Commodore Brunch Week Six: Swamped

Disappointment is in abundance as Vanderbilt loses its fifth straight.
Ken Seals started his second game of the season against Florida. (Vanderbilt Athletics)
Ken Seals started his second game of the season against Florida. (Vanderbilt Athletics)
Vanderbilt Athletics

Clark Lea’s Team 3 was supposed to be different. Heading into the season, there was a different atmosphere around the first Vanderbilt team with legitimate bowl aspirations since 2018. 

Through seven games, it’s been much of the disappointing same for the Commodores.

On a lot of fronts, Saturday’s 38-14 loss to Florida followed a similar script as the rest of the season. Thanks to key plays early, the Commodores were able to stick around with the Gators, but were eventually outcoached, outplayed and outclassed in what turned into a 24-point blowout. 

Vanderbilt bounced back from Florida’s opening nine-play, 93-yard touchdown drive, though. In an unbelievable sequence in the first quarter, CJ Taylor tracked across the entire field to intercept a Florida trick play as the Gators were marching down the field and looking to double their lead. One play later, Will Sheppard beat his man down the sideline for a remarkable 85-yard touchdown. 

And that was pretty much it. Two incredible individual moments surrounded otherwise by a disjointed team. The offense didn’t score again until late in the third quarter, while the defense got dominated in all phases. Florida quarterback Graham Mertz threw for 3 touchdowns and just 6 incompletions, while the Gators ran for 215 yards on over 7 yards-per-carry. 

“We have a great vision for this program. We look at these painful moments as a part of the journey,” Lea said after the game. 

Those painful moments have been plentiful in the third year of Lea’s tenure. Now, for brunch. 

Sealing the QB discussion (for now)

Despite QB AJ Swann being available for Saturday’s matchup, veteran backup Ken Seals got the nod to start against the Gators. After not playing at all in 2022 behind Swann and former Commodore Mike Wright, Seals made his first start of the season last week against Mizzou and followed that up with a solid performance versus Florida. The stats (19-34, 276 yards, 2 touchdowns) aren’t eye-popping by any means against a Gators’ defense that has been inconsistent thus far, but the performance should quiet any quarterback controversy.

Looking at Seals’s performance more intently, the veteran signal-caller did well balancing decisiveness in the pocket with discipline. Saturday marked the first time since Vanderbilt’s opening win over Hawaii that its quarterback did not turn the ball over – a stat that explains well why Vanderbilt has struggled to stick with teams in recent weeks. For all of Swann’s arm talent, which is abundant, the sophomore has often lacked the discipline that Vanderbilt needs from its quarterback to stay in games; take Swann’s three-interception game against Kentucky, for example. 

Despite being a bit more limited physically than Swann, Seals showed his ability to make plays down the field against the Gators. Aside from the long touchdown to Sheppard, the senior quarterback also connected with Junior Sherrill for 52 yards and Richie Hoskins for gains of 27 and 21 yards. For all of Seals’s troubles leading the offense early in his Vanderbilt career, the senior has looked sharp in his return as a starter.

What’s more — and rather surprising for a team with two wins that has lost five on the bounce — is that a struggling passing attack is quite low on Vanderbilt’s list of concerns. Seals and Swann have both had moments of great quarterback play this season, and Vanderbilt’s receiving group is quietly one of the best in the conference. For all of the issues that have led to this disastrous season – and there are plenty to go around – Vanderbilt’s passing attack is one of the few bright spots. So, whether it’s Seals or Swann that finishes out the season, Vanderbilt should continue to produce in the air.

Line of scrimmage woes

Arguably more than anything else, Vanderbilt’s performance on both sides of the line of scrimmage this season is the biggest reason for its current state. Offensively, Saturday marked the fourth game in a row that Vanderbilt failed to break 100 rushing yards as a team. In that same stretch, the Commodores have surrendered over 185 rushing yards per game to their opponents. Not a great combination.

Simply put, Montrell Johnson Jr. and the rest of Florida’s rushing attack did everything they wanted on Saturday. The Gators dominated in a variety of ways: zone schemes, counters, off-tackle, you name it. The certain thing was that the first Vanderbilt defender they would face would be a member of the secondary, as Vanderbilt’s front-seven was completely erased on most plays. To make matters worse, the Gators were also missing two of their starting offensive linemen – Kingsley Eguakun and Austin Barber – but still opened huge holes along Vanderbilt’s defensive line. The fixes for the Commodores are not simple, but more discipline in the gaps and physicality up front is the bare minimum if Vanderbilt wants to turn this season around. 

What originally was thought to be an electrifying running back duo of Patrick Smith and Sedrick Alexander has fallen completely flat, due to both struggling individually and failing to find any space behind a poor Vanderbilt offensive line. While the game script in recent weeks has led to a limited number of carries, running the ball effectively and controlling possession should be a way to keep Vanderbilt in games against heavy favorites. Instead, the Commodores have found themselves in a situation where they have nearly as many fumbles lost (5) as rushing touchdowns (7).

All season, Lea has harped on the importance of playing complementary football: executing in all three phases and playing a mistake-free game. In their current state, the Commodores have simply been complementing mistakes with more mistakes. It’s difficult to watch week in, week out and, frankly, it reflects very poorly on Lea in the midst of his third season. 

Next course

The good news is that Vanderbilt is not (yet) mathematically eliminated from bowl contention. The bad news is that all of Vanderbilt’s best opportunities for wins have come and gone, and the team only has two wins to show for it. This week holds a grueling home matchup against No. 1 Georgia (happy Parents Weekend). The last time the Bulldogs came to Nashville, they won 62-0. It’s difficult to imagine Saturday’s affair going any better for the Commodores. 

After that, a difficult SEC schedule awaits Vanderbilt with matchups against No. 16 Ole Miss and No. 22 Tennessee split up by games against Auburn and South Carolina. If the Commodores are to win another game this season, it’ll almost certainly have to come against Spencer Rattler and South Carolina, who were blown out by Tennessee in their last game. 

Even if Vanderbilt is to somehow win two of its remaining games, the Commodores will fall well short of their six-win goal. If not playing for bowl contention anymore, Commodore fans can hope the team will fight to come somewhere close to last year’s 5-7 record. Lea will definitely hope to motivate his team to win a few games. 

His job might depend on it.

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About the Contributor
Anish Mago
Anish Mago, Former Deputy Sports Editor
Anish Mago ('24) is from West Windsor, N.J., and is studying economics and political science in the College of Arts and Science. He previously served as a staff writer for the Sports section. When not writing for The Hustler, Anish enjoys playing basketball and rooting for all Philly sports. He can be reached at .
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