By Mitch Light
Vanderbilt’s hot start has made national news. The Commodores, fresh off a dominating 30–7 win over Ole Miss, are 3–0 under first-year head coach James Franklin.
But despite the epic struggles this program has endured over the past five decades, this is not uncharted territory for Vanderbilt football. In fact, this is the third time in the past seven years the Commodores have opened a season with a 3–0 mark — something that only 31 of the other 119 FBS programs can claim.
The key for the 2011 Commodores is to avoid the late-season collapse that derailed the two previous Vanderbilt teams that opened with (at least) a 3–0 record. In 2005, Jay Cutler and the Dores won their first four games, including three over BCS conference opponents, before a home loss to Middle Tennessee (0–5 at the time) started a six-game losing streak. That Vanderbilt team did end the season with a win at Tennessee — the school’s first over the Vols since 1982 — but the final record was 5–6.
Then, in 2008, the Dores raced out to a 5–0 start, highlighted by a 14–13 win over Auburn on a day when ESPN’s College GameDay broadcasted live from campus. That Vanderbilt team proceeded to lose six of its last seven regular-season games but did manage to qualify for a bowl game — the first since ’82 — with a 6–6 record.
Vanderbilt’s combined record after its two recent fast starts (4–0 in ’05 and 5–0 in ’08) is a combined 3–12.
So what’s in store for Franklin and the ’11 Commodores? Can this team, predicted unanimously to finish in last place in the SEC East, maintain this pace and remain relevant throughout the season? Or are the Dores simply of a product of a soft early schedule that has featured home games against Elon, UConn and Ole Miss?
We obviously won’t know the answer to these questions for a few months, but the best guess is that Vanderbilt has what it takes to win at least six games. The schedule gets much more difficult in the short term — road dates at South Carolina and Alabama are on the horizon — but the Dores still have games remaining vs. Army, Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest.
The key for Vanderbilt will be to maintain its high level of play on the defensive side of the ball. Neither UConn nor Ole Miss are very skilled on offense, but the Dores were downright dominant in both games. Those two teams averaged only 213.5 yards of offense and combined to score one offensive touchdown against Vanderbilt. The Commodores lead the nation with 10 interceptions and have scored on a pick-six in each of their first three games.
The offense has struggled to move the ball with consistency but has been able to come through with some big plays at key times. Vanderbilt ranks 10th in the SEC in total offense but is tied for the league lead with nine plays of 30-plus yards. Against Ole Miss, Zac Stacy scored on a 77-yard touchdown run and also scampered 34 yards on a nifty Statue of Liberty play that set up another score.
“We’re going to have to be creative and aggressive and put our kids in situations to be successful,” Franklin said after the game. “Everyone has to buy into it. To get to where we need to be, we’re going to have to take some risks and take some chances.”
So far, those risks have paid off.
AROUND THE SEC
• Of Tennessee’s 69 offensive snaps vs. Florida, only 14 were running plays involving the Vols’ tailbacks. Tauren Poole and Marlin Lane combined for only 27 yards on those 14 attempts.
• Kentucky is averaging only 274 yards of offense, and it’s not as though the Wildcats have faced a difficult schedule. Western Kentucky, their Week 1 opponent, lost at home last weekend to Indiana State, 44–16. Central Michigan, UK’s Week 2 foe, lost at Western Michigan, 44–14, last weekend. And Louisville, which beat Kentucky in Lexington on Saturday night, has a loss at home to FIU on its resume.
• LSU has not lost a game by more than 10 points since November 2008, when the Tigers were pounded at home by Ole Miss, 31–13. Since that game, LSU has lost seven games by an average of 5.6 points.
• South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore leads the nation in both rushing (178.0 ypg) and rushing attempts (87). Robbie Rouse of Fresno State is second in attempts with 80. In the SEC, Mississippi State quarterback Chris Relf is second with 56. Lattimore has 16 carries of 10 yards or more and five of 20 yards or more.
• Florida has only punted six times in three games.
• Alabama is the only team in the nation with two players averaging at least 100 yards rushing — Trent Richardson (105.0 ypg) and Eddie Lacy (101.3 ypg).
• The Auburn defense has been on the field for 273 plays, the most in the nation. Tulsa, at 265, is next on the list nationally. Mississippi State, at 211, is next in the SEC.