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Final thoughts on the 2022 football season

It was... improvement?

Syndication: The Tennessean George Walker IV / / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s a day later than it should be, but in tradition started a few years ago, here are my stream of consciousness final thoughts on the 2022 football season — officially ended last night with a loss to Tennessee to finish 5-7 and no APR bowl bid coming.

  • It was improvement, and I don’t just mean going from 2-10 to 5-7 — this was a legitimately better team. Vanderbilt went from getting outscored by an average of 20 ppg in 2021 to 11.4 this year, and that came with swapping out Mississippi State for Alabama on the SEC schedule, and Stanford for Wake Forest on the nonconference schedule. (The remainder of the nonconference schedule: probably a wash. Replacing a dumpster fire UConn with a dumpster fire Hawaii, and a bad Colorado State with a bad Northern Illinois... whatever.)
  • The SEC margin went from -208 to -191, which doesn’t sound like much improvement, but see above caveats — never mind Tennessee finally getting its shit together.
  • I’d also add here that I don’t think this is the Derek Mason thing where the first season was so bad that we ended up grading his second season on a curve and accepting 4-8 (2-6) as improvement when things probably shouldn’t have been as bad as they were in 2014. No, Lea still inherited a dumpster fire and I’m not suddenly seeing five future NFL players on the defense as Mason had in his second season.
  • The defense, though, is still bad. Ranking 125th of 131 FBS teams in points per game is bad any way you slice it, though it’s weird how much that’s skewed by the four top 10-ish opponents (Alabama, Ole Miss, Georgia, Tennessee) on the schedule, who combined to put up 218 points on the defense. Everyone else averaged 26.8 ppg, which still isn’t what I’d call good but it at least gets you in the ballpark of competitive — as, well, you saw from the fact that Vanderbilt went 5-3 in those games.
  • There’s something to take away from the fact that Vanderbilt looked exceptionally bad against that foursome, though I’d also point out that from what I saw in those games, they didn’t look as helpless as they have in some years. Was it “we know we’re not going to win this game so we’re just going to show nothing, take our beating, and get out of here”? Was it just that that was the place where Vanderbilt’s talent deficit showed up the most? (I don’t know if I buy that, because in terms of recruiting, Tennessee isn’t in the same weight class as Alabama and Georgia.)
  • The coaching staff really did handle the quarterback situation about as well as they possibly could have — personally, I thought they had too quick a hook with Mike Wright early in the season, but then it became apparent in the Northern Illinois game that they knew something I didn’t. Then, when A.J. Swann’s concussion led to Wright getting a couple of starts — and Vanderbilt winning two SEC games with him as quarterback — they basically just elected to let Wright play out the string.
  • I’m already liking what I saw from Clark Lea’s first recruiting class; in addition to Swann, Jayden McGowan should be the player Darrius Sims should have been if the coaching staff had ever figured out how to use him; and I liked what I saw from guys on the defense like Darren Agu, BJ Diakite, and Ja’Dais Richard.
  • There are going to be some important decisions over the next few weeks with both the NFL (Anfernee Orji) and the transfer portal, but I think Vanderbilt’s talent level should continue to improve as the Mason guys cycle out and Lea’s recruits come in.
  • With all that I’ve said, next year is going to be crucial because while I like what I see, the margin for error here is so slim. I think Lea needs to make a bowl game next season — not because I think he’ll get fired (or that he should be fired) if he doesn’t, but because the longer a coach is there, the more that tangible results need to be seen to maintain buy-in from recruits and fans. The difference between 4-8 and 8-4 might be a few plays at the margins, but the difference in perception would be huge.
  • I don’t hate how next year’s schedule sets up: Vanderbilt opens with Hawaii, Alabama A&M, Wake Forest, and UNLV, with the latter two on the road. But if you believe the rumor mill, Dave Clawson might be headed to Stanford, and Wake Forest will be losing its QB either way, and UNLV should be beatable (that game is a relic of the Mason era.) Then Vanderbilt gets Kentucky and Missouri at home to open SEC play. 6-0 is absolutely on the table; I’m not saying it will happen, but it’s not outside of the realm of possibility. And then in November, Vanderbilt gets a visit from Auburn, which will have a first-year head coach.
  • Anyway, I hate going into the offseason with a bad taste in my mouth, but let’s not forget that three weeks ago, we were wondering what the longest conference losing streak in history was.