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Stream of Consciousness Thoughts on the 2019 Football Season

This was a season to forget.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, I wrote the Stream of Consciousness Thoughts on 2018 after the Texas Bowl loss to Baylor. Since we’re all about traditions around here, this is a new one. The night of the loss to Tennessee, ending the 2019 season with a 3-9 record, here goes.

  1. As it turns out, quarterback play is really, really important. That’s honestly even more true in 2019 than it was in, say, 2008, when Vanderbilt went 7-6 with a rotating cast of post-injury Chris Nickson, Mackenzi Adams, and Larry Smith (late in the season) taking snaps. And if you’re not getting good quarterback play, you’re probably better off just doing like Kentucky did and putting your best athlete under center, even if that guy is ostensibly a wide receiver. Kentucky is in a bowl game and Vanderbilt isn’t, what does that tell you?
  2. That said, much like Derek Mason’s first year in 2014, it’s hard to imagine that this team was ever going to get good quarterback play with the talent on hand. Riley Neal is what he is, a decent MAC quarterback who just never looked completely comfortable in the SEC. (For fun, take a look at Neal’s numbers at Ball State and at Vanderbilt — they’re virtually identical. At Ball State, this was blamed on subpar talent around him.) Backups Deuce Wallace and Allan Walters actually looked worse in limited action. Mo Hasan was a revelation in the Missouri game, then was lost for the rest of a year with a concussion, though I’d point out that Mo Hasan never faced a defense that was prepared to stop Mo Hasan.
  3. In theory, the Big Three — Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb, and Jared Pinkney — gave the quarterback a set of weapons that most Vanderbilt quarterbacks haven’t had. In practice, Neal’s inability to get the ball to Lipscomb and especially Pinkney meant that Vanderbilt would have been just as well off having a generic receiver and tight end in those spots, while the lack of an effective passing game meant that Vaughn was run into the ground. I nearly went from complaining that Vaughn wasn’t being used enough in 2018, to complaining that Vaughn was being used way too much in 2019.
  4. Vanderbilt was outscored 287-102 in eight SEC games. For comparison, the 2017 team was outscored 346-180 — the defense that year was considerably worse, but the offense was considerably better. If you don’t want to do the math, Vanderbilt was outscored by an average of 23.1 ppg (and that’s ignoring the coup de grace, a 34-10 loss to UNLV.) The offense had three separate games in which it failed to score a touchdown, and four more in which it scored just a single touchdown (the Kentucky game included a defensive touchdown.) And remember, this was with Vaughn, Pinkney, and Lipscomb.
  5. I’d be remiss to point out here that the offensive line was a problem, as well, though one that might actually get better with four starters returning next season plus the two or three top reserves. But the offensive line and quarterback play were problems in 2019.
  6. Andy Ludwig is currently the offensive coordinator of a team that may very well be in the College Football Playoff, assuming that it wins the Pac-12 Championship next week, LSU beats Georgia, and the Big 12 Championship isn’t a blowout in either direction. Just thought I’d take a moment to point that out.
  7. I’m less down on the defense than I was post-2017. For one thing, as I pointed out in the Statistical last week, the defense is returning basically everybody of importance next season. While the upside may be limited, at the very least, even if you don’t change a thing the defense probably gets better. For another, this defense at least showed the occasional ability to make a big play, and was constantly being put in awful spots by the offense — neither of which were true in 2017. And the defense actually did get better in 2018.
  8. The real, overarching theme of the 2019 Vanderbilt football team is that it was bad, but in the most infuriating ways possible. It was a team that had a bad habit of shooting itself in the foot with dumb penalties. I remember thinking after the Purdue game that this could be a decent team if they just stopped shooting themselves in the foot and the defense got off the field on third down, and that simply never happened. And the same crap that’s plagued Derek Mason’s tenure kept on rearing its head. There was the moment toward the end of the Florida game when the team took a delay of game penalty — with two timeouts in its pocket! — to make a 45-yard field goal attempt a 50-yard attempt, which Ryley Guay missed. You have to wonder how that keeps happening.
  9. As a general rule, being bad at clock management is the absolute easiest way to make it look like you have no idea what you’re doing as a coach.
  10. The other infuriating part about the 2019 season is that the team didn’t appear to be getting better in any appreciable way over the course of the season. Vanderbilt not only went 3-9 on the season, it went 3-9 against the spread, and a lot of those weren’t really close, either. There’s a considerable difference between going into the offseason coming off close losses to Kentucky and Tennessee versus losing those by a combined 42 points. I mean, what could you even take away from the 2019 season that was even remotely positive?
  11. The 23.1-ppg average margin in SEC games is just slightly better than the 2001 team’s average margin of 23.3 ppg. That difference is literally two points over the course of the season. In 2001, Florida beat Vanderbilt 71-13; in 2019, Florida beat Vanderbilt 56-0. There’s your difference.
  12. Was there a realistic scenario where this team went 6-6? In my opinion, yes. Maybe not with the talent that was actually on hand, but if you have even average quarterback play and offensive playcalling with Vaughn, Pinkney, and Lipscomb, you score more than 12.8 ppg in SEC games. Meanwhile, we also saw a defense that would hold the line for a bit before collapsing when the offense just repeatedly put it in bad spots; eventually, that dam breaks.
  13. I’m never going to accuse college players of quitting on a season, but that this even needs to be addressed should tell you quite a bit.
  14. That said, what the hell was that UNLV game? How do you show up to play UNLV and lose 34-10?
  15. Yes, the UNLV loss was worse than the Temple loss. Temple seemed bad at the time, but ended that season 6-6, won ten games the next year, and its coach is currently the coach of a top 10 team. UNLV finished the season 4-8, and aside from Vanderbilt, it beat Southern Utah, San Jose State, and Nevada, and UNLV just fired its coach.
  16. Per the SRS rating at, entering the Tennessee game, this was the fifth-worst Vanderbilt team in history, ahead only of Watson Brown’s 1990, Watson Brown’s 1986, Woody Widenhofer’s 1998, and George MacIntyre’s 1979, and just slightly behind Fred Pancoast’s 1978 and Robbie Caldwell’s 2010. In that group of six teams, there are three last teams and three first teams (of course, Robbie Caldwell’s was both), and Woody’s second team.
  17. And finally, the elephant in the room. It’s probably wrong to suggest that Malcolm Turner or Vanderbilt doesn’t care about the football program. But the fact that this suggestion isn’t completely ridiculous speaks volumes. Just why is Derek Mason being brought back for the 2020 season? There’s an explanation given, but it doesn’t make a ton of sense, mostly because it runs into the reality that we all saw the football team in 2019 and exactly no one is convinced that nicer locker rooms or the football-specific facility that is Jordan Rodgers’ pet project will make a difference as long as the coaching is deficient. And fans are already voting with their feet. The announced attendance for the ETSU game was 19,368 and looked to the untrained eye to be roughly a third of that, and even the games that were relatively well-attended were mostly that way because of visiting fans. Fans aren’t angry so much as they’re apathetic. That’s honestly a bigger problem for the AD, because angry fans can be won back. Apathetic fans, maybe not.
  18. I’m probably just not going to write a ton about football until next summer. There’s signing day, there’s spring practice, and that’s about it. Vanderbilt football has reached a point where I mostly just watch the games and zone out while doing so — and it’s also reached a point where, when today’s game ran long, I didn’t even think twice about switching over to basketball at 7 PM. We’ll just do basketball season and then baseball season. Unless all of you just really want to think about this program.