Vanderbilt needs to figure how to avoid defeat after certain victory

The philosophy is simple. And it makes perfect sense.

Vanderbilt, like every other school, is permitted to count one victory over a Football Championship Subdivision opponent per season toward the all-important six needed to be eligible for a bowl game.

So they schedule such games. And win them. Handily. Witness last season’s 58-0 rout of Presbyterian and this year’s 38-3 cruise past Austin Peay.

In the final standings, they look exactly like every other win. That makes them a good idea.

It’s in the week that follows that their worth suddenly comes into question.

For the second straight year the Commodores have followed one of those non-conference laughers with an SEC dud. In 2011 they fell 48-3 to Georgia the week after the Presbyterian game. This time it was Saturday’s 35-25 loss at South Carolina that came in the wake of the Austin Peay victory.

At this point you have to wonder if this team loses something of its competitive edge or its enthusiasm – particularly at the start – when it plays games that it is certain to win.

“I don't think we executed and played with passion like we have in the past in the first half. I think we got dominated on the offensive and defensive line in the first half,” coach James Franklin said Saturday. “I thought we showed up in the second half and played with passion and emotion.”

By then, of course, it was too late. It was, however, an improvement over last year’s Georgia game.

Vanderbilt gave up the first 27 points to Georgia and never recovered. This time it fell behind 28-0 but following Steven Clarke’s interception managed to get 10 points on the board by halftime. In the fourth quarter nearly got the margin down to a field goal.

“We came out slow and we can't allow good teams do that,” Clarke said. “We dug ourselves in a hole that we couldn't get out of and we can't do that next time.”

Other than the score, though, the final numbers from last year’s Georgia loss and this one to South Carolina are all too similar. A look:

POINTS
vs. South Carolina: 25
vs. Georgia: 3

POINTS AGAINST
vs. South Carolina: 35
vs. Georgia: 48

TOTAL YARDS
vs. South Carolina: 268
vs. Georgia: 337

TOTAL YARDS ALLOWED
vs. South Carolina: 579
vs. Georgia: 567

RUSHING YARDS
vs. South Carolina: 121
vs. Georgia: 106

RUSHING YARDS ALLOWED
vs. South Carolina: 220
vs. Georgia: 302

PASSING YARDS
vs. South Carolina: 147
vs. Georgia: 231

PASSING YARDS ALLOWED
vs. South Carolina: 359
vs. Georgia: 265

FIRST DOWNS
vs. South Carolina: 14
vs. Georgia: 15

FIRST DOWNS ALLOWED
vs. South Carolina: 31
vs. Georgia: 27

THIRD DOWN OFFENSE
vs. South Carolina: 2-12 (16.7 percent)
vs. Georgia: 2-14 (14.3 percent)

THIRD DOWN DEFENSE
vs. South Carolina: 11-17 (64.7 percent)
vs. Georgia: 6-12 (50 percent)

TURNOVERS
vs. South Carolina: 2
vs. Georgia: 1

TAKEAWAYS
vs. South Carolina: 3
vs. Georgia: 0

“We didn't get off to a good start, we have to work on that in the future,” left tackle Wesley Johnson said. “I'm proud of the way we fought back, this team always has a lot of heart, but we have to change our expectations from the team that's pulling the upset to the team that is winning every game.”

Including the ones that follow an easy victory over an inferior opponent.

Winning never is a bad thing, particularly for a program that hungered for decades to get as many as Vanderbilt has the last two seasons. In 2011, in fact, Vanderbilt needed every victory it got, including one over Elon, to get its second bowl invitation in 28 years.

There is some good news in all of this.

Next season the all-but-certain victory comes Oct. 11 against Charleston Southern … and the Commodores have an open date the following Saturday before they travel to Missouri.