Proof of concept. That’s what players, coaches and fans all need to see at the start of a new venture marked by uncertainty and skepticism.
Matt Zemek, 14Powers.com
Vanderbilt football is not an entity which enjoys the benefit of the doubt, and that’s because the Commodores have not earned the benefit of the doubt many times in their recent history. They have been able to get to a bowl game every now and then. Bobby Johnson managed to get the program there. James Franklin figured out the VU puzzle better than most, winning more games than most of his predecessors and making something very difficult look manageable – not easy, but not painfully ugly, either.
Derek Mason was able to make two bowl games, but he lost both of them and finished with a losing record – 6-7 – in those two bowl seasons. Over the past 15 years, when Vanderbilt has made a bowl game, the Dores have usually reached the minimum standard for bowl eligibility at 6-6. Franklin’s 2012 and 2013 seasons were exceptions, not the rule.
The bottom line: Winning more than six regular-season games – more than seven total games – is very hard at Vanderbilt in modern times. Stacked against long odds, the people who are part of a football program and the people who root for a football program need to see that one thing: proof of concept.
In 2022, Clark Lea and his team began to deliver it.
Vanderbilt needed to walk away from the 2022 season with one thing: an SEC win. The Commodores simply had to get rid of that long conference losing streak which served as an albatross for the program. The number kept going up. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. The Dores needed to put a stop to it.
When the Kentucky Wildcats scored a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter of a game in Lexington, the odds were once again stacked against VU. The same old movie was about to replay the same old tired conclusion: Vanderbilt putting up a fight, coming close, being almost there … and losing.
This time, the same old movie was put in the attic. On that gray day in Kentucky, Vanderbilt found a way to win a close SEC road game with a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes. Coaches can talk about what they need to change a program – better recruiting, superior player development, improved strength training, more sophistication in coaching and fresh attention to analytics, etc. – but at some point, a team has to do what Pat Riley’s father told the basketball legend in his youth: “Ya gotta plant your feet, stand firm, and (using gentler language) make a point.” There is nowhere to hide, no alternative to seek out. One has to face one’s fears and problems directly and conquer them.
That’s what Vanderbilt did against Kentucky.
The good vibes and fresh belief emanating from that win in Lexington were so strong that VU was able to carry them into the home game against Florida. Anthony Richardson, a top-five pick in the most recent NFL draft, was no match for the Vanderbilt defense. Florida, a team which defeated Utah – the eventual Pac-12 champions and a Rose Bowl team in the 2022 season – was soundly outplayed by Vanderbilt. The Commodores gained not one SEC win this past season, but two. After walking in the wilderness for so long, the Dores showed the ability to fight back against the SEC. They showed toughness, they showed skill, and they showed a new knack for making plays in the clutch.
The recruiting, the player development, the coaching sophistication, the strength training – they all matter. Those are all highly relevant things in modern college football. However, in order for all of those pieces of the puzzle to come together at the level a coaching staff needs, the people in the arena – who travel together, eat together, train together, sweat together – need to simply see that the hard work is paying off. They need tangible evidence that the effort and sacrifice have a reward at the end of the rainbow. Following the coaching staff’s plan really does make a difference. This is how most struggling teams become winners. This is how frustration and long odds turn into success and an expectation of victory.
Vanderbilt isn’t all the way back, based on just two SEC wins, but the program is in an undeniably stronger and better place than it was a year ago. Clark Lea took on this job knowing how much of an uphill climb he would face. He knew there would be no shortcuts and no quick fixes. He was going to have to endure some rough seasons. Last season, he was able to lift Vanderbilt above the unending parades of SEC losses which had marked previous years. He enabled this program and its players to glimpse some sunlight and feel the warmth of victory.
Vanderbilt enters the 2023 season not merely hoping it can do something; no, the Commodores know they are capable of being a bowl team. They know they can reach that standard. They know that if they can push forward and raise the bar from two SEC wins to three, they will probably make the bowl game which has eluded them in recent years. Reaching that milestone will take the proof of concept VU established in 2022 and elevate it to another level. That achievement, if forged, could continue to improve the program’s recruiting and affirm an upward trajectory for Lea’s leadership in Nashville.
There is zero uncertainty or ambiguity about the goal this year at Vanderbilt University: The Commodore football team intends to make a bowl game. The building and growth of the past two years need to lead to a postseason ticket in 2023. Once a group of young men see proof of concept, the tangible step forward builds morale and can enable a team to become far greater than the sum of its parts. That is the grand hope for Clark Lea and of everyone who wants the best for VU football.