To paraphrase the movie “Independence Day,” Vanderbilt did not go quietly into the night. They did not vanish without a fight.
Vanderbilt salvaged maybe a little bit more than their dignity with their 42-24 win over Tennessee to close out a disappointing football season at Neyland Stadium. It was a fitting swan song for a phenomenal group of seniors, and a win that gives Vanderbilt a little bit of hope going into 2018.
The Commodores may not be bowling, but the state of Tennessee will remain black and gold for at least another 365 days.
Here is your final Commodore Brunch menu for the 2017 season.
Senior Swan Song
Make no mistake about it: Tennessee is a very, very bad football team, but the Commodore seniors earned this win.
Every last Vanderbilt player scratched and clawed and fought for every point. The compete level in this team was off the charts. You could see it in the seniors in particular, and the numbers backed up the effort.
Senior wideouts Trent Sherfield and C.J. Duncan got themselves into the end zone and racked up over 80 yards receiving each. In addition, the greatest to ever wear the Commodore uniform, Ralph Webb, had himself an unforgettable night. He ran for 163 yards and two touchdowns to cap a remarkable Commodore career.
There will never be another Ralph Webb. Ever. Never will you find another player that will give the effort he gives night in and night out, the skill level he plays with and the humility with which he carries himself. Webb came to Vanderbilt as a no-name recruit that wasn’t even recruited by his hometown Florida Gators, and he’ll leave as one of the best to ever play in the SEC.
I’m not sure what the future holds for Webb, but he should make an NFL team very happy next season.
The true character of Vanderbilt’s senior class showed on Saturday. Despite having nothing to play for but pride and bragging rights, these guys came to play, and play they did. This was a win by the seniors and for the seniors.
Among all the criticisms leveled against Vanderbilt Football, “the players don’t care” will never be one of them. Given all that they have been through this season, they deserved to go out with a resounding victory.
Tales from Rocky Bottom
Now that this season is in the books, let’s put it in some perspective.
Vanderbilt finished the season with a better record than Tennessee and with more SEC wins than Tennessee. They beat Tennessee for the fourth time in six seasons after winning just one of the previous 29 meetings.
Yes, this season was disappointing for Vanderbilt, but if you had to choose a program to invest in for the future, you’d pick Vanderbilt over Tennessee at this point. Tennessee is a program in disarray. They are coachless, directionless and above all else, hopeless. That loss, plus Sunday’s Greg Schiano saga in Knoxville is just a microcosm of a program and a fanbase in utter chaos.
When you have fans marching to your athletic offices to protest a reported coaching hire, something is deeply wrong.
Vanderbilt is a program whose success is starting to outgrow its infrastructure and financial means. Yes, this season is disappointing and highlights the flaws in the university’s support of athletics, but is that worse than being a prominent program that is at best stuck in a rut, and at worst on the decline?
Tennessee is a car stuck in the mud without the necessary tools to get it out. Vanderbilt is a car freeing itself from the mud, but it’s a smaller car that could probably use some new brake lines and maybe a new souped-up engine.
Even with a strong victory to end the season, let’s not kid ourselves: Vanderbilt Football had a disappointing season. They did not reach a bowl game, and that should not sit well with those in charge of the program. This team should be thrilled with another win over Tennessee, but that’s just about it. There are questions to be asked and changes to be made.
However, this win at the end of the season has to inject some hope and energy into a coaching staff that has been downtrodden all season long. After last week’s loss to Missouri, head coach Derek Mason looked lifeless and dejected. Seeing him jubilant on the sidelines after his second-straight win over Tennessee is a welcomed sight for Vanderbilt fans.
By no means should this win breed complacency with what happened this season. Mason now has the opportunity to right the ship and make the necessary internal changes to prove that 2017 was the anomaly, not 2016. Those changes should start right in Mason’s wheelhouse: the defensive side of the ball.
The first thing that needs to happen is the tackling problem needs to be remedied. Throughout this season, Mason’s defense looked lackluster, seemingly unable to bring down opponents. Whether it’s a change in drills, in schemes or a change in attitude, his defense needs to bring a fundamentally sound brand of football next season. Exclusively arm-tackling big SEC running backs is not the way to win ball games.
Next, the run defense should improve. The front seven made life difficult for many quarterbacks this season, but the same can’t be said for opposing running backs. The defense kowtowed to the SEC’s backs, and the entire team paid the price as a result. Mason has the chance to fix broken schemes and/or find a way to toughen up the front seven to make sure that opposing running backs start running into brick walls instead of holes the size of a minivan.
On offense, coordinator Andy Ludwig got better as the season went on. The offense was a bright spot all season long, and the play calling became far more diverse down the stretch. There’s no better example of that than Vanderbilt’s flea-flicker touchdown against Tennessee on Saturday. It’s still not perfect, but at minimum, the offense proved that the best thing they can do is keep down this path and continue to make the offense more colorful.
Finally, in general, this team needs to find more situational awareness. Throughout 2017, mistimed timeouts, ill-advised challenges and strange coaching decisions kept popping up here and there. In addition, Vanderbilt’s offense had numerous opportunities to take deep shots on free plays thanks to offsides calls, and didn’t take advantage. These are simple things to clean up, and with more experience all around, it should take place.
Overall, next season should be an opportunity for Mason to prove himself and to prove to the world that this was not the “same old Vanderbilt.” This will be Mason’s first team completely devoid of James Franklin’s fingerprints. With some internal improvements and a solid recruiting push, Vanderbilt Football could go back to a bowl in 2018. A schedule sans Alabama will also help.
To quote Herb Brooks, “Great moments are born from great opportunity.”
That’s exactly what Vanderbilt has. And if Mason wants the opportunity, it’s his to take. Let’s ride, Coach Mason.
Featured photo by Claire Barnett