Vanderbilt aims to raise enjoyment level to match heightened expectations

Expectations can be tricky, especially for those not accustomed to them.

Take Vanderbilt football. Following a nine-win season and back-to-back bowl appearances players and coaches suddenly find themselves in a situation that they need to justify a victory to the public, to the media and even to themselves.

No one could deny the impression that it wasn’t enough that they defeated UMass on Saturday. Not when the score was 24-7. Not when Wisconsin beat that same team 45-0 and Kansas State whipped it 37-7. Heck, the Commodores, themselves, crushed the Minutemen 49-7 just last season.

It hasn’t helped that for the last three months the expectations have been accompanied by assumptions about the type of players who have helped raise the standard of performance. Five have been kicked off the team in connection with an on-campus rape, and four of those five still have to face a handful of felony charges each in court.

Rather than rail against the situation, though, players intend to try and laugh it off – in a manner of speaking.

“One thing we really need to focus more on is not only just going out there and executing, but I feel like we’ve lost a little bit of our swag as an offense,” center Joe Townsend said. “… We have to have fun. I think when you have fun, that’s when the plays come.

“… You could say [it’s] outside distractions and stuff like that, but I’m not going to say that. We all just have to start having fun. You make plays, you have fun and that’s what we need to do.”

Vanderbilt (2-2) has a chance to get above .500 for the first time this season when it hosts Alabama Birmingham (6:30 p.m., Fox Sports-Tennessee). Then comes a stretch of six straight conference games, including Texas A&M, Georgia and Florida in succession, that will go a long way toward the ultimate verdict on how this year’s team measured up to the unprecedented expectations.

“We’re very proud of the fact that we think we’re the hardest working football team in the country,” quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels said. “We know other people work but we personally believe that we invest so much. With that comes great expectations. We really expect to be extremely successful. … As an offense we’re not going to look at what we didn’t do well and focus on it and dwell upon it. We’re going to move forward and improve on it so that it doesn’t happen again. I think that’s something that as a team we’re doing a lot better over the last week and a half.

“[We’re] just understanding that playing loose and playing fun and not having this great deal of expectation on ourselves is going to allow us to play loose and have the type of success that we want.”