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Week Eleven Football Mail Bag: Answers to your Questions

You ask, we answer.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 04 Auburn at Vanderbilt Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Question from WestEndMayhem:

Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Boise State, and Arkansas have just fired their head coaches. Penn State just released their OC. We just lost a 3* who is taking an official visit out east soon. The team is about to go winless in conference play, with the closest game being against Georgia (would not have predicted that). Our players have sent out cryptic tweets with no discernible meaning.

And yet, not a peep from the Powers That Be. How should we be feeling about the football team, and what can we reasonable expect in terms of, well, anything?

Answers from AoG:

Tom Stephenson: Ole Miss and Arkansas firing their head coaches is news to me (I assume you meant Mississippi State with the first one, and you’re referring to the inaccurate reports that Sam Pittman had been let go at Arkansas.) Not to excuse anything, but the 3* we lost is a guy who grew up in Kingsport and was probably just waiting until he got an offer from that school, which, whatever. The cryptic tweets... ah, hell, if we’re firing a coach over cryptic tweets, then we deserve to not have an athletic department.

The funny thing is that I had long assumed that Clark Lea would be getting five years at a minimum and this season has probably knocked that number down to four. But I don’t mind him getting a fourth year to get things right. CSL giving the Tennessean an exclusive interview to basically tell Lea he’s on the clock is an unexpected development. 2-10 next season and I think he’s probably gone, but given how recruiting is going (well, considering the circumstances) I don’t think there’s any significant downside to giving him another year to figure things out (aside from the possibility of going 2-10 next year, of course, i just mean no long-term downside.)

PatrickSawyer: The second part has changed with the interview AD CSL did with The Tennessean. I think the cryptic Tweets have one of two meanings. Either coaches have already been let go (or informed they will be let go at season’s end), or those players are stepping away from the team for the final game of the season.

Between the two, I think we should see what we all expected. Clark Lea will remain as HC, but the staff will see a shakeup.

Andrew VU ‘04: Since this was asked, ADCSL did give the dreaded vote of confidence, so there’s at least a chance she’s starting to look elsewhere. I would imagine Lea gets another year, provided we have two new coordinators next year. Does it make us more likely to fire Lea or less likely to fire Lea with the plethora of high profile coaching jerbs open now? I’d say less, but hopefully ADCSL learns, and jumps the market next year with a frighteningly early firing of NoHo Clark.

Question from JesseCuster44:

Clark Lea: Stubborn, Stupid, or both? Your answer must be in four sentences starting with the letters P, U, N, and T

Answers from AoG:

Tom Stephenson: Possibly stubborn, probably not stupid. Until we win some football games, these questions will continue. No way are we beating Tennessee next week. Tennessee is better than us.

PatrickSawyer: Platitudes are nice. Unless they are followed by action, they lack weight. No one takes a philospher serious if the theories are not put to practice. ‘Til then, Clark looks like he is stuck in his dumb ways.

Andrew VU ‘04: Perhaps both. Unequivocally stubborn, given the fact that Dan Jackson continues to coach our DBs. Nevertheless, that “gave us a chance to punt” quote may well have been the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard a Vanderbilt head football coach say, and I’ve lived through Mason, Caldwell, and Widenhofer. Time to conduct the coaching search, as NoHo Clark’s shitter’s full.

Questions from DeaninTN and DynamiteVU:

What’s your read on whether the players still have faith in the coaching staff, and will the UT game provide clues about that?


Based on the cryptic tweets from the players on saturday, what do you think happens from here on out?

CJ’s tweet i’m most interested in.

Answers from AoG:

Tom Stephenson: The players are either bought in or they aren’t, and if they’re not, they’re probably going to hit the transfer portal after the season. The biggest danger sign is that I don’t know that the players believe that the coaching staff is playing the best players and that’s never a good thing. But they might! Or at least some of them.

With that said, the cryptic tweets last week are coming from guys I don’t expect to be on the team next season — Swann and Sheppard have reasons to think they’re being underutilized (or not utilized at all, in Swann’s case) and perhaps there’s a good reason they aren’t. Taylor’s tweet (since deleted) seemed to imply that there will be coaching staff changes coming?

PatrickSawyer: I think what we will learn is if the player’s found out coaches are leaving or if certain players are gone. If none of them are playing, expect all 3 gone. I do not think Taylor’s Tweet was about the coach being fired, so the logical conclusion is that CJ is leaving the team. We shall see though.

