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Stream of Consciousness Thoughts on 2018

With the season now over, it’s time for quick reflections.

Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl - Baylor v Vanderbilt Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

With the 2018 season now over, I’ll have some more time to write deeper analysis later. But here are some quick thoughts:

  1. It was important to have a bounceback year after an awful 2017, and that’s pretty much what happened. The 2017 team got outscored 346-180 in eight SEC games. This one got outscored 235-208. That’s still not great by any stretch, but there’s a huge difference between a team that got outscored by three touchdowns a game and one that got outscored by roughly a field goal per game.
  2. With that said... wins and losses matter. How did Vanderbilt improve that much and yet see only one more win? Well, replacing Kansas State with Notre Dame on the nonconference schedule was one reason, but that was balanced out by the SEC schedule swapping Alabama for a 2-10 Arkansas team. The biggest difference between the 2017 and 2018 editions of Vanderbilt football: the 2018 team got blown out less often. The 2017 team played two games decided by a touchdown or less and actually split those games; the 2018 team played six such games and went 2-4, and that one of the two wins was against Tennessee State was, well, not good. And all four losses were games we legitimately had a shot at winning, too; this wasn’t the 2016 team which kept a lot of games within striking distance while getting badly outplayed.
  3. Was that just plain old bad luck or something much more nefarious? Probably a mix of both. Ke’Shawn Vaughn missing the Kentucky game was a huge mitigating factor in that one. Dropping a close game against a playoff team at their house is excusable. The Baylor game was a bowl game. That leaves the Missouri game, which was, well... that one was bad. On the other hand, you could equally argue that we beat Ole Miss because the other team’s coach has dumb and the referees blew a call in our favor for once.
  4. The point is putting a microscope on the record in close games will mostly just tell you that any record between 4-8 and 9-3 was possible, and falling almost exactly between those two extremes doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy.
  5. Fielding a team that was a few plays from winning nine games probably says more about Derek Mason than the fact that the team actually won six games.
  6. To expand on that, while we can nitpick playcalling and a whole bunch of other things, when you put the team in a position where things like playcalling, officiating, and dumbassery from the other team can make a difference, sometimes those things go in your favor and sometimes they don’t. Does your opinion about Andy Ludwig as a playcaller change if he calls the same play on 4th-and-goal in the Missouri game and it results in a touchdown, and we end up winning the game? Does your opinion change if they stop a 4th-and-13 against Baylor last night and the referees don’t call a hold on Ryley Guay’s field goal at the end of the first half? Does it change if the referees have a stricter interpretation of the pass interference rule?
  7. Okay, yeah, offensive playcalling does need to be better.
  8. Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s carries by game: 9 (MTSU), 11 (Nevada), 10 (Notre Dame), 9 (South Carolina), 17 (Tennessee State), 9 (Georgia), 7 (Florida — injured), 0 (Kentucky — injured), 26 (Arkansas), 15 (Missouri), 25 (Ole Miss), 6 (Tennessee — injured), 13 (Baylor.) Presented without comment.
  9. Pointing out that this team had a bunch of future NFL players on it only works if you remove any credit to the coaching staff for evaluating and developing said NFL talent. That’s a valid criticism if Jared Pinkney, Kalija Lipscomb et al were five-star recruits that everybody saw coming.
  10. Kyle Shurmur leaves as Vanderbilt’s all-time leader in basically every passing category, and yet his inability to run was a major limitation on what the offense could do.
  11. Another limitation: the kicking game. Aside from the missed field goals, the fact that even chip shot field goals were an adventure did a lot to handcuff the offense in the red zone. There’s a lot more you can do if you know that you have a field goal in your back pocket inside the 25.
  12. With that said, it’s easy to see what the coaching staff sees in Ryley Guay when you watch him on kickoffs, where I have zero complaints about him. Guay did completely take away the kick return game.
  13. I’ve barely touched on the defense, which was considerably better than in 2017. Consider: last night was only the second time all season that the defense gave up more than 40 points (the other time was against Georgia.) The 2017 defense averaged over 40 points in eight SEC games.
  14. Letting other teams convert a disproportionate number of third and longs is extremely frustrating, but defenses that force a lot of third and longs tend to regress to the mean over time. That’s a fixable problem.
  15. The feeling about Derek Mason from my vantage point is still one of confusion. For now, the 2018 season feels like it could have been better and yet that’s also tempered by the perspective that even as it was it’s still way better than any of the crap we fielded in the 1990s and 2000s.
  16. I’ll have a better idea after 2019, which will tell us a lot. Over the long haul, if you keep producing teams like this one, odds are that eventually you’ll have one that breaks through and wins nine games (or, hell, more than that.) On the other hand, if 2018 was the high-water mark of Derek Mason’s tenure... well, there’s no particular reason to keep a coach like that around for very long. Having Riley Neal in the fold does a lot to assuage the major concern I had about the team. Getting Ke’Shawn Vaughn back would be massive, clearly, though I can’t think of any particular reason why he needs to come back for another year. Remember: this year’s team was viewed as being potentially terrible going into the season and granted, at least some of that was your typical “lol Vandy” crap from the media, but it’s also why I’m not going to write off 2019 until I see it.
  17. Wins and losses matter. Derek Mason being 1-4 against both Kentucky and Missouri, and 0-5 against South Carolina, outweighs his 3-2 record against Tennessee. Regardless of how much we like to beat Tennessee. Beating Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, and Ole Miss on a regular basis is the long-term path to sustained cromulence.