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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Georgia

There is not a lot to say after that “game,” but there are some takeaway

NCAA Football: Georgia at Vanderbilt
The best play of the day was this tip-drill interception by Ethan Barr.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Every reasonable person outside the Vanderbilt locker room knew Georgia was almost certainly going to win and win comfortably over the rebuilding Commodores. However, the 35-0 score line to end the first quarter was a shock to almost as many people.

Georgia gained 206 yards in the quarter, but they started drives at the Vanderbilt 49, Georgia 37, Vanderbilt 4, Vanderbilt 21, and Georgia 29. Poor punts, a fumbled kickoff return, an interception, and a frozen offense were a recipe for short scores. The Bulldogs were taking advantage.

To that point, Kirby Smart seemed to share (to a lesser extent) the Georgia fans’ vitriol about last season’s cancelation. UGA went for multiple 4th downs in FG range with the game well decided and was having a lot of fun with end arounds early. He wanted to run the score up. Vanderbilt’s players unfortunately eased the difficulty with critical mistakes.

I said last week we likely would not learn anything new barring a positive miracle. I felt the same during the game and still so during the re-watch, so this is going to be pretty short and sweet.

Lessons We Know Well

Even after one game of direct comparison, it is very evident that we are not a national title contender, nor are we remotely close to being one. Yes, that fact is very shocking, especially after losing to ETSU. This reality was just bashed into all our faces. We can all debate whether Clark Lea is the right guy to make appreciable progress towards that end goal, but the fact is clear that what he inherited is woefully insufficient to compete at that level.

Lessons We Are Learning

If you needed a reminder that this offensive line had been mostly propped up by scheme against Stanford, here was your reminder. The game plan protected them (and the QBs behind them) by getting the ball out quickly. The official stats only have Seals being sacked once and hurried once. However, Wright had a time or two he escaped pressure and scrambled yardage, so it was not listed as a QB hurry. Of course, that change in scheme had other issues.

Ken Seals, unsurprisingly, did not make the Georgia game his coming out party of 2021. In fact, he turned in a truly abysmal 0.6 QBR. Grading him that harshly against such a defense seems quite unfair though. Was it an awful performance? Absolutely. I cannot, when adjusting for opponent as Total QBR does, fathom this being in the 1% of worst games ever played by a college QB. It was poor, but he often was throwing very quickly to receivers who could not get separated. As I said in the mailbag, we are not to the point of needing to think about a change in starter. We can discuss that if he struggles against UConn AND Mike Wright does more than just be really fast or score a TD on an ill-advised throw against prevent defense in garbage time.

Speaking of Wright, I am done asking the question. His usage might be the biggest gripe (outside of whatever that ETSU game was) with the new staff. Against Georgia, I have less of an issue with it. I thought the hook on Seals was a bit short though. Back to the speed demon, stop giving him full drives outside of garbage time but get him on the field. Stop being so stubborn about not using a “situational QB” and accept that you have an elite athlete at QB that can be a major weapon in certain situations. Get a first down then complete a pass to create 2nd and medium or short? Mike Wright time! Keep Seals on the field and go wildcat but with a guy who can actually throw. Is the other team crushing us with pass rush? Start the next drive with Seals at QB and Wright lined up at WR. Bring Wright in motion for a handoff to give the option of Ken keeping it to throw or handing off to Mike, who can then decide whether to run or pass on the edge. I know it is not easy to make those decisions because you get crushed if the trickery does not work. Have the guts and creativity to figure out SOMETHING better than this usage which is wasting Wright and almost certainly not helping a struggling Seals.

The defense that has looked good at times but struggled early in games was completely manhandled. Georgia’s offensive line was mauling our defensive line, and their WRS and TEs were too fast and agile to track for long. I thought the coverage was okay for the most part, but they were asked to cover for much too long. They did create a turnover, which was good to see.

The special teams need to get it together. Harrison Smith shanked his first two punts for 36 and 34 yards, respectively. Then he had kicks of 40, 49, and 46 with no chance to return any of them. The struggles re-appeared with punts of 34 and 30 yards with the latter going out at the Vanderbilt 35. He finally unleashed for 54 and 58 yards on the last two of his 9 appearances. The first did not have enough hang time and was returned by McConkey for 19 yards. The last was returned for no yards. The kick returns got a ton of practice, but they kept making themselves look bad. James Ziglor III had the first three returns and started Vanderbilt at the 17, Vanderbilt at the 25 (touchback) and Georgia at Vanderbilt’s 4 by fumbling. Cam Johnson took over and mostly fair caught or allowed touchbacks, but he tried two returns that were for 18 yards to the 21 and 12 yards to the 12. Ziglor then reappeared for the last return for a fair catch, so maybe he learned his lesson a bit. I understand wanting to make a big play, but you have to do it in a way that makes sense and does not lose the ball or start your offense inside the 15.

Lessons For Further Study

Will they bounce back from this loss like they did against Colorado State? The last 2 minutes of the first half then the second half against Colorado State might have been the most important stretch of this team’s season. Obviously, losing that game makes 1-11 the most likely outcome. Going 2-10 is not much better, but you can maybe squint and see 3-9 if one of the other bottom SEC teams implodes while our guys keep fighting. The mental letdown was also a major issue under Mason after it seemed to be a strong point in rousing stretch runs to make a bowl game in 2016 and 2018. Clark, the coaches, and the support staff must prevent this being a 2017 Alabama game because a team this deficient that falls apart mentally is going to be an absolute disaster that could very well ruin any remaining positivity about Lea.

Will Vanderbilt do what it is capable of doing in this game? Against Georgia and most other Power 5 teams, I can understand bringing up the talent gaps on this team. The talent gap between us and UConn is massive though. The Commodores have the power today. They should be the overwhelming force. Vanderbilt should be the one deciding how the game is played which, going back to the last question, means whether they assert themselves will mostly be down to whether they are mentally in the right place, both in recovery from last week and focus against a weaker opponent.