Of course, we should definitely keep an eye on effort. The intensity visibly dropped against South Carolina as that game got out of reach. If they come out flat against a hated rival, CSL’s statements about expecting Clark Lea to be the head football coach in 2023 may come back to her being the one to tell us when he no longer will be the head football coach.

Andrew VU ‘04: Nothing really to add here, as I can’t imagine still being on board if I played for this staff. The continual Swann benching, mixed with the Taylor and Seals nonsense, and I’d just be numb to it all.

Question from ConquerAndPrevail:

QFTMB: When is the ‘Bank going to be finished, and should we retain CCL until such time the next coach can recruit without a crane in the way?

Answers from AoG:

Tom Stephenson: I don’t think this is something recruits particularly care about but especially not in the era of NIL collectives.

PatrickSawyer: My understanding is that it will look complete for the start of next season. The interior work will still be continuing on the facilities, but it will not be a “clearly under construction” situation. I am not sure if the coach’s offices and the fancy recruiting areas will be done by then.

Recruiting is not the issue right now. The recruiting is fine, if not ahead of schedule. The talent utilization and scheme implementation, which are not effected by construction traffic, are the major issues for this football team.

Andrew VU ‘04: I don’t think the stadium construction should have anything to do with NoHo Clark’s employment status.

Question from VU1970:

Would you agree that our next head football coach should have absolutely no previous Vanderbilt connection whatsoever? In other words, what would our won/loss record be if Coach Prime had been coaching the Commies in 2023?

Answers from AoG:

Tom Stephenson: I’m hard-pressed to think of any realistic candidate who’d have a previous Vanderbilt connection (maybe Chris Marve, but do you really want to go with a third straight defensive coordinator?) I think our won/loss record with Coach Prime would be 1-11 because Prime would have run off about 60 players and then found out that Vanderbilt admissions won’t let him have any transfer he wants. (Also have you noticed that Colorado is about to go 4-8?)

PatrickSawyer: I think decisions on connections or not are silly. I do not care either way. I think Vanderbilt connections are a bonus if everything else checks out. Clark Lea being an alum is probably useful. The hinderance is his conservatism that borders on cowardice.

Andrew VU ‘04: I would not agree, as Andy Ludwig, for one, seems more than ready for the herb. The only thing I want is what ADCSL actually said last time: an offensive-minded coach.

Question from Your Uncle Mike:

I’ll throw this out there: Jimbo Fisher. Head Coach or OC next season? I mean, he’s set on cash. Won’t have to pay him much.

Answers from AoG:

Tom Stephenson: Lol no.

PatrickSawyer: He’s not coming here as OC. Maybe as HC. It would probably be a disaster. Just replace the overly philisophical [sic] comments of Lea with a lot of “good ol’ boy” rambling.

Andrew VU ‘04: Jimbo will be cashing some sweet ESPN or some such checks to do very little but give his opinion on things for the next year. That’s if he’s effectively ready to retire—or take a year or two off from the grind. If he wants to coordinate, which I can’t see that he does, it would be for Alabama or some such national power, so as to rehabilitate his coaching image. Again, if he just wants another high profile head coaching jerb, there sure will be plenty available this year. It won’t be with us.

Question from RaisedDawgChosenDore:

Let’s say that 99% of the eligible players to return choose to return and not enter into the portal, would that make you more confident in the vision that the football program is selling to the players? Like if the players believe in the future that’s being sold to them why can’t the fans believe in it? And I guess similarly of a bunch of players leave what does that say about the program and the vision that’s been sold

Answers from AoG:

Tom Stephenson: That high of a number would honestly make me less confident — not in whether the players are bought in, but in whether the coaching staff is any good at evaluating the players on the roster and being honest with them about their prospects for playing time moving forward.

(For the record, this is me saying that there are some guys on this roster who should enter the transfer portal.)

PatrickSawyer: Emphatically, DUH. If the players are bought in to whatever message is being given after this shitshow of a season when it looks like the locker room might be splintering, SOMETHING is being done right. It may be massive NIL payments to get them to shut up and soldier ahead. Or maybe the road map to success has been laid out in a way the roster trusts.

Obviously, to the contrary, if it looks like “rats off a sinking ship” then it may be time to pull the plug on Clark Lea sooner than anyone expected. Of course, back to Tom’s point, if the guys leaving are all ones who are reserves or should be losing playing time next season then that is fine.

