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Ranking Vanderbilt’s Worst Non Conference Losses of the past 20 years

Many emotions followed Vanderbilt’s embarrassing 23-3 loss to our neighbors at East Tennessee State University. These feelings ranged anywhere on the spectrum from downright anger to utter humiliation, but following the emotional comedown I’d venture to say that most fans settled somewhere in the “helpless” or “calling my therapist” category.

Losing is obviously no new concept to Vanderbilt football fans. In fact, it’s very much a familiar one, since the team has posted just an 84-156 record over the past twenty seasons. Of these 156 days where we were fooled yet again to spend 3-4 hours potentially witnessing the 35% chance that Vanderbilt decides to win, some of these Ls do hurt a bit more: the non conference losses.

Not all of these are created equally, of course. Some seasons, Vanderbilt has scheduled tougher foes in Notre Dame, Northwestern, or Purdue to mix things up in the season. Given, all of these games resulted in losses as well, but they at least came against a formidable team. What I’m getting at are the games Vandy organizes to pad its schedule, but that they still lose. Games like the one on Friday night. Games that are important, because for Vanderbilt to make that coveted BBVA Compass or Music City Bowl, they essentially need to sweep those games.

Looking back on the 6 seasons in the past 20 years that Vanderbilt did reach that win mark to make a bowl game, Vanderbilt posted a 19-5 record against its non-conference opponents. I’ll also throw in a disclaimer and say that 6 wins is not even remotely possible for this year’s team, but it led me to ponder: which of these losses have hurt the most? Which were particularly humiliating? Walk down memory lane with me as we recap the 5 worst non conference losses since 2000 for your Vanderbilt Football Commodores, and see how Friday Night’s game stacks up.

5. 2015: Vanderbilt 12, Western Kentucky 14

When people think of Derek Mason’s early Vanderbilt career, they obviously think of Temple, and justifiably so. What few bring up in that conversation, however, is that the Temple game did, in fact, have a sequel when Vanderbilt lost to Western Kentucky to begin the 2015 season. Also as a fun fact, this loss came as the fourth year in a row where Vanderbilt began the season with a Thursday night loss.

To recap the game, it was a particularly painful loss given that Vanderbilt failed to convert any points on its first three trips inside the WKU 10 yard line. How was that even possible, you might ask? Look no further than sophomore starter Johnny McCrary, who threw two gut-punching interceptions. Tommy Openshaw missed a kick on the 3rd attempt, but we’ll forgive him for that.

The game felt particularly defeating because the commodore faithful, myself included, had just spent the previous offseason convincing ourselves that Derek Mason would turn things around in his 2nd season. Any graceful person will give a 1st year coach the benefit of the doubt for having some jitters in their inaugural season. Perhaps 8 months off could give them time to look at the previous season, correct some mistakes, and come back stronger.

The 2015 opening loss to WKU stung in the sense that it immediately confirmed that the 2015 season would be no better than Mason’s 2014 debut.

4. 2019: UNLV 34, Vanderbilt 10

The idea for this article didn’t begin as a Derek Mason hit piece, but going through the past 20 seasons of Vanderbilt Football made it hard for me to leave a few of his missteps out of these rankings. Our next loss comes relatively recently in the 2019 letdown against UNLV at home. An already struggling Vanderbilt team came into Dudley field with their hopes high to get back on track as 15.5 point favorites against a 1-4 UNLV team at home.

What ensued was a beatdown at the hands of the Running Rebels, who picked up their first ever road win against an SEC opponent by throttling the Commodores 34-10. Big plays, turnovers, and lackluster effort plagued Mason’s ‘Dores in this game. While Derek Mason would recover to a conference win the following week against Missouri, many pointed to this game as a reason to part ways with the coach following the 2019 season. Vanderbilt would keep him one more season for the 0-9 2020 campaign, but this UNLV game cemented for many that Derek Mason would never be the answer.

3. 2005: MTSU 17, Vanderbilt 15

We travel back to the Bobby Johnson era for this next non-conference disappointment. Maybe its recency bias, but you’d think that coach Johnson would have more than one appearance on this list given his overall ho-hum Vandy coaching career, as much as we love the guy. However, looking back on his coaching years, most of his results were pretty much chalk week over week. Perhaps that’s why he gets more forgiveness than any coaches. It’s not like he ever did a whole lot to turn heads, but at least he never lost to people that he wasn’t supposed to, right?

