The Vanderbilt Commodores did not play a football game this past weekend, but during a much-needed week off after a series of difficult Saturdays, the landscape of the SEC East changed. It might not be a set of changes which reflects a permanent reality … and that’s precisely the point.
By Matt Zemek
Permanence doesn’t apply to most of the SEC East right now.
The Georgia Bulldogs under Kirby Smart seem set to be an entrenched power for the next several years. Smart has created a machine in Athens which might get creaky and wobbly on offense every now and then, but will regularly play strong defense and will therefore remain extremely competitive against all teams except for those with superpower offenses, such as 2020 Alabama and Florida. Anything less than an elite offense generally means a loss to Georgia. The Bulldogs are here to stay. That’s a representation of permanence and staying power in the division.
Everything else is fundamentally up for grabs at this point, and while that doesn’t necessarily benefit Vanderbilt, it certainly opens the door to the Dores, giving them a chance to move up in their neighborhood.
Florida is in crisis under Dan Mullen. Todd Grantham got fired, staff changes are occurring, and the Gators aren’t entirely sure where to go or what to do. They did crush VU earlier this season, but they are not on sound footing heading into 2022. If they choose to fire Mullen, they will need to hire a strong successor. If they hire the newest incarnation of Will Muschamp or Jim McElwain (or Ron Zook!), that becomes a game Vanderbilt might be able to compete in as the 2020s continue.
Continue with the rest of the East, and one sees the same instability and uncertainty in the division.
Tennessee and Kentucky played a 45-42 game akin to last year’s Alabama-Florida SEC Championship Game. Defense? What defense? Kentucky is obviously dealing with injuries, but even then, the Wildcats suffered busted coverages which simply shouldn’t happen. Tennessee does seem to have a much better handle on the offensive side of the ball under coach Josh Heupel. After many years of neglecting the quarterback position in particular and the passing game in general, the Vols seem to have that piece of the puzzle sorted out. Yet, while their passing game is a lot better, their defense is just as certainly bad. Tennessee has traded one set of problems for another. The idea that the program is clearly better compared to Jeremy Pruitt has not been fully affirmed. One could make an argument in favor of that claim, but it’s still very much a wait-and-see situation in Knoxville. Neither Tennessee nor Kentucky appear ready to become regular annual problems for their SEC East opponents. They’re not easy to beat, but the main point is that they have significant weaknesses which can be continuously exploited.
The Missouri team which defeated Vanderbilt just over a week ago has labored through a very difficult season. Vanderbilt was competitive with the Tigers for 60 minutes, which is itself an indication that the Commodores can rise above MU if Clark Lea makes the right adjustments and learns the right lessons from this 2021 season.
South Carolina did trounce Florida this past weekend, but that game was much more an indication of where Florida is than where the Gamecocks are. That said, Vanderbilt’s ability to outplay the Gamecocks for most of that contest in Columbia now reflects even better on VU, in spite of Lea’s mismanagement of the last few minutes of that contest.
There’s Georgia, and then there’s everyone else. There’s Kirby Smart, pulling in all the five-stars, and then there’s a big, bad mess in Gainesville and a lot of chaos elsewhere in the SEC East. Yes, as Vanderbilt prepares for Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Tennessee in its closing stretch, one wouldn’t bet on the Commodores to win games outright, but one could certainly say that VU’s odds of being competitive in those games have gone up, rather than down.
Were you prepared to absorb such an unexpectedly optimistic sentence a few weeks ago? Probably not.
Vanderbilt has to improve itself for any of this to matter, and that naturally is the number one priority. If that doesn’t happen, the rest of this discussion fades in its value to the Dores and their fans. Yet, if VU can in fact upgrade itself in the coming offseason – in recruiting, transfer portal activity, in Lea’s overall approach to the sport, and more – the non-Georgia teams in the SEC East are there for the taking.
Optimism? Vanderbilt? In THIS economy? What an interesting little surprise during VU’s off week.