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Looking behind, forging ahead: What the Commodores have left to play for

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Looking behind, forging ahead: What the Commodores have left to play for

Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

After a long bye week, it’s back to football for the Commodores.

Vanderbilt will travel to Columbia, SC this weekend to take on the South Carolina Gamecocks. With a 3-4 record and five games remaining, the Commodores will need a strong finish in order to make a bowl game.

It’s time to take stock of what the Commodores have done so far, and to look at Vanderbilt has left to play for. Here are some burning questions for the Commodores going into the second half of the season:

Should the Commodores still make a bowl game? 

Given the expectations for this team going into the season, and their 3-0 start, it’s bewildering that we actually have to question their ability to make a bowl game. Despite being included for most of the early season, ESPN left Vanderbilt out of their latest bowl projections.

Vanderbilt’s final five opponents include just two teams with losing records, and if their recent poor performances are any indication, there’s no guarantee they’ll get to six wins. Then again, Vanderbilt always seems to follow up poor performances with unexpected wins (see Mizzou and Ole Miss last season), so who knows?

With that, the same question we asked ourselves last season still pesters: can Vanderbilt make a bowl game with just five wins? The answer, once again, appears to be: probably.

As of this week, there are 73 teams in the FBS that have at least four wins, and that, given how much time is left in the season, should get the necessary six wins. With 78 total bowl teams needed, that leaves five remaining slots for teams that aren’t currently on the cusp of bowl eligibility or already eligible.

If we assume that three teams that currently have three wins (outside of Vanderbilt) get to six wins, that would leave two slots for teams with five wins. The NCAA determines bowl invites for five-win teams based on Academic Progress Rate, a measure of athletes’ academic performance. Vanderbilt is the sixth-best APR team in the FBS. Here is a look at the current rankings:

  1. Northwestern (4-3)
  2. Air Force (3-4)
  3. Michigan (5-2)
  4. Duke (4-4)
  5. Minnesota (4-3)
  6. Vanderbilt (3-4)

Given how close Northwestern, Michigan, Duke and Minnesota are to bowl eligibility, Vanderbilt’s only challenger for a 5-7 bowl spot is Air Force. Regardless of Air Force’s record, if there are more than one spots left for 5-7 teams, Vanderbilt should be in.

So, essentially, if you want to see Vanderbilt in a bowl game, root against every other three-win team, especially Air Force.

What did Vanderbilt do in Weeks 1-3 that they didn’t do in Weeks 4-7?

This is a very loaded question. The first thing they didn’t do is play against true Top-25 talent.

Notice the word “true,” because it turns out Vanderbilt’s only ranked win, Kansas State, was not all they were hyped up to be. The Wildcats have won just one game since losing to Vanderbilt in week three, a 13-point win over hapless Baylor. Vanderbilt’s win over Kansas State was still impressive, but not nearly as impressive as it may seem in hindsight.

Next, they managed to have a strong rushing defense before Week Four. In the first three weeks of the season, Vanderbilt gave up 309 rushing yards, 201 of which were to Kansas State. Since then, they’ve given up 1,398 rushing yards. Even though the Vanderbilt front seven has done a good job of pressuring quarterbacks, they need to find that same success in stopping running backs. Even Ole Miss’s lackluster rushing offense managed to torch Vanderbilt.

Many of Vanderbilt’s struggles over the last few weeks can be traced back to the rushing defense. Opponents have been able to impose their offensive will against the Commodores by running the ball and opening up the passing game through play action. If Vanderbilt wants to get back to winning ways, they’ll have to learn how to stop the run.

Yes, the offense has issues on their line, but at least they’ve been putting up points. You’ll find a lot of smaller problems with this team can be solved if the run gets stuffed.

Best case/worst case scenario for the rest of the season? 

The best case scenario for Vanderbilt is to win at least four of their last five games, finish the regular season with seven wins, and get to a bowl game in Birmingham or even right here in Nashville. Beyond South Carolina this weekend, Vanderbilt has a strong chance of winning four games.

The worst case scenario is that they win just one out of their last five and don’t have the chance to make a bowl game. If that happens, a lot of people on Coach Mason’s staff would be on the hot seat, including offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.

Finally, there’s one more realistic, more fun scenario. If Vanderbilt wins two of their next four games, they’ll have five wins going into their final showdown with Tennessee in Knoxville. There’s a chance Tennessee has five wins going into that game as well, and at this rate, Butch Jones won’t be fired until the end of the season.

What if the matchup at Neyland has bowl eligibility on the line? Mason vs. Butch for the right to play in Shreveport, LA against a superior ACC opponent.

If Vanderbilt wins that game, Jones would have a losing record against Vanderbilt, and would most definitely be fired before he can get back to the locker room.

Now that’s a scenario everyone should root for. But until then, #KeepButchJones.

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About the Writer
Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

Cutler Klein ('19) is the Sports Editor of the Vanderbilt Hustler. He previously served as Assistant Sports Editor. He is majoring in Communication Studies...

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