For Vanderbilt partisans eager to avoid a Mississippi State-style meltdown after the Music City Bowl Championship season in 2008, this has not been quite the start they had hoped for. Even for those of us who saw last year's breakthrough as a smoke-and-mirror fueled rage against reversion to the mean didn't necessarily expect the steep, steep dropoff that Vanderbilt has seen this season in the win-loss column.
But regress to Commodores have, to an almost dramatic degree. Vanderbilt is 2-4, as opposed to last season's 5-1 start, and would likely have to pull no fewer than three upsets to get back to a bowl game this year. Sure, they could once again take down a Georgia or South Carolina -- they do, after all, have a two-game winning streak against the Gamecocks -- but can you imagine any scenario under which they win four of six against Georgia, South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee?
Vanderbilt runs the ball well, but that's about it; while their pass efficiency defense is okay among SEC teams, don't get too excited about the pass defense numbers. A lot of of losing teams have good pass defense numbers for the fairly obvious clock management and football strategery reasons.
The question for Vanderbilt now is, what are the goals for the season more narrowly and the program more broadly? Even four wins this year could be something of a victory against that schedule, with wins against Kentucky and maybe Tennessee or South Carolina or Georgia Tech -- any one of those would give the Commodores something to boast about, be it a victory over Boy Wonder in his first game against them, continuing bragging rights against the supposedly resurgent Gamecocks or a marquee nonconference win. (Or they could defeat Georgia, defining themselves as a good team by the barometer used by their intrastate rivals.)
But more importantly: What is the goal for Vanderbilt going forward? By any measure, Bobby Johnson is perceived to be the best coach the Dores have had in quite some time. If he can't even follow up Vanderbilt's first bowl season with at least a five-win campaign, can the SEC's only private school even dream of back-to-back winning seasons?
Then again, no one saw Vanderbilt's first six games of 2008 coming, so there's always the possibility that the Commodores will once again benefit from the sort of unbelievable bounces of the ball that put them in the postseason last year. But while that might be a good way to win for a season, it's no way to build a program.