Wednesday, September 17, 2008

SECond look, Week 3

Streeeeeeeetch for that sixth seventh win ...

Not to play Captain Bringdown, but ... As terrific as they've been through three games, as huge a win as the South Carolina victory was, as much as they deserved to be in the polls this week, as brilliant a coach as Bobby Johnson clearly is ... Vanderbilt isn't as close to that elusive bowl berth as you might think just yet.

It hurts me to type that; like every SEC fan with a soul (or residing outside of Knoxville), a Commodore bowl berth would bring a smile to my face quicker than any other SEC-related accomplishment that didn't belong to my own team. There's no question Johnson and guys like the brilliant D.J. Moore--seriously, just scroll down the Vandy side of this box score and look at how many times "D. Moore" appears--unquestionably deserve to taste the postseason. But it's still a coin-flip at best if they're getting there. Here's why:

1. It may very well take a 7-5 record.
Remember that while 6-6 teams are bowl-eligible, the NCAA mandates that the bowls have to place every 7-5 team somewhere before they can extend a bid to a 6-6 team. Thus Vandy won't just be competing with their fellow SEC teams for a bid--they have to hope that teams like Middle Tennessee State, Buffalo, and Rice don't get to that critical seventh win. And the spate of early-season upsets like MTSU over Maryland, Buffalo over UTEP, and Rice over Memphis (not to mention the Mountain West's top-to-bottom ownership of the PAC-10) is bad news for the 'Dores--not to mention their SEC equals like Arkansas and Kentucky escaping nonconference upset bids with their hides intact.

To boot, even if there is a hole somewhere for a 6-6 team, it had better come with an SEC bowl tie, because as good a story as the 'Dores would be, Vandy's fan base just isn't wide enough to compete for a bid with some of the traditional giants that could very well finish 6-6 as well. The Motor City ain't taking Vandy over Michigan. The Poinsettia ain't taking Vandy over UCLA. Etc. UPDATE: A commenter points out why I am a COLLEGE FOOTBALL EXPERT and should be listened to at all times: "Actually, I'd like to point out that Vanderbilt only needs six wins if there is an SEC bowl tie-in available. Only when there is an open slot for a bowl game will the 7-5 teams be slotted first. With the addition of the papajohns bowl as the possible tenth bowl tie-in for the SEC, it seems likely that six wins will be enough for Vandy." So, yeah, the above argument's pretty much in the toilet. But hey, the rest of it still holds up.

Vandy needs a seventh win, and getting it just isn't going to be easy when ...

2. The schedule's a bear. On paper, the scheduling formula for a Vandy bowl bid is a year when they get most of their winnable games at home and the games that are a likely lost cause on the road, where it doesn't make a difference what venue they're in.

Unfortunately, the remainder of Vandy's 2008 slate plays out pretty much like the exact opposite of that. It's true that the 'Dores are at Georgia and host Duke, but aside from that? Ole Miss, Mississippi St., and Kentucky are all road games while Vandy will have to play host to Auburn, Florida, and Tennessee. Bleah.

That's not to say the home games are out of reach (Auburn and Tennessee look particularly inviting, at least until their offensive issues are ironed out), but it's just not optimal. And outside of conference, things could most definitely be better: a roadie at Wake Forest to close the season looks even tougher than the Demon Deacons' wrecking-ball job in Nashville last season, and Duke is decidedly not the patsy they've been the last several years, not when they're dominating Northwestern statistically and beating a respectable Navy team. Put it all together, and you've got a schedule in which even after the 3-0 start, there's not a single game in which the 'Dores are the clear favorite. Given that Vandy's basically never the favorite, that might not be quite so ill an omen if not for the fact that ...

3. They simply aren't quite as good as their record and/or the scoreboard has suggested. PhilipVU94, take it away:
With each day as my enthusiasm about the Rice win fades, I think more and more about the numbers. +20 yards against Miami. -100 vs. Carolina. -53 vs. Rice.