The large, and I mean large, exception to this trend came in 2005 against the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State. For the first time in seemingly decades, Vanderbilt had some buzz surrounding the program. Opening wins against Wake Forest, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Richmond had the ‘Dores entering the game 4-0, with another likely win against an 0-3 MTSU lined up for a best-in-a-generation 5-0 Start.

What could go wrong? After all, you have future NFL Quarterback Jay Cutler behind center and a sellout crowd. Just take the field, do your thing, and then you’re all the sudden the darling of the college football world. Vanderbilt got out to a sluggish start and found themselves in a 14-3 hole early, but the disaster seemed to have been avoided when Bryant Hahnfeldt lined up for a 39-yard field goal as time expired to escape the upset. MTSU blocked the attempt, killing any momentum that the season’s remarkable start had created.

Vandy would lose its next 6 games straight, some of them heartbreakers, before the historic win at Neyland, but in hindsight this loss to MTSU cost Vanderbilt its first bowl appearance in over 20 years, all because they were looking to next week before kickoff.

2. 2021: ETSU 23, Vanderbilt 3

What? This isn’t your top pick? How could you? Did you not see….?

Yes, it was hard not to put this game atop the list. However, the rest of these games benefit from the ability to put their results in the larger context of prior and following events. For all we know, this could just be an early blemish on a great career for Coach Lea. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself so that I can be a functioning adult right now.

The Clark Lea era got off to the worst start imaginable this past weekend. All of us thought that this in-state FCS opponent would offer the perfect opportunity for Coach Lea to get things off on a good note and get his feet wet as a head coach. Instead, what we saw was one of the worst displays of football this program has ever seen, and that is saying something. Bad decisions, interceptions, and Jameis Winston-esque fumbles all paved the way for this disastrous game against a truly inferior opponent.

The optimists and those looking not to lose hope will point to the obvious talent issues, in particular on the offensive line, for the primary reason why this game was as bad as it was. Clark Lea did, to be fair, inherit the only winless Vanderbilt team in over a century. While this reality might be true, a bad D1 team always have superior talent to even a top FCS one. So many of us had every reason to believe that Clark Lea would be a solid guy for the program given his pedigree and knowledge of the program. This loss hurt so many in that it surfaced the fears that Vanderbilt has, yet again, missed on a head football coach hire. Again, it’s too early to tell, but the fears have set in.

1. 2014: Temple 37, Vanderbilt 7

Ah, yes, the grandaddy of them all. So many Vanderbilt fans have that “Where were you the night of the Temple game” discussion as they reminisce on what was, in my mind, the worst moment in program history.

For me, I was a freshman at Vanderbilt, prepared to run onto the field during the Anchor Dash, a tradition in which all of the first years run through the tunnel at Dudley Field for their first home game. Those in Nashville on this fateful day remember, however, that tornado warnings postponed kickoff of this game until after 10:00pm on the Thursday night opener. The Dash got cancelled, and I was probably one of maybe 100 students who stayed around for kickoff

This odd wrinkle to Derek Mason’s first game proved not only a bad omen for the night, but for the entire transition from the James Franklin to Derek Mason era. The word “Panic” comes to mind when one starts to recall how this game unfolded, as Coach Mason ended up rotating three different starting quarterbacks in this game, who went a combined 16-34 passing with three interceptions after Mason had adamantly declared that Patton Robinette would be the clear starter. The result was a 37-7 beatdown from Temple in front of an empty stadium, who had all left campus because of the three-hour delay.

This loss takes the number 1 spot because of the sheer hope that came into the game. Vandy fans had just spent the past three seasons in the dream sequence that James Franklin brought the program. For the first time, a coach had shown that some degree of success was possible for the program. Realistic fans had come to terms with the reality that Franklin simply took the better job at Penn State, because it seemed as if Vanderbilt made the perfect hire as his successor in Derek Mason, who led a top-10 defense during Stanford’s success of the early 2010s.

All of this momentum, hope, and support evaporated before Vanderbilt’s eyes over the span of these three grueling hours against Temple, as it became immediately evident that the utopian reality of the past three seasons would not continue for the foreseeable future. Mason’s opening campaign, despite inheriting some of Vanderbilt’s most talented players in years, would finish at 3-9, but the biggest loss would prove to be that any fan support built up in Franklin’s tenure disappeared overnight.

There are many other honorable mentions here, so let us know in the comments below if any others stand out to you. Hopefully, we will all be laughing at Clark Lea’s disastrous debut when he hoists an SEC championship trophy in 2025.