Vanderbilt’s 2021 football season hasn’t truly owned a middle-ground identity – not at any point in the journey. Here’s what that statement means: Vanderbilt is either getting blown out by decent-to-good teams or it is playing very close games against not-very-good teams. There isn’t anything in between.
By Matt Zemek
After a 45-6 loss to Mississippi State, Vanderbilt is left with roughly one month of football this season, one month in which it needs to advance in a fundamental way.
The Commodores have lost five games by 18 or more points this season, and have played three squeakers against teams which haven’t impressed in 2021: a Colorado State team which lost to an FCS opponent the week before; Connecticut (say no more); and a struggling South Carolina team which joins Vanderbilt as one of the two worst teams in the SEC this year.
Vanderbilt’s next game is a home date with Missouri, which reasonably qualifies as a lower-tier SEC team. Mizzou got crushed by Tennessee and has not built on an encouraging 2020 season in which it knocked off LSU and generally played a lot better than many people were expecting.
We really need to see Vanderbilt play a four-quarter game against Mizzou. It doesn’t have to be a win, though that would surely be great. Missouri is a better team than South Carolina, but the gap between the Tigers and both the Gamecocks and Commodores is not that large. Vanderbilt needs to stay in this fight for 60 minutes and show that South Carolina isn’t the only SEC team it can compete with. A blowout loss with Ole Miss and Kentucky looming just around the bend would be an ominous sign for Clark Lea and his staff.
It’s going to be tough for Vanderbilt to win any of these four remaining games, but the Missouri game is at least a game which figures to be competitive and can become a contest which is decided late in the fourth quarter. Vanderbilt needs to find a way to improve its standards as this season goes along. It can’t keep eating total blowouts against the highly-ranked teams, and it has to be more competitive against the opponents which are closer to Vanderbilt’s level.
Not being able to do much against Mississippi State – a middle-of-the-pack team in the SEC, not great but not terrible – gives plenty of ammunition to critics who would claim that the gap between Vanderbilt and the No. 8 or 9 team in the 14-member SEC is widening, not shrinking. Does the pandemic, combined with the transfer portal and the first year of a coaching staff, have something to do with this? Maybe it does.
The problem is that we don’t really know – not yet – just how much the reality of college football in both 2020 and 2021 has been shaped by the pandemic. This wild and unpredictable season could be the product of that. It could be the product of the portal. It could be the product of an extra year of eligibility (which relates to the pandemic but is a separate item all its own). In truth, it’s probably a little of everything, but the balance (which factor is more responsible and which factor is less responsible) is hard to know at this point. It might require a 2022 season, with more stability and more of an understanding of how to work the transfer portal among various programs and coaching staffs, before we get a clearer sense of whether college football is headed for increased parity (as this 2021 season has provided), or if we are going to revert to the four elite teams at the top reality (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma) of the previous several seasons, from 2015 through 2020.
Given all this uncertainty, Vanderbilt can’t be seen as a complete doormat (or Dore-mat, as it were). The Commodores need to put up a fight against Missouri and show that while they’re not at the level of a bowl team, they’re not as bad as their worst skeptics think they are. Vanderbilt has to find more of a middle ground in the remaining portion of its season.