The 2021 college football season is over for Vanderbilt after a loss to Tennessee. There was nothing particularly surprising about VU’s 45-21 loss to the Volunteers in their season finale, which is the key point to emphasize about the state of the Commodore program.
By Matt Zemek
VU lost decisively, and it didn’t rate as news. It all felt very normal. That’s what can’t be accepted. It’s not as though Clark Lea needs to reach the James Franklin standard right away. That’s not going to happen in the next two years, just in case anyone is harboring those kinds of hopes. However, while Tennessee was a lot better than the Dores, it’s not as though the Vols are an elite program. No, they’re not. Florida hired a new head coach, Billy Napier, who will have to prove himself in the coming years. Kentucky was unfortunate with injuries this season, particularly on defense, but it remains that the Wildcats depend on winning ugly, close games to reach eight or nine wins per season. Their margin for error is not large.
Vanderbilt is not about to win eight or nine games the way Kentucky does these days, but VU knows that only Georgia is maxing out in the SEC East. No one else is. South Carolina certainly overachieved this season, but the Gamecocks’ rise coincided with their opponents falling. The 2021 SEC was a place where some teams’ successes – Ole Miss and South Carolina in particular – were made possible because the programs expected to be strong every year were not very strong at all.
Florida, LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn either should be good every year or should expect to be good every year, if not both. Those four programs clearly fell short of where they want to be and expect to be in 2021. We shouldn’t put too much stock into Ole Miss and South Carolina until they can replicate results with those four programs being much better in Gainesville, Baton Rouge, College Station, and the Alabama Plains.
The bottom line: While Vanderbilt does inhabit the basement in the SEC, there’s a large group of teams below Georgia and Alabama which have not established and sustained an especially high standard. So much of this conference is fluid and up for grabs.
Vanderbilt, though not about to win eight games, can certainly improve itself over the next few years to the point where 6-6 is a realistic aspiration, especially if the competition in the SEC doesn’t significantly evolve.
Enter the transfer portal, the equalizer in college sports. The portal is college sports’ version of free agency in the pros. If a roster is deficient, huge finds in the portal can radically reshape the calculus. The portal is so important because seasoned players can be found there. Players who have waited their turn but didn’t get the playing time they expected to receive at a given school can be found there. Players who want fresh starts in different conferences and different competitive contexts can be found there.
The portal, more than high school recruiting, gives a program such as Vanderbilt a chance to jump-start a program, because the process of player development won’t take as long – not with a sophomore or junior whose body has physically developed and just needs the reps to show what he can do.
Clark Lea might be new to head coaching after his stint as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, but he isn’t new to the coaching industry or the demands of modern roster creation in the world of the portal. Lea has had three months to see up close where Vanderbilt comes up short on the field. Now that the games are over, one can only hope that he and his staff have taken notes and sized up the national landscape.
You will notice that with Lincoln Riley going to USC and Brian Kelly going to LSU, a lot of players are decommitting. Naturally, the elite schools are most likely to pick off an Oklahoma or USC decommit, but some players will slip through the cracks. Other players might tire of the scrutiny at a top school and will welcome an exchange in which they face less pressure but get more playing time. Vanderbilt has to knock on lots of doors and stand ready to offer invitations.
Clark Lea needs to sell his vision and his sense of possibility with deftness and boldness. It’s the sales pitch of a lifetime. The task is daunting, but the great salesmen in history find ways to convince people to buy what they’re selling.
Clark Lea needs to successfully sell Vanderbilt football in the transfer portal. If he can, seasons such as this one – and games such as Saturday’s loss to Tennessee – won’t be nearly as common in the near future.