Commodore Brunch Week 13: Rocky Topped
Vanderbilt got pantsed by rival Tennessee on Saturday, but that doesn't mean this season was all for naught.
November 27, 2022
In last week’s Brunch following a triumphant victory over Florida, I wrote that “the young Commodores will be playing with nothing to lose and everything to win,” in their matchup against Tennessee.
Despite our most optimistic hopes (looking at you, Aiden Rutman), this program is still lightyears away from competing with the big boys on the big stage. On Saturday, that fact rang true over and over again as Tennessee dismantled Vanderbilt, 56-0.
In what was Vanderbilt’s biggest game since I’ve been a student over the last four years, admittedly, I expected a little bit more fight out of the Commodores. To be non-competitive from the jump against a rival with bowl eligibility on the line was painful, sobering, upsetting, you name it.
But to quote the infamous Derek Mason: Sometimes it’s about Jimmie’s and Joe’s.
Tennessee was bigger, faster (much, much faster) and stronger than Vanderbilt on Saturday night. Despite starting backup quarterback Joe Milton III, the Volunteers had no trouble dissecting the Commodores to the tune of 513 offensive yards. That’s before you add in the 130 punt return yards Tennessee gained.
It’s also, okay. Fine, in year 2 under Clark Lea. Expected, given the history of these two programs. And, likely, not a big deal given Vanderbilt’s end of year progress.
“We’re disappointed right now. Tonight was painful. I just hurt for our team, for our fans and for our program,” Lea said after the game. “We wanted the chance to extend our season and fell short, but we’re gonna have a chance to step back and really take a big-picture view. I can tell you that there’s a belief and feeling internally that we are closing those gaps, and we need to capture that sense of improvement and use that as fuel to just continue to strive forward.”
As we saw during the season, the early returns from Lea’s youngsters have been sensational. The Jimmie’s and Joe’s will be on West End soon.
That Vanderbilt didn’t show up for the Tennessee game; getting dominated and outflanked all across the field is concerning and agonizing.
But that Vanderbilt put itself in a position to gain bowl eligibility in this game, got the SEC losing streak off their back, beat Florida for the first time in nine years and developed young stars like CJ Taylor, AJ Swann and Jayden McGowan.
As we close the page on this chapter of Vanderbilt football, I reckon that Team 2 will be remembered more fondly than their counterparts in the modern era. From Honolulu to Lexington, Vanderbilt Stadium to FirstBank, Elon to Florida, there were moments of growth. Of fun. It’s been a while since that word was associated with this program.
As I close out my final Brunch, I’d like to thank all of the readers for sticking along for the ride. Through the highs and the lows, it’s been a privilege and an honor to write in this space every week following the greats like Max Schneider, Simon Gibbs and Justin Hershey.
One last time, on to Brunch.
Excuse my sappy, self-induced farewell above because today’s Brunch menu will leave about as sour of a taste in your mouth as Lea’s bunch did last night.
From a football perspective, last night was an annihilation that deserves few kind words. Vanderbilt was humbled by the Volunteers utterly and consistently for a nauseating, never-ending 60 minutes. They were soundly beaten in all three phases of the game and never had a chance in this one.
Defensively, Vanderbilt actually held up decently well in the first half, but the floodgates opened in the second half. The big play consistently killed the Commodores and the 35 points allowed in the final two quarters was more than Vanderbilt has given up in an entire game since the South Carolina loss.
“We played unstructured against the run, and we played against a good opponent,” Lea said afterward the game. “Where we were a gap short or a step slow, they made us pay by outrunning us to the end zone. It was a night where we weren’t able to down our mistakes. I thought tackling was a little suspect, and there were things that fundamentally, technically, we needed to do better. Obviously, the game ran away from us there, and the explosive touchdowns are disappointing.”
Tennessee kicked off the fun (err, pain) with a 65-yard connection between Joe Milton III and Jalin Hyatt, the Volunteers’ superstar speedster receiver. Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, it was easily Milton III’s—filling in for the injured Hendon Hooker—best throw of the night and swung momentum to the Volunteer sideline just two plays into the game. Tennessee scored one play later to put itself up 7-0 just 55 seconds into the game.
The 4-play, 75-yard drive would be indicative of the torment Vanderbilt would face all night. The Volunteers scored five touchdowns of over 50 yards and three of over 70. Two of them were over 80 yards and one of them was a punt return.
