Tue Aug 25 12:35pm EDT
Part of the Doc's SEC Week.
In any context, last year's "big picture" results -- a winning record overall, a .500 record in SEC games, five wins over eventual bowl teams (plus Auburn) and a bowl bid for the first time since 1982 -- qualify as a smashing success for Vanderbilt and a testament to the ongoing rehab of the Bobby Johnson administration. Seven wins was the most at Vandy since '82, and 21 wins since 2005 is the most over any four-year period since 1973-76. In a lot of ways, the relative breakthrough in 2008 had been a long time coming.
In a lot of other ways, though, there's not much compelling evidence that the '08 'Dores were more qualified for the distinction of turning the corner than any of their most recent predecessors; this was, after all, a team that lost to Mississippi State and Duke and manhandled in typical fashion by probably the worst edition of Tennessee in decades, a lame duck group coming off a home loss to Wyoming. In fact, on the most fundamental levels -- moving the ball and stopping the other team from moving the ball -- they took a slight but significant step backwards:
In terms of yards gained vs. yards allowed, the recent predecessor last year's team most resembled was 2004 -- the last of three straight hopeless, two-win outfits in Johnson's first three seasons. Over a full schedule, the 2005-07 teams held up much better on a down-by-down basis; the 2005 and 2006 squads were more consistently competitive in SEC games despite their terrible records. (The 2005 team lost three games by a touchdown or less; the '06 team lost four close games, including fourth quarter runs at both of that year's division champs, Arkansas and Florida.)
What's really striking about last year's effort is just how jaw-droppingly bad the Commodores were on offense by any standard, including their own immediate history. Besides being clearly one of the worst attacks in the conference -- Vandy finished dead last in the SEC in passing, pass efficiency and total offense, and 117th out of 119 teams nationally in yards per game -- last year's scoring average (19.2 points per game) was the lowest since 2002, including the two-win seasons in 2003-04. In that context, there was no indication of progress from the bad old days.
The defense was another story, continuing its steady ascent throughout the Johnson years, but to finally get the offensive dead weight over the hump, the biggest push came from old friend, turnover margin: The Commodores were 6-1 last year when they came out on the plus side of the giveaway/takeaway game, and 1-5 when they didn't. During the 5-0 start, they led the nation in turnover margin at +9; only breaking even over the rest of the season, they limped to a 2-6 finish. They won games against solid teams like South Carolina (while being outgained on offense by 100 yards), Ole Miss (outgained by 180 yards, and by over two yards per snap) and Boston College (outgained by 130 yards) in a variety of opportunistic ways, notably the six turnovers forced at Ole Miss -- including one fumble returned for a touchdown and another that stripped the Rebels' go-ahead touchdown at the goal line with minutes to play -- and probably the flukiest play of bowl season for the only touchdown against B.C. Those plays literally made the difference between the best season in a quarter-century and just another tick on the wall of futility, and they're not the kind that tend to repeat themselves.
I do think it would be a little disingenuous, though, to suggest Vandy hasn't made some enormous strides under Johnson; that may be true of the offense, but again, the defense was better than respectable last year, the fifth straight that it improved in terms of yards and points allowed. With nine starters back, it may actually qualify as good this time around, which would be a complete transformation from the units that routinely finished at the bottom of the league when Johnson took over. The offense must improve, by both the sheer law of averages and five returning starters on the line. I understand some degree of optimism based on experience and a general sense of progress.
But coming back to the down-to-down margins and the perennially rock-bottom recruiting classes, Vandy still generally seems so far behind the SEC curve that the prospect of another winning season/bowl game should still be what it's always been: A startling triumph that will probably require multiple upsets. Maybe it'll be a little less startling than before, but I wouldn't expect a repeat performance without some closure in those very fundamental gaps.