Vanderbilt and Clark Lea get a “come to Jesus” moment, thanks to Georgia

Ethan Barr
NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 25: Vanderbilt Commodores linebacker Ethan Barr (32) catches a deflected interception in a game between the Vanderbilt Commodores and Georgia Bulldogs, Saturday, September 25, 2021, at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire)

Losses aren’t fun, especially when they come wrapped in a 62-0 package. A certain degree of humiliation comes with being beaten that badly. This is the kind of loss which will create those lazy, knee-jerk, snobbish cries of “Vanderbilt doesn’t belong in the SEC!”

By Matt Zemek

People forget how foundational Vanderbilt and its football program were in the history of the Southeastern Conference. Younger people – the ones certainly shouting about VU’s lack of merit – probably don’t even know who Grantland Rice is. Their ignorance can easily be shrugged off, but in the meantime, “62-0” is not how a program rebuilds itself. It’s not how a program finds itself. It’s not how a program makes the case that facilities and other facets of its operation deserve to be beefed up.

No, not a soul expected Clark Lea to have instant success at Vanderbilt. Since when does any first-year coach at Vanderbilt have a good chance of succeeding? This was going to be a difficult year. Everyone knew it, no one pretended otherwise…

but 62-0? Sixty-two to nothing? Ouch.

It’s not what any coaching staff or group of players wants, but it’s the reality Vanderbilt has. There is no way of undoing this or pretending it didn’t happen. More precisely, “moving past this” is EXACTLY what Vanderbilt should not and MUST not do.

Vanderbilt has to look this loss squarely in the eye and study it from various angles.

Vanderbilt needs to confront this loss and stare down the ugly truth, taking in the bitter tastes of helplessness and impotence, every last herb, and doing some soul-searching on what needs to happen for this to change.

No, it’s not good this happened. Not at all. Only one’s worst enemy (the Vols over in Knoxville) would wish this kind of thing upon a team and staff… but it did happen.

Now comes the hard part: Doing something about this.

The helpful part of all this – I won’t say “good” – is that Clark Lea can’t possibly tell himself progress is just around the corner. He can’t tell himself, “Well, if we just make a few tweaks here and there, we can be a good team.”

Nope. This is not “tweaks and minor adjustments” territory. This is about the big picture, the full portrait, the whole landscape, the entire building. If Clark Lea had ideas about what it would take to make Vanderbilt better after the frustrating Derek Mason years, those ideas were certainly shaken, if not shattered. If there was a process, a method, a plan, a routine, which informed and illuminated how Lea does business with this 2021 team and with this program in general, Georgia exposed portions of it, if not the full vision altogether.

Lea is a defensive specialist. His defense – while perhaps reasonably schemed – could not withstand Georgia’s force and weight.

Lea is not an offense-first tactician, but his offense was strangled for 60 minutes without ever being able to get a short gulp of fresh air.

Vanderbilt is not going to get the beefiest, most chiseled, most amazing NFL-like specimens on the recruiting trail, so the idea that VU can just become more physical – a natural first response to this loss to Georgia – is an incomplete answer to any question about how Vanderbilt recovers from this game.

Sure, VU does need to become more physical and get players who can hold up in the trenches, but that can’t be the final answer or the whole answer. Vanderbilt needs a different way of doing things.

VU did recruit above its normal level when James Franklin came to Nashville. Lea doesn’t show signs of being able to recruit at that level, though, so if he is going to find a solution, it can’t be limited to the trail. It also can’t be limited to the idea of “doing what we do, but doing it much better than we have been with better players.”

No.

I’m not going to sit here and say Vanderbilt needs to adopt the triple option, or the Air Raid, or a hurry-up offense. That’s Lea’s decision to make, and putting him in a narrow box – as though one system is the answer to his problems – is unfair and very constraining.

However, I can say that whatever Clark Lea chooses to do, and wherever he goes from this point forward, it can’t be business as usual. It can’t be “same old same old.” Vanderbilt needs physical players and it does need a good schematic concept, but most of all, Vanderbilt needs fresh thinking. This program simply can’t operate in a normal, conventional box. THAT is what the Commodores so desperately require, and even James Franklin (look at his awful game management at Penn State) is not what one would call a revolutionary football thinker. He simply recruits well and hires good staffers around him (such as Joe Moorhead, who saved Franklin’s job at Penn State when the Nittany Lions were struggling).

Vanderbilt needs to make peace with this Georgia game by insisting on ditching the conventional route. Vanderbilt coaches the past 25 years have usually been defense-first coaches – Widenhofer, Johnson, Mason – who did not think outside the box on offense.

Is Clark Lea going to allow himself to become part of that string of coaches, or is he going to be the new thinker, the paradigm-shifter, the kind of leader who can look at this game – 62 to nothing – and really, TRULY learn from it?

That’s the question I’m most interested in exploring, because that’s the question which holds the most importance for Vanderbilt football right now.

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