Look, I don’t want to be alarmist. Special teams and heart count for a lot, obviously. And we could be like Miss State last year, who got outgained by 73.4 ypg in the SEC and went 4-4. (Hell, let’s really dream. Let’s be Tennessee and win the division with -32.7 ypg!) But I just don’t want our fans to feel blindsided. If a 'collapse' comes, it isn’t so much because of the V on the helmet as it is just our W-L record falling more in line with the stats.
This is especially true when you consider how much more effective SEC defenses should theoretically be at containing Chris Nickson. Rice might let him get loose for 85 yards on 13 carries even as he's going 7-for-16 for 71 yards through the air, but I seriously doubt Auburn, Georgia, or even Ole Miss or Kentucky will.

Again: I'm not enjoying this. Writing "Vanderbilt's bowl chances aren't as good as you think they are! Ha!" feels like the blog equivalent of running off with a homeless guy's favorite panhandlin' hat and the 47 cents therein. But it needs to be written, for two reasons: first, the potential for the reverse jinx (I hope I hope); and second, because when Vanderbilt starts out 3-0, everyone's hopes get raised. There's good odds those hopes will come crashing down again, and maybe this way it won't hurt quite so much this time if/when we have to watch it happen.

It's always the way. I won't necessarily agree with you, but I wouldn't really mind if you wanted to argue that the Big 12 is every bit as good as the SEC-- or even better--at the moment. Texas Tech looks terribly overrated to me, but there's not much arguing that Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Kansas and possibly even the likes of Nebraska and Oklahoma St. are a damn fine collection of football teams.

But there's one particular front in what Dr. Saturday calls the "Conference Wars" that kinda concerns me: namely, the heapin' helpin' of unconditional love cast in the Big 12's direction for their (obvious) offensive superiority without a counterbalancing nod for the SEC's defensive efforts. It's not that common perception doesn't take the SEC's defensive prowess into account; it's just that it's not used to excuse the league's offensive issues, whereas the Big 12's defensive problems seem to be lost in the rush to glorify their pinball offenses.

The tone of Mark Schlabach's "On the Mark" column this week is representative. Of the SEC he writes:
(T)he league's top teams ... have serious concerns. Georgia's offensive line and defensive line have been less than impressive. Florida still doesn't have a running game -- other than quarterback Tim Tebow. LSU has an inexperienced quarterback, and Alabama remains one of the youngest teams in college football. Auburn's new spread offense has been a disaster ... Defense again rules the roost in the SEC, but many of the league's offenses are just bad.
Contrast this with:
The Big 12 offenses are as good as advertised and might be even better. Eight Big 12 teams are averaging at least 450 yards of offense per game. Missouri leads the country with 597.3 yards per game, and Texas Tech is second with 584.3. Quarterbacks Chase Daniel of Missouri and Sam Bradford of Oklahoma are leading Heisman Trophy candidates ... Oklahoma's defense seems to be more prepared to survive in such a pass-happy league, but Kansas, Missouri, Texas and Texas Tech are each capable of challenging for a spot in a BCS bowl game. Oklahoma State might be the league's biggest surprise. The league's overall depth is better, too, because Colorado, Kansas State and Nebraska are no longer pushovers. The Big 12 has considerably closed the gap on the SEC.
Again, I won't take issue with his closing statement--and I'm well aware it probably seems awfully OMG TEH SEC RULEZ!!1!!11! to gripe at all about an article that still calls the SEC the best conference in football--but I'm just not sure why LSU's quarterbacking or Georgia's offensive line troubles are more worthy of discussing than Texas giving up 140 more yards to UTEP than Buffalo did, than Illinois scoring 22 more points against Missouri than they did against UL-Lafayette, than Texas Tech's decade-long streak of defensive futility, etc. Both sides of the ball count equally, fellas.

With that, on to the JCCW's week 3 ballot for the ...

1. Georgia. However well the Dawg D might have shut down the Cocks' feeble rushing attempts, however sharp the home team might have been defensively, that Stafford, Moreno, Green, Massaquoi, etc. got outgained by Smelley, and, uh, Cook, and that Moe Brown guy isn't the most ringing endorsement.

2. Florida. I'd be a lot more excited ("excited" in this case meaning "worried for the career paths of Phillip Fulmer and his assistants") about Percy Harvin's alleged new superheel if we hadn't heard the "My lingering injury that's lingered for the last 13 years? It's totally healed! Whoops, nevermind that I'm sitting out the fourth quarter again" story a thousand times before.

3. LSU. A metaphor for all you Rock Band enthusiasts out there as LSU leaves North Texas behind and heads to Auburn: the Tiger offense's degree of difficulty is about to go from "Say it Ain't So" to "Run to the Hills."

