the team, all of the players that have worked their tails off all year, and for Coach Derek Mason. I swear, he had never been happier at Vanderbilt than after that win over Tennessee, and I had never been more thrilled to see our coach see the fruits of his labor. So much micro-managing, self-assessment, and heart came together in that one day when we sent Tennessee fans back to Knoxville wishing for more from their trip. In my three years at Vanderbilt, that was undeniably the most fun football game to be a part of. Any incompetence that we displayed early in the season had disintegrated. That ending made everything worth it.
And oh yeah, we were going bowling!
If I were to tell you before the season started that Vanderbilt would go 6-6, you would probably say that that sounds about right. If I were to tell you that we would defeat Georgia, Ole Miss, and Tennessee, yet fall to Kentucky, Mizzou, and South Carolina en route to that 6-6 season, I would sound ludicrous.
Following the pathetic start to the season, six wins seemed out of the picture. According to Vegas odds, the only game after the first two in which we were favored was Tennessee State (TSU). Georgia Tech was favored by 6, Western Kentucky 9, Florida 14, Kentucky 3, Georgia 14, Auburn 23, Mizzou 3.5, Ole Miss 9.5, and Tennessee 7 on Vegas Insider. In other words, Vegas, who I usually trust when it comes to empirical predictions, was giving us a 2-10 season after we lost that South Carolina game. Even before the Georgia Tech loss, our hopes had nearly sunk. After Georgia Tech, we hit rock bottom. We were like 2014 bad.
Vanderbilt orchestrated a miracle going from those first three games to those final two. We came a long way, and the Camping World Independence Bowl against an underrated North Carolina State team provided an additional opportunity to exhibit our improvements.
Unfortunately, we did not take advantage of that last game. We played horribly. Clearly nobody wished to see the year end in such a disappointing fashion, but as much as I despise losing a game of football, that one was more bearable than the rest.
We may not have accomplished much in that game alone, but at least we could walk away knowing that we accomplished something this year. We have planted the seeds. Well, actually, Mason began planting the seeds a couple of years ago. Now, the culture of winning at Mason’s Vanderbilt is spreading, and we can finally see the tree growing. It may just be a small tree right now, but the tree is visible. We are winning games, we are having fun, and we know the future is bright.
The offense still is not where we need it to be--not even close. In hindsight, it makes sense that we scored against Ole Miss and Tennessee. Everyone did against Ole Miss, and Tennessee’s defense struggled against us the year before also. Their defenses were not much better than Western Kentucky’s, and we got both of those games at home.
Defensively we were good, not great, this year. By no means did we dominate as well as the 2015 defense did, but we crumbled far less often than the 2014 defense at least. If Cunningham moves on as expected, he surely will be missed, but I think it is fair to say that we all trust Coach Mason when it comes to reloading that side of the ball.
If we add up our slightly improved offense with our slightly regressed defense, the sum is nothing special. We would expect a team that performed similarly to the 2015 team, maybe even a bit worse.
Despite this, I am telling you that as a program, we made tremendous improvements in 2016.
If there is a proper way to assess the coaching and learning of a football team other than wins and losses, it is looking at discipline, situational football, and how a team values the ball. At every level of the game, the Alabama’s and New England’s are disciplined, whereas the losing teams are not. You’ll see the Browns and Rams fail to convert on third down, lose the turnover battle, and get flagged for silly penalties.
I mean, the 5 NFL teams with the worst turnover margins right now are the Jets, Jaguars, Bears, Rams, and Browns. You can really tell a good team apart from a bad one by how much they value the ball. So when Vanderbilt went from worse than 100th out of 128 to 38th best in the nation in turnover margin, it meant something. The fact that we finished the regular season 1st in red zone defense, 2nd in red zone offense efficiency, 24th best in penalty yards called on us, and 15th in kick returning all meant something. It means we have improved. It means we are disciplined. And it means we are well-trained in all aspects of the game.
Weak teams do not have time for these details. They are too busy on getting the big picture to look satisfactory first. We are past that stage of looking like an unprepared team that does not belong. We look the part of an SEC team.
This football season, we all took a ride on a rollercoaster. 2016 was filled with ups and downs, twists and turns, and long waits. With that said, we went from all downs in 2014, to mostly downs in 2015, to half ups and half downs in 2016. Shurmur will be back and improved, Webb has announced he is returning, the receivers will be back, the offensive line will be back, and most of the defense will be back. Next season is very far away, but after what I saw this year, I think it is fair to say that Vanderbilt is on the rise and Coach Mason is the right guy for the job.