For all of you out there assuming that Vandy was going to roll over for the rest of the SEC this season, I’ve got some bad news for you. This Commodore team is a little different than what you’re used to seeing. Even in a 17-12 loss to Texas A&M at Kyle Field on opening weekend for the conference, Derek Mason’s squad embodied his trademark “Relentless, Tough, Intelligent” mentality for all 60 minutes.
As a Vanderbilt fan and season ticket holder, I fully expected this season to be more of the same. Another year, another new set of coordinators, another anemic offense and porous defense. But at least for one night, the Commodores offered hope that things might be different this time around.
Many fans questioned the hiring of two veteran (read: old) coordinators who didn’t necessarily have the youthful exuberance that we have become accustomed to seeing in more and more high level coordinator hires. Instead, Derek Mason relied on the wisdom and knowledge of two men who have combined for more than 70 years in coaching when he brought in Todd Fitch and Ted Roof to run the offense and defense respectively. But what they may lack in youthful energy, Fitch and Roof more than make up with experience to draw upon, and the understanding of how to put their players in a position to succeed. So while there will obviously be growing pains with such a young roster, and the always difficult task of recruiting SEC caliber athletes to a school with such high academic standards, this group seems to be up to the task.
As for the game itself, there were plenty of good and bad moments. The biggest takeaway for most watching was the poise of quarterback Ken Seals, who became only the third true freshman in SEC history to start his team’s season opener. And while his stat line does not jump off of the page (20/29 for 150 yards, 1 TD and 2 INT,) his demeanor and leadership were palpable even through the television screen. Case and point – after throwing his first interception – a play where WR Cam Johnson was supposed to run a post and instead ran a go – he was unafraid to go up to Johnson, the team’s leading returning receiver and #1 playmaker, and chew him out for running the wrong route immediately following the play. That confidence buoyed the team, and on their next drive, Seals threw a dart to Amir Abdur-Rahman to bring the Commodores back within two points of the Aggies. The offensive line, which was supposed to be the Achilles heel of the unit, held up admirably, and while they did not open up large holes in the run game, they kept Seals upright for most of the night. The patchwork group, which lost its entire projected starting left side to opt-outs, and required defensive lineman Drew Birchmeier to switch over to guard less than a week before the game, came together and did enough to keep the ‘Dores in it until the end.
Ted Roof’s new-look defense, which operated out of the 4-2-5 for most of the night, was especially stout along the defensive front but will need to do something to compensate for their lack of speed on the back end moving forward. The combination of Dayo Odeyingbo and Andre Mintze off of the edge provided constant pressure on Kellen Mond, and aided in forcing 5 fumbles, 3 of which were recovered by the Commodores. But the back 7 looked slow more often than not, which allowed the Aggies to rip off some big plays and eventually do enough to win the game.
Despite obvious shortcomings in terms of talent and experience, the Commodores demonstrated that they are not afraid of anybody and that they have a defense that will keep them in games with even the most talented teams in the conference. But don’t expect them to be happy with moral victories. As Seals said in his postgame press conference, “You’ve got to embrace the discomfort that comes from games like this… I don’t think that because we were in the game, we were satisfied. But I do think that it puts notice to a lot of people around the league and around the conference that this isn’t the same Vanderbilt that they’ve played in the past.”
Matt Perkins is the producer and host of the Bleav in Vanderbilt Football Podcast and the Illegal Motion College Football Podcast. You can find the shows here: