Season in Review, 2011 Edition: Vanderbilt. Seriously.

Wrapping up the season for each of the SEC teams

Whenever a team like Vanderbilt has a breakout season -- in terms of going to a bowl game three years after the last one, when the gap between the last two was nearly a quarter of a century -- it's always good to ask the skeptical question: Was the season a fluke?

Not because that takes away from what Vanderbilt accomplished; any way the Commodores can get to a bowl game should be welcome by their beleaguered fans. But because it gets to the question of whether a team and its coaching staff -- in this case, a new staff lead by James Franklin -- are truly breaking out, or just getting a few bounces that will get them a temporary bump.

We've been here before with Vanderbilt and asked the same questions, most recently after 2008. (Credit note: I cribbed the idea from an SMQ/Dr. Saturday post about Mississippi State the year before.) And when you look at the difference for the Commodores in the SEC slate this year and that year, there are reasons to be hopeful.

Total Offense Yds/Carry Yds/Pass QB Rating
TO Margin
Record
Vanderbilt 2011
-28.4 +0.53 -0.37 -12.3 -4 2-6
Vanderbilt 2008 -76.1 -0.94 -1.3 -5.8 +6 4-4

Sure, neither of those seasons are anything to write home about based on their own merits -- a team that's getting outperformed by its opponents in most of the statistical categories is still a team that's subpar against its opponents. But one thing that's notable is that, while losing two more games this season, Vanderbilt still seemed to perform better vis a vis its opponents in 2011 than in 2008. The difference in total offense and yard per pass were down substantially, and the yardage per carry was actually a positive for Vanderbilt. Flip the turnover margins, and Vanderbilt this year might have just as good a record in SEC games as the Vanderbilt in 2008 -- without the kind of bizarre bounces that routinely helped out the earlier edition.

But it's also useful to look at the difference between wins and losses, and whether there are noticeable performance differences between the two that explain the outcome and suggest whether the team won or lost based on whether it was the better team that day or based on something else.

Total Offense Yds/Carry Yds/Pass QB Rating TO Margin Margin
Vanderbilt, 2 wins +176.0 +2.44 +1.58 +35.4 +2 +26.5
Vanderbilt, 6 losses -96.7 -0.19 -0.95 -26.3 -6 -11.8

What were those numbers like in 2008?

Total Offense Yds/Carry Yds/Pass QB Rating TO Margin Margin
Vanderbilt 2008, 4 wins -25.3 +0.1 -0.2 +36.0 +7 +5.3
Vanderbilt 2008, 4 losses -127.0 -1.9 -2.3 -45.1 -1 -12.8

The difference between the two charts would seem to indicate that the winning from 2011 was a far less random event than what happened in 2008. Vanderbilt was far more narrowly outgained on the year by SEC teams, despite losing two more games. And the Commodores actually managed to gain more yards on average than the teams they defeated in 2011, while actually being better pretty much across the board statistically. While the margin on the losses was not dramatically different, these were not close wins that Vanderbilt was pulling off.

When you drill down into the numbers more deeply, you find that the Commodores did not get dramatically different performances from week to week in terms of yards per pass (0.33 more in wins) and quarterback rating (14.6 points) and saw a significant but not inexplicable difference between wins and losses in terms of yards per carry (1.28). That points, again, toward more sustainability.

The other side, of course, is that Vanderbilt won just two games in the conference this year -- in 2008, the Commodores won four of their SEC games and went .500. In 2008, Vanderbilt lost to Duke and Wake Forest in ACC play while defeating Miami (OH) and Rice. In 2011, the Commodores won all four nonconference games, including tilts with Connecticut, Army, Wake Forest and Elon out of the FCS. UConn was the only one of those teams to lose by less than three touchdowns.

The schedule is in some ways far easier next year than this year. The three SEC West opponents -- Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss -- are replaced by Missouri as the new SEC East team, Auburn and Ole Miss. Only the Rebels are likely to be a pushover, but almost any fan would swap the latter out for the former. And while Northwestern might be a step up from Connecticut, Vanderbilt is looking at nonconference showdowns with Wake (wash), Presbyterian (maybe a wash vs. Elon) and Massachusetts (likely a step down from Army in their first season as an FBS member).

Not to mention that the hated Vols, a Florida program that has been uneven in recent years and a South Carolina that often struggles against Vanderbilt all travel to Nashville next season. The bowl eligibility standards aren't likely to be raised to seven wins until 2014 -- and even if the higher benchmark were to kick in next year, you would have to like Vanderbilt's chances to reach it. Hold serve in the nonconference department and the SEC, pick off another conference win either in the West replacements or among the SEC East teams that have to go to Nashville this year, and that's seven.

The one stumbling block that is emerging for Franklin is still recruiting. For all the recruiting progress Vanderbilt has made -- and Franklin and Co. have made an enormous amount of progress in Nashville -- Vanderbilt still ranked 12th in the now-14-team SEC. That's not going to get the Commodores to Atlanta any time soon.

But if it's the building block for something a little bit better, then it can lead to even better results on the trail, which can lead to better results on the football field. It will take at least five years to tell if Franklin is the right man to turn Vanderbilt into a team that can compete in a division that's likely to just get tougher over the next few seasons -- having a sustainable bowl season in his inaugural year, though, would be about as good a start as fans could ask for.

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