Vanderbilt went into its season opener on Saturday night as a 30.5-point underdog (or something around there, depending on whom you asked) and ended the game a 17-12 loser in College Station. That Vanderbilt still lost the game means that, well, 0-10 is still on the table. But that the score was so close means we might need to reconsider our expectations for this team.
So, let’s talk about it.
I feel like I’m going to compare this team to the 2015 edition of Vanderbilt football a lot because really, the contours of the two squads are quite similar. Coming off the 2014 season, a lot of us frankly thought we had seen enough of Derek Mason, who was coming off a 3-9 record in his first season in Nashville and appeared to be overmatched as a head coach. He’d replaced both of his coordinators and, perhaps, his best quarterback on the roster was a true freshman. Sound familiar?
That season, Vanderbilt went into its season opener against Western Kentucky as an underdog, albeit not as heavy an underdog as it was on Saturday. Western Kentucky was on its way to a 12-2 season in which they averaged 44.3 ppg; Vanderbilt held the Hilltoppers to a season-low 14 points and 246 yards of total offense, only losing thanks to three turnovers.
This wasn’t that, but considering the level of competition, it shouldn’t have been. But Derek Mason’s charges managed to keep the game within striking distance in spite of frequently getting gashed by Texas A&M’s running game; the Aggies had 183 rushing yards on just 27 carries. On the other side, Ken Seals’ debut went about as well as could have been expected; he wasn’t able to stretch the field vertically, but he completed 20-of-29 passes and while he threw two interceptions, arguably neither was his fault.
Instead of looking like the dumpster fire we all saw in 2019, Vanderbilt looked strikingly similar to what we saw in 2015 and 2016: a team that frankly isn’t very good, but manages to keep everything within striking distance and might be good for a win or two against SEC opponents. And that was decidedly not what we were expecting to see.
Is one game enough to adjust expectations? I don’t know. One nagging thought here is that Texas A&M was incredibly sloppy, and not necessarily in a way that had anything to do with Vanderbilt and more in a way that had to do with their own unforced errors — such as a punt returner trying to take one out of the end zone and handing Vanderbilt a safety in the process when a member of his protection team committed a blindside block in the end zone. The Aggies also had three fumbles, all recovered by Vanderbilt. (That’s good turnovers luck, but then we’d also point out that Vanderbilt was probably unfortunate to commit two turnovers of its own; Texas A&M intercepted both passes that they had a shot at making a play on.)
The offense still isn’t good and probably won’t be with a patchwork offensive line; Vanderbilt had 105 rushing yards on 38 carries and that’s probably a reflection on the line. While Ja’Veon Marlow and Jamauri Wakefield (and Keyon Henry-Brooks, who didn’t play on Saturday) lack Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s sheer explosiveness and breakaway speed, them getting frequently bottled up is a reflection on the holes simply not being there. I would guess that as the season goes on, we’ll start to see the coaching staff trust Ken Seals a lot more, but for now, the running game isn’t there.
I will say this for the offensive line, though: I don’t recall a single penalty on that group on Saturday night. Perhaps playing in a quarter-full Kyle Field helped, but with Vanderbilt not having fans in attendance through at least the end of October, that’s not a situation that will change any time soon. At the very least, the starters on the offensive line are more experienced than assumed at first glance: Tyler Steen, Dan Dawkins, and Grant Miller were at least part-time starters last season, and Connor Mignone is a graduate transfer. Drew Birhcmeier is also a fifth-year senior, albeit one who was playing on the defensive line until a couple of weeks ago.
The key question here is whether the team we saw on Saturday night is as good as it’s going to get, or if Vanderbilt can improve from here. There aren’t going to be too many teams on the schedule who lack an explosive runner like Isaiah Spiller, so the defense’s inability to contain him is a problem — on the other hand, we can only assume that Ken Seals will get better from here. Is that going to be good for a win or two this season? I think it’s probably fair to expect that now.