The Vanderbilt Commodores were not expected to thrive this season, and they have not. It’s hard to call this a disappointing season when expectations were low to begin with.
By Matt Zemek
It has to be said that Kentucky and Missouri did not hit the ball out of the park this season. Florida cratered under the now-fired Dan Mullen. South Carolina has been a pleasant surprise under Shane Beamer, and yet Vanderbilt outplayed the Gamecocks most of the way. As much as Vanderbilt has suffered over the past three months, the non-Georgia teams in the SEC East have not shown they are ready to perform at a much higher level. If Florida doesn’t hire a high-quality coach (we will have to wait and see), second place in the East will be up for grabs in the coming years.
Is Vanderbilt likely to be in the hunt for that second-place spot? No, of course not … but if Clark Lea is made of special, sterner stuff, and if he has taken good notes this season on what he needs to bring into Nashville, he will find ways to improve the product on the field. He will make VU significantly better than it is right now.
A final indicator of where Vanderbilt stands, a last 2021 measurement of what this team can achieve, comes Saturday against the hated Volunteers of Tennessee. One could make the argument that among all non-Georgia SEC East teams, Tennessee has the brightest future. It’s a debatable point, but certainly a reasonable one. Josh Heupel gives the Vols something they didn’t have under Derek Dooley, Butch Jones, or Jeremy Pruitt: a coach who truly understands the passing game and the importance of quarterback play. Imagine Heupel having Josh Dobbs as his quarterback five years ago. The Vols very likely would have won 10 games and played in the Sugar Bowl. Their recruiting would have been better, but instructively, it also would have translated into better on-field results.
Vanderbilt fans know their own program is struggling to reach the next level, but they have certainly enjoyed the past 14 years of Vol incompetence, ever since the program’s last (distant) appearance in the SEC Championship Game in 2007. It’s as comforting as a cup of hot chocolate on a crisp autumn night to know that Tennessee just isn’t ready for prime time, and isn’t about to taste top-tier success.
The worry among Vanderbilt fans is that Heupel might be about to change that. He took Hendon Hooker and molded him into an effective quarterback against middle-tier SEC teams. Alabama, Georgia and Florida had way too much for the Vols, but Tennessee was good against nearly every other opponent in the conference. The Vols didn’t raise their ceiling this year, but they did raise their floor, which is not bad for a first-year head coach. That’s why this Vanderbilt game is so interesting.
Is Tennessee ready to take off, or are the Vols merely the best of the not-that-great teams in the SEC after the top three of Georgia, Alabama, and Ole Miss? If Vanderbilt can give the Vols a fight, that would certainly reinforce the view that Tennessee is a paper tiger and not a team ready to take the next step. If VU can play its best defensive game of the year and land a few downfield shots on offense, this game can at least remain close. Winning will be a tall task – we won’t pretend otherwise – but making this game competitive is a reasonable aspiration for Vanderbilt.
Successfully pushing the Vols and making them sweat would rate as a moral victory, the kind of thing fans rightly get tired of when it occurs so often and is spoken of so regularly. Yet, when a program is winless in the SEC as Vanderbilt is, a moral victory contains real value.
If VU can at least squash the notion that Tennessee is for real – playing a close game against an opponent which obviously contains a lot more firepower – the Commodores can hit the recruiting trail (before the start of the early signing period) and especially the transfer portal hard. Clark Lea can sell a vision, telling recruits – accurately – that the SEC East, after Georgia, is very much up for grabs.
Would Commodore fans want to beat the Vols? It goes without saying. Yet, merely creating a close game – and leaving Tennessee fans mumbling about how shaky the Vols look heading into 2022 – would rate as a significant forward step for VU football.
The non-Georgia East is unsettled and uncertain. Vanderbilt needs to step into that chaos and clutter and make significant transfer portal gains which can instantly catapult the Dores into a higher tier of quality and stature.
Is that a likely outcome? Skeptics will say no. Vanderbilt can’t worry what the skeptics think about the Dores. VU needs to create skepticism among the Vols as this regular season comes to a close. Doing so could change the game for the Vanderbilt program … and for transfers who want to be part of a team which needs stars to author a transformation in 2022.