A week after holding the Florida Gators to 45 rushing yards, Vanderbilt allowed 362 on the ground to the Volunteers. Sophomore Jaylen Wright compiled a Randy Moss-esque stat line of 5 rushes for 160 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The Commodores’ usually stout special teams unit was given fits all night by Tennessee’s speed, namely on a 73-yard punt return touchdown from Jabari Small. The score pushed the Volunteer lead to 21-0 halfway through the second quarter, putting the game firmly out of reach from that point on.
Not great, Nick Howell. Not great.
For as difficult as this one was defensively, Joey Lynch and the offense made matters even worse for the Commodores on Saturday night. After two straight weeks of success, Vanderbilt looked lost and unorganized offensively against Tennessee. That’s a disappointment against a Volunteer defense that allowed 63 points last time out against South Carolina.
Both Lynch and starting quarterback Mike Wright really struggled in this one, a shame given both of their recent surges to end the season. Lynch lacked creativity and urgency until it was too late on Saturday, settling for a conservative gameplan that didn’t involve Wright, Patrick Smith or Jayden McGowan much in the early run game. Wright, much like in the Wake Forest game, struggled mightily in the rain and never seemed comfortable or in rhythm against the Volunteers. After a magnificent two-game stretch in the Commodores’ last two victories, he finished the night just 7-of-13 for 28 yards passing.
The most peculiar aspect of the offensive game plan was the usage of AJ Swann. The freshman was finally healthy in this one, but Vanderbilt’s insertion of him midway through the third quarter was far too little, too late. It was evident early that Wright was having trouble through the air, so why wait to put in Swann if he was truly healthy? Yes, Wright had (w)rightfully earned the start and Swann’s future development is more important than risking injury right now. But Vanderbilt was playing to earn a bowl spot, and the puzzling usage of Swann was emblematic of the lack of urgency from the coaching staff to treat it as such.
Lynch’s play-calling improved as the game progressed, but it was never going to be enough to keep up with the Volunteers. Vanderbilt wasted a number of promising drives due to penalties, bad third and fourth down calls and another missed field goal from Joey Bulovas.
Aside from Ray Davis—who became the seventh Commodore to break the 1,000-yard barrier—there were few bright spots for the Vanderbilt offense on Saturday night. That refrain was true more often than not in 2022 and should warrant Lea looking to make some type of staff upgrades on that side of the football this offseason.
The Long Winter
At 5-7—and without the help of the APR—Vanderbilt will not go bowling, ending its season. Thus begins the long winter.
Every offseason is crucial for the health of a college football program. In the era of the transfer portal and NIL, it will be just as important for Vanderbilt to re-recruit its own roster as it will be for them to reel in a talented crop of high school recruits.
Big picture, the Commodores had a successful season in year 2 in the Clark Lea era. Vanderbilt had a chance at a bowl game, won multiple SEC games and showed its penchant for both uncovering underrated recruits and also developing them within their program. The good news: Those factors equate to unequivocally positive momentum moving forward and a true building block for Lea to start from.
The bad news: Other teams noticed, too.
It would be naive to think that Vanderbilt’s best players won’t be circled by some of the SEC’s biggest and baddest sharks. Young emergent talents with multiple years of eligibility left like Taylor, Swann, McGowan and Will Sheppard will certainly be enticing for some of the league’s bluebloods.
That’s where the importance of the recently launched Anchor Collective comes into play. According to its website, the collective is “dedicated to enhancing the experience of Vanderbilt student-athletes by providing opportunities to capitalize on their name, image, and likeness, while never compromising integrity.” Read: In 2022, Vanderbilt needs to keep their best players financially happy in the competitive SEC. At last, Vanderbilt can (hopefully) be competitive in the NIL space after the collective’s launch.
This collective will also be valuable in assisting Vanderbilt’s transfer portal coup, an increasingly important portion of the offseason menu. As for the traditional route, Lea and general manager Barton Simmons currently hold the No. 54 recruiting Class of 2023 in the country, per 247Sports. As we saw last offseason—when Vanderbilt flipped top recruits like Swann and Ja’Dais Richard—there is much work to be done between now and signing day in that department.
“I think we have to grow and develop as a program,” Lea said after the game. “I think we have to develop the players that we have and the players that are returning. I think we’ve gotta recruit into that gap too. That’s important.”
Despite the brutal finish, the arrow is pointed skyward for this program after the 2022 season. Six wins and a bowl game appearance should be the expectation in 2023, not a distant dream.
As I pass the Brunch torch to the next generation of Hustler sports editors, it’s a welcome change to be able to finish on such a positive note.
Mimosas to go?