SMITH: Missouri matchup is Vanderbilt’s first true litmus test of 2022

Coming off a stretch of facing three straight top-10 ranked opponents, Vanderbilt will finally have a real chance to assess progress in year two under Clark Lea.


Arianna Santiago

Crowd watches the football game, captured on September 10, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Arianna Santiago)

Bryce Smith, Sports Editor

Clark Lea and his Vanderbilt football program have just endured a historically brutal stretch of football. Coming off the heels of a 55-0 loss at Georgia on Saturday, the Commodores have wrapped up a trio of contests against top-10 opponents with a combined record of 20-1 on the season. It is the only time Vanderbilt has faced such a gargantuan task—that is, three foes in the top-10 in a row—in the history of the AP poll, instituted in 1936. 

In Week Four, the Commodores tussled with Alabama, losing 55-3 on the road. Led by Heisman Trophy candidate and future top-5 NFL pick Bryce Young, the Tide cruised to 628 yards of total offense. 

Week Six offered a tastier contest against the No. 9 Ole Miss Rebels, but Vanderbilt ran out of gas in the second half, dropping the game, 56-28. Despite carrying a 20-17 lead into halftime, the Commodores allowed 591 yards of total offense and 35 second half points. 

The SEC schedule makers saved the best (er, worst) for last with No. 1 Georgia in Week Seven. To the surprise of pretty much no one, the Bulldogs rolled over the Commodores to the tune of a 55-0 blowout. Behind quarterback Stetson Bennett, Georgia amassed 579 yards of offense. 

That stretch revealed some smaller emerging trends for Vanderbilt.

On the bright side: Vanderbilt outplayed No. 9 Ole Miss for the better part of two quarters during Homecoming Weekend, largely behind the play of freshmen AJ Swann and Jayden McGowan. Statistically speaking, the offense has made massive strides; Vanderbilt has scored 187 points in 6 games after scoring 189 in 12 last season. Ray Davis (536 rushing yards, 4 TDs) and Will Sheppard (497 receiving yards, 8 TDs) have become legitimate playmakers in the SEC. 

On the not-so-bright side: Vanderbilt has allowed an average of 54 points per game over their last three. No matter who you are playing, that’s not going to work. 

And on the dark side: The Commodores rank 130th out of 131 teams in passing yards allowed per game with an average of 333 yards. Only the Ohio Bobcats of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) saved Nick Howell’s unit from the basement of the list. 

“We’re not looking at the three losses as a stretch,” senior cornerback Jaylen Mahoney said after the UGA loss. “We’re just looking at it as opportunities to grow as a program. Just pushing the message to [the team]: ‘Keep going, keep working hard in practice because practice is where we win.’ Going hard at practice starting Monday is the next step.”

He’s right. Despite some of these trends, Vanderbilt really hasn’t learned anything about themselves this season yet. 

The Commodores’ most impressive win to date is a comeback road win over a Northern Illinois team that is now sitting at 2-5 on the season. Their other two victories came against a 2-5 Hawaii squad and Elon, an FCS program.

On the flip side, the four teams that Vanderbilt has lost to this season have a combined record of 25-2. Each of them are ranked inside the top 13 of the latest AP poll. The Commodores are yet to face off against a middling Power 5 opponent—one more similar to themselves. 

Insert Missouri. 

Despite bringing in a top-20 recruiting class in 2022, the Tigers have struggled this season under third-year coach Eli Drinkwitz. Aside from nearly pulling off an improbable upset over No. 1 Georgia—the Bulldogs had a 88.9% postgame win expectancy (according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly) despite winning by just four points—Mizzou hasn’t had a single impressive performance this season. 

While Mizzou’s defense has improved relative to last year, it is still average compared to the rest of the country (No. 58 in scoring defense and also in rushing defense). The Tigers have been better against the pass, but it hasn’t been enough to overcome an anemic offense through the first six games. 

On the other side of the ball, Missouri ranks No. 94 in scoring offense, No. 103 in passing offense and has thrown eight interceptions this year. The team has averaged 16.2 points per game against Power 5 opponents and ranks No. 102 in penalty yards per game. Translation: this is not a strong offense. 

Starting quarterback Brady Cook was benched midway through the Kansas State game for poor play and then immediately re-inserted after backup Jack Abraham went 0-for-3 with a pair of interceptions. Against FBS opponents, Cook has thrown two touchdown passes to six interceptions and has yet to throw for more than 220 yards in a game. 

Point being, Mizzou is no Georgia. Or Alabama. Or even Ole Miss. Missouri has more talent in their program than Vanderbilt does, but, even on the road, this is a game that the Commodores should compete in and possibly even win. Last season, Vanderbilt hung around with Missouri, ultimately losing 37-28. It was one of the team’s better SEC performances of the season against an opponent more akin to themselves than the Houston Texans (see: Georgia and Alabama).

As the Commodores make their first return to Faurot Field since 2020, Lea can finally use this game as a definitive marker of progress within his program in year two. How his staff and team responds will give us a picture of what’s to come for Vanderbilt in the rest of the SEC schedule. But the implications of the matchup with Missouri go beyond Saturday: there’s not much to recruit to when you are losing 55-0, but snapping a 24-game conference losing streak—or at least coming close—would surely help. In all likelihood, that quest to win an SEC game was never going to begin until Week Eight against Missouri. 

Week Eight is here. Time to find out how “Team 2” will respond.