Vanderbilt enters 2022 knowing it must improve

Vanderbilt fans

Vanderbilt football is living between the tension points of realism and optimism. It’s important to have high aspirations and not set artificial limits for what a group of human beings can achieve, but it also doesn’t make sense to set forth various goals which simply aren’t attainable in a contemporary context.

By Matt Zemek

Vanderbilt should certainly aspire to something better, something more than what the program has lived through these past several years. Yet, it’s foolish and unproductive to think the Commodores can instantly become a seven- or eight-win program. That is simply not going to happen.

Second-year head coach Clark Lea should certainly think his team can win four or five games this season. Vanderbilt can and should do better than the 2-10 disaster which was the 2021 season. However, in the SEC East, a rapid rise is just not likely.

Georgia is ascendant as reigning national champion. Florida is getting a big coaching upgrade in Billy Napier after Dan Mullen crashed and burned. Josh Heupel hasn’t figured everything out at Tennessee, but the Vols will score a lot of points, something they didn’t do under previous head coaches. Missouri got a five-star wide receiver and has every reason to think it can make a bowl game. Kentucky won 10 games last year and is overachieving under Mark Stoops. South Carolina greatly exceeded expectations last season and now has Spencer Rattler at quarterback under head coach Shane Beamer.

It will take some doing for Vanderbilt to merely avoid finishing last in the East. Finishing fifth would be quite impressive. Finishing as high as fourth would be astonishing.

Even if you account for the fact that Vanderbilt recruited really well this cycle, landing a top-35 class in spite of the enormous challenges and limitations it faces in the SEC, the Commodores still have a low ceiling because the competition in the conference is getting better or is at least in a position to put a halt to recent regression, Florida being a good example. This is a reminder in sports that even if you play well and improve, you might not get the results you want because the opponent also improved.

Can Vanderbilt become a seven- or eight-win program under Clark Lea? If he continues to stack together top recruiting classes and can develop players, sure.
Just not in one year, though.

This is at least a two-year journey if not a three-year process. There is no shame in acknowledging that. Vanderbilt enters 2022 at a great deficit compared to its divisional competitors. Making up the gap won’t occur overnight. The program has to be realistic even while it aspires to be better.

The realistic goal for this season is five wins. Four should be the floor for the 2022 VU team.

The path to improvement begins on offense, where the Commodores struggled last year and have usually struggled over the past 25 years even in their better moments. Woody Widenhofer was able to frustrate Steve Spurrier’s Florida offense at times, but the Dores couldn’t score enough to engineer huge upsets of those glory-day Gators. The Bobby Johnson teams similarly managed to field robust defenses, and the offense couldn’t do enough to complement its teammates on the other side of the ball. When James Franklin came to Nashville, the skill level on offense improved largely because Franklin is a formidable recruiter. Yet, having pieces means little without being able to develop them. VU achieved a significant level of player development under Franklin. That, combined with savvy (read: easy-win-opportunity) non-conference scheduling, enabled the Commodores to taste more prosperity than they had known in a long time.

Since Franklin left, though, the feelings and misfortunes of previous coaching staffs reentered the picture. In Year 1 of the Clark Lea era, Vanderbilt averaged just under 16 points per game. The Commodores scored six points or fewer in four separate contests. No one needs an explanation of what must change when the reality on the ground is that grim.

Obviously, this encouragingly strong recruiting class offers a chance for growth, but it’s a lot to ask of freshmen to expect them to immediately grow into top-tier SEC players. If we’re being realistic (there’s that word again), the freshmen will use 2022 to learn how to play in college football’s most cutthroat conference, laying a foundation for 2023 with another quality recruiting class building depth next year.

Ja’Dais Richard at safety and Jayden McGowen at receiver are two promising newcomers at the head of this 2022 class who could make Vanderbilt more dynamic. Will they be expected to make meaningful contributions this year? Sure. Are they going to be fully-formed and polished players by the end of the year? Probably not.

What will limit this team’s ceiling is the fact that offensive tackle Tyler Steen transferred to Alabama. The Commodores need anchors, and Steen was one of them on the offensive line. All the pieces have to be in place for a team to at least make a bowl game or attain enormous, large-scale improvements. Those pieces aren’t in alignment for Vanderbilt. Modest improvement, not the quantum leap, is the realistic goal for 2022.

Errington Truesdell (50), linebacker Elijah McAllister (1), safety Brendon Harris (27), and defensive back Alan Wright (44)One hopeful message for this program entering the fall is paradoxically rooted in pain and failure. That message: Vanderbilt outplayed South Carolina for most of the game between the two teams last year. When one realizes that South Carolina made and won a bowl game, Vanderbilt should realize that if a team it outplayed was able to make such substantial gains in one season, the Commodores – with modest improvement – could lift their fortunes more than a lot of analysts might first think. If that South Carolina game had broken the other way last year, maybe VU wins four games and finds a higher level of belief in the back end of the season. The margin for error with this team is small, but the dividing line between a good season and a bad one is also very thin. If Vanderbilt can live on the right side of a thin margin, progress might emerge sooner than most analysts are expecting.

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