Andrew VU ‘04: It would certainly make me more confident than the “our best go into the portal and play for Miami, Clanga, Ramajama, or whomever for money and/or draft bonafides” track we’ve seen of late. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.

Question from Jeturn:

How many punts should we reasonably expect to make against THEM?

Answers from AoG:

Tom Stephenson: Ten.

PatrickSawyer: One for every offensive possession.

Andrew VU ‘04: ALL OF THEM. Seals will put us in the right position.

Question from PancoastTraumaticStressDisorder:

If you were a head coach, if you looked at all the schools in the FBS as a potential employer, would you think that Vanderbilt would be the most difficult school to coach to a winning season? If not, which school would it be?

Answers from AoG:

Tom Stephenson: In the transfer portal era — yeah, probably. In the past I’d have put a school like Kansas up there, but now that they can simply bring in half their roster from the transfer portal and we can’t, it’s advantage Kansas. And then you throw in that unlike other similarly-situated programs, we have to play in the SEC? Yeah, it’s us.

PatrickSawyer: It is high on the list for sure. Indiana might be the only one that comes up as a challenger. Tom Allen did get to 8-5 in 2019. 2007 was the only other winning season this side of Y2K. Also, the Hoosiers have not won a bowl since 1991. Also, like the SEC, the B1G just expanded. So, yeah, us or Indiana.

What about Colorado if not for Deion’s portal magnetism?

Andrew VU ‘04: It’s in the top standard deviation. We’ve got three things going for us right now: 1) Come here and win and you can name your price at any top championship-chasing football factory, 2) Win 6 consistently and you can keep the jerb for life, and 3) You get to live in Nashville.

Oh, and I guess you get to go to as many baseball games as you want, too.

Question from DoreFanInDallas:

In two weeks, Tennessee will likely defeat Vanderbilt by a margin similar to the final score against South Carolina. And after that game and a 2-10 season, it will mark 10 years since the departure of James Franklin for Penn State. After Franklin left, A.D. Williams said that that coaches who previously would never return his telephone call are now calling him about the vacant VU head coaching position. So now after a decade, I think we can conclude that Vanderbilt Athletics squandered a unique opportunity to be relevant in football again. What happened and where does responsibility lie for the descent from three bowls in three seasons to the awful 2023 season?

Answers from AoG:

Tom Stephenson: What happened was that the administration changed a few things after Those Four that hurt football and athletics in general — lots of facilities plans got put on the shelf, academic standards went way up (which wasn’t the correct response: academics were not what should have kept Brandon Vandenburg out of VU; if you’ve listened to Luke Wyatt on the Vandy Sports podcast, he’s said that James Franklin was told by one of his assistants not to sign him.) On top of that, Vanderbilt made two meh hires. Which, honestly, hiring Derek Mason was a better idea than hiring Chad Morris would have been, but then the fact that those two were the finalists should maybe tell you that either Williams was lying or he was very bad at evaluating coaching talent. Choosing Lea over Chadwell looks like a massive mistake in hindsight, too.

But then, I don’t know that any coach you hire would win big at VU with the current NIL/transfer portal situation. The NCAA has really fucked things up, and Congress needs to investigate conference realignment. I’m serious.

PatrickSawyer: The two coaches hired since then deserve the most blame. Then the holdouts on the academic side who hate sports that made things get really nasty during Mason’s tenure. I do think the job is still in a better spot than CJF found it. The last two hires have been highly respected DCs where Vanderbilt tried to beat their opposition to the punch on promoting them straight to being a P5 HC.

Lea and Mason would probably have been best served to get their feet wet in the G5 before getting thrown into the fire. Instead, Vanderbilt gave them the keys to one of the hardest jobs in P5 football. Last season gave us hope that Lea had learned well on the job, but this season shows that old habits die hard for defensive-minded coaches.

So maybe add ambition to the list of culprits. Vanderbilt could have hired another D2 or FCS HC to take the reigns. Maybe they could have gotten a G5 HC who had been a perennially decent but not impressive team. They may have evaded the painful lows, but the ceiling would be limited. They swung hard and struck out. The next step is realizing offense wins first and foremost in modern football. Cowardice and trying to drag teams into “deep water” is not going to work.

Andrew VU ‘04: We hired Mason, who was a much better hire than Franklin on paper. However, they should have had a conversation with him instead of said piece of paper. Opportunity over.