I hate having to be the one to do this, because it gets me labeled a sunshine pumper, a Mason apologist, an excuse-maker, or lots of other pejoratives we’ve devised for people who don’t express the appropriate amount of anger about losing.
I don’t like losing. I don’t like the current three-game losing streak. I stopped watching the Alabama loss after about the first quarter because I had better things to do than watch Alabama continue stabbing us after we were already dead.
That said, the 3-0 start did, in fact, happen and it hasn’t been completely erased by the three-game losing streak. Yes, it’s bad that Vanderbilt’s vaunted defense, which gave up 13 points, total, in the first three games has given up 142 over the last three weeks. But were we really expecting to beat Alabama, Florida, and Georgia? Do we ever?
Adam Sparks posited yesterday on Twitter that much of the negativity stems from having to play that threesome back-to-back-to-back, and I agree. Sandwich Western Kentucky or Missouri in the middle of that stretch, and there’s a good chance it’s clear that our problems are mostly related to facing elite teams (and Florida), and not anything that’s going to be a pressing issue against the rest of the schedule.
What’s been going wrong the last three weeks? Let’s take a look.
The dam has broken too often
The dirty secret of Vanderbilt’s defense in 2016 is that it was a decidedly average unit when the other team was outside of scoring range. Last year’s defense ranked 68th nationally in efficiency, 75th in explosiveness (preventing big plays, basically), and 6th in points per scoring opportunity. Once the other team got inside the 40, the defense was great at keeping you out of the end zone.
And this year? Even after playing Alabama and Georgia, which both managed to be successful on 56 percent of their offensive plays, the defense ranks 72nd in efficiency. Even after getting repeatedly gashed for big plays in the last three games, the Commodores’ defense is 80th in explosiveness. To be sure, those numbers aren’t good by any stretch, but they’re not really any different from last year’s defense.
On the other hand, this year’s team ranks 86th in points per trip inside the 40. That’s a considerable amount worse than it was last year. Of course, that number is also very heavily weighted toward the last three games: the last three opponents have generated 11 (Alabama), 8 (Florida), and 8 (Georgia) scoring opportunities. The first three opponents had five scoring opportunities combined.
And, well, Alabama and Georgia did a great job converting their scoring opportunities into touchdowns. That’s not the usual pattern for Vanderbilt’s defenses under Derek Mason. Florida did a bit less so, but they still averaged 4.75 points per scoring opportunity, which was a good deal above the 3.67 the defense managed last year. If you apply that number to the same number of scoring opportunities, Alabama wins 38-0 (still pretty bad, but not embarrassing) and Georgia wins 27-14 (which looks aesthetically a lot closer than 45-14.) Florida wins 29-24. Do you think we’re having the same conversation if we just lost to those teams by those scores?
Of course, a lot of the reason that the defense hasn’t buckled down in the red zone is because...
There have been a lot of big plays over the last three weeks
The problem with relying on buckling down when the other team gets close to the goal line is that, well, sometimes the other team makes a big play. On Saturday, Georgia had scoring plays from 33, 47, and 50 yards out. Obviously, when that’s the case, the defense doesn’t get a chance to buckle down.
Florida, too, went over the top for some big pass plays. Those didn’t necessarily lead directly to scores, but they put the defense in impossible situations: it’s one thing to try to hold the other team to a field goal on 1st and goal from the 9, and quite another to do it on 1st and goal from the 1.
I’ve heard a lot of complaints the last couple of weeks, and especially after Saturday, about the poor tackling from the defense. It’s really interesting how poor tackling wasn’t an issue against Jesse Ertz and Alex Barnes, but is suddenly an issue with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
Funny how that works, isn’t it?
Funny how the defensive front seven got mauled by Alabama’s offensive line, isn’t it?
There are two problems with this. One, as SBN’s Bill Connelly detailed earlier this year, big plays are basically the three-pointers of college football. Obviously, some of it is talent, but there’s a whole lot of randomness involved, too. Getting victimized by big plays in the last three games doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll continue to give up a lot of big plays.
For another thing, most teams don’t have Alabama’s offensive line or Georgia’s impressive stable of running backs, or even the elite arm strength of Florida’s Feleipe Franks paired with some speedy receivers. A lot of the issues that have been “exposed” the last three weeks are issues that most teams simply don’t have the personnel to exploit. If they were, they’d have been exposed already by MTSU and Kansas State. While Florida’s not a great team by any stretch, the difference between them and Kansas State is that Kansas State doesn’t really have elite athletes (Florida’s issues are, well, not a lack of athletes.)
There aren’t any elite teams left on the schedule
You might have peeked at the remainder of the schedule, but let me break it down for you.
There is not another Alabama or Georgia on the schedule. There may not even be another Kansas State on the schedule. Here’s what is left on the schedule:
- Ole Miss, currently 64th in S&P+ (and cratering), which is 2-3 and has lost its last three games by an average of 32 ppg (and even that looks better because of a couple of garbage-time scores against Auburn.) Vanderbilt currently has a 40% chance to win per S&P+.
- South Carolina, currently 66th in S&P+, which barely survived Louisiana Tech and has lost its only real offensive playmaker for the season. Vanderbilt has a 40% chance to win.
- Western Kentucky, 83rd in S&P+, most recently seen beating UTEP (which might be the worst team in FBS) by one point. Vanderbilt currently has a 60% chance to win.
- Kentucky, 75th in S&P+, which is 5-1 but whose five wins (over Southern Miss, South Carolina, Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan, and Missouri) have come by a total of 38 points. Vanderbilt currently has a 57% chance to win.
- Missouri, 88th in S&P+, which gave up 43 points to an FCS team (and not even a good one) and has lost four straight since then, including an ugly 35-3 loss to Purdue. Vanderbilt currently has a 64% chance to win.
- Tennessee, 56th in S&P+, which is good at football and whose players love one another and whose coach will definitely still be employed by the time we play them. Vanderbilt currently has a 36% chance to win.
Now, I’m not saying we will finish the season 9-3. But do you look at that group and see a game that you’re certain we will lose? Hell, do you see a game that we’ll probably lose?
But until I see otherwise, I think most of the problems we’ve seen over the last three weeks have been unique to the teams we’ve been playing. There’s really just no other way to explain it. Just because Nick Chubb and Sony Michel ran wild on our defense, doesn’t mean that Jordan Wilkins and D’Vaughn Pennamon will. (Who are Jordan Wilkins and D’Vaughn Pennamon? Exactly.)
So yeah. There are a lot of calls for Derek Mason to change things up, but the only thing that really needs to be done is to do the things that worked against MTSU and Kansas State. Because, really, that’s about who we’re going to be playing the rest of the season. The only thing we’ve learned over the past three weeks is that Vanderbilt is not a top 5 team. Didn’t we already know that?