For the second time in three weeks Vanderbilt’s football team has an open date.
The first one served the Commodores well. They bounced back from their lopsided loss to Missouri and came back to beat Georgia for their first SEC victory of the season.
This one comes after a lopsided loss to Texas A&M and allows players and coaches to catch their breath before another game against a traditional SEC East power that has been battered by injuries, Florida. If form holds and Vanderbilt wins that one it will be one victory shy of bowl eligibility.
Not that long ago, it seemed foolish to talk about this team and its bowl prospects. Not any longer.
Three reasons to believe the Commodores will make it to a bowl game for the third straight year
• No need to be perfect: It takes six victories to earn an invitation to a postseason bowl game. The Commodores have four with four wins remaining. Thus, they don’t need to run the table as they did last November, they just need to win half of their remaining contests, and it’s likely they will be the favorite in three.
• Been there, done that: Having been to a couple bowl games makes going back a lot easier. Recall in 2008, when it had been more than a quarter-century since they school’s last bowl appearance, Vanderbilt won its first five games then lost four in a row before it finally got the all-important sixth. Two years ago, the Commodores got victory No. 6 on their second try and last year did so on their first.
• Don’t beat yourself: Vanderbilt is the second in the SEC in fewest penalty yards per game at 36.6 in fewest penalties per game (4.3). It also has the best red zone scoring percentage, the best percentage of touchdowns to field goals in the red zone and has a positive turnover ratio. Those are all little things that combine to have a big effect on the final score.
Three reasons to believe the Commodores won’t make it to a postseason bowl game for the third straight year
• Ouch: Injuries have been and continue to be a factor. Vanderbilt lost middle linebacker Chase Garnham, the quarterback of its defense, early in the year and he has not returned. Quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels sat out the A&M game with an injury and the offensive line has needed a number of combinations to get this far. Coach James Franklin has talked often about the team’s depth issues, and eventually there’s going to be one injury too many.
• Running nowhere: When the weather turns cold it becomes increasingly important to run the football. Vanderbilt is last in the SEC with an average of 141.5 rushing yards per game and next-to-last with an average of 3.8 yards per attempt (half the SEC schools average better than five yards per rush). If Carta-Samuels remains sidelined, opponents can load up to stop the run even more.
• Conference clashes: In conference games this season the Commodores have fallen too far behind early (South Carolina), given up a late touchdown (Ole Miss) and have been unable to keep pace twice (Missouri and Texas A&M). With three of their four remaining games against SEC opponents (albeit one of them is Kentucky), they have to show they can match up better than they have or things could slip away.
The bottom line
It is really difficult to imagine that the Commodores won’t have a game in late December.
It will be a shock if they don’t beat Kentucky. Then all they have to do is beat either Tennessee or Wake Forest, teams they whipped by a combined 56 points in 2012.
The prospect of them getting a spot in a more prestigious game than the last two years, i.e. the Gator Bowl or the Peach Bowl, seems all but gone unless they run the table. So expect a trip to Shreveport or Memphis, which is still a heck of a lot better than staying at home.
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