4. Alabama. Sigh. Until/unless Auburn proves its offensive struggles vs. State aren't a long-term concern and Alabama proves its offensive struggles vs. Tulane are a long-term concern, the Clemson win means Alabama ranks a notch higher.

5. Auburn. Give Tommy Tuberville credit for this: he's gotten an awful lot of ink spilled for a team that's gone 3-0 against Louisiana-Monroe, Southern Miss, and Mississippi St.

6. Vanderbilt. I think Ole Miss beats them this weekend, but after they fried Rice* in the second half they deserve to break into the top half of the poll for now. (*I am deeply sorry about this.)

7. Ole Miss. That win over whoever it was by that, that score that they won by ... that was thrilling stuff.

8. South Carolina.I thought when the Devil came to collect on one of so-called Faustian bargains, he just snatched up your soul at once and that was the end of it. Not so with Spurrier, though; it looks like he's content to steal away the Visor's spirit bit-by-bit, one excruciating loss at a time.

9. Tennessee. The annals of miserably failed trips by SEC teams to Pac-10 country is long and storied, but you have to say that UT's visit to UCLA has now probably topped the lot of them.

10. Kentucky. Hey, everybody! They beat Middle Tennessee State by a yard on the last play of the game! They're totally top-25 now, they just gotta be! Right guys? Guys?

11. Arkansas. Petrino + Dick + surprise bye week + at home + 500 yards against ULM = closer to the Tide than you think.

12. Mississippi St. Just hire someone to teach the option already, fer Chrissakes.

This week's finished poll is already up at Garnet and Black Attack and is available here.


Anonymous said...

Actually, I'd like to point out that Vanderbilt only needs six wins if there is an SEC bowl tie-in available. Only when there is an open slot for a bowl game will the 7-5 teams be slotted first. With the addition of the papajohns bowl as the possible tenth bowl tie-in for the SEC, it seems likely that six wins will be enough for Vandy.

Will Collier said...

I'm a lot more worried about Vanderbilt right now than I am about Tennessee. Make of that what you will...

PhilipVU94 said...


I'd been meaning to ask you what you thought of our statistical profile anyway, so I'm glad you picked up on that note and saved me asking you.

As I recall, last basketball season you (and I to an extent, but not as much as you) were taking a similar line with respect to our basketball team. Pomeroy's numbers suggested we just weren't as good as our W-L. But making that argument on a message board is just asking for trouble, because everyone wants so badly to believe that it's just toughness and grit that pull out close games as opposed to lucky breaks. I don't blame them a bit. Sports is about narrative, and sometimes it's a lot of fun to construct a narrative even though it's really just explaining statistical noise.

That said -- our special teams *are* quite a bit better, and the SC game *did* have the feel of so many games that Vanderbilt has blown in the past, and perhaps psychology had a part in not blowing it this time. So I think there may be real reasons why our "luck" is better than in years past. I just don't think it's rational to expect it to hold up, so I'd rather we found a passing game to supplement it.

Regarding the bowls -- I've wondered if making it for the first time in > 25 years would offset the small size of our fanbase. Pretty much every VU alum with even the tiniest interest in football would try to make it, whereas Alabama or Tennessee probably isn't going to get tons of folks to Shreveport again. Just a thought.

Jerry Hinnen said...

Will: I make of it that you don't think much of Tennessee. I dunno--coming off of the LSU game, I think that's still the tougher game even at home.

Philip: No question that VU's special teams are excellent and will help them pull out any games that might be statistically tight. (As seen already in the Miami and Rice games.) The question is how tight Vandy's going to be against teams that are equal/better to Carolina--running a 100-yard deficit and home and pulling out a win isn't going to happen very often no matter how good the special teams are.

As for the bowls, I would sorta think a bowl might take Vandy for the storyline if it was close enough geographically that all the Vandy fans in the SE could make it. (Over, say, Arkansas.) But if VU gets shut out of B'ham and Shreveport, I think it's going to be a tough sales pitch to any further-flung bowls.

Marsha Hinnen aka Mom said...

How 'bout USC's loss to Oregon State? Oklahoma & Georgia - especially Georgia - are salivating over that #1 spot as I type!
But AU better take it a week at a time or we'll all be crying in our beer again.