Being a Wake Forest football fan and alum, I am always rooting for teams in similar situations (private academic schools in a conferences dominated by public schools) to rise up and stick it to the establishment in the college football hierarchy. This causes me to root, largely in vain, for school like Baylor, Vanderbilt, and Northwestern (but definitely not Duke) in football clashes not involving my Deacons. Northwestern has been moderately successful in the past decade, sharing 3 Big 10 championships since 1995, while Baylor and Vanderbilt have at their peak, been also also-rans in their respective conferences. However, for Vanderbilt, this season may be different. Baylor is 2-0, but their victories are over SMU and Samford (and son), so I’ll hold off on writing any pieces about them until they win a Big 12 road game. Vanderbilt on the other hand, has won 2 road games. The first was 24-20 decision witnessed personally by myself at Wake Forest, and the second a 28-24 win this past Saturday at Arkansas.
How has Vanderbilt started the season 2-0? Let’s take a closer look starting with the defense. At first glance it would appear to be using smoke and mirrors and other parlor tricks. Against Wake Forest they allowed 274 rushing yards (5.4 yards per attempt) and still won. Against Arkansas they allowed 194 rushing yards (4.5 yards per attempt) and still won. But dig a little deeper. Against Wake, of the 49 rushing plays not counting sacks (which count as negative rushing yardage in the college game) 17 (35%) went for 3 yards or less. 31 (63%) went for 6 yards or less. 10 (20%) were between 7-10 yards. 8 (16%) went for more than 10 yards with a long of 33. Wake routinely gashed Vanderbilt for runs of 5 yards or more, but their drives were stalled because they had such a high percentage of runs go for 3 yards or less as well. The rushing defense against Arkansas was a little different. Of the 39 running plays discounting sacks, 19 (49% almost half!) went for 3 yards or less. 27 (69%) went for 6 yards or less. 5 (13%) were between 7-10 yards. 7 (18%) were for more than 10 yards with a long of 39 (which was the first Arkansas touchdown). As opposed to the Wake game, where there defense routinely gave up runs of 5 or more yards, Vanderbilt played very solid run defense against Arkansas. The Hogs accumulated a relatively high yards per attempt average thanks to some long runs, but they were stopped on almost half of their runs for 3 yards or less. This is best illustrated on their second possession. They had a 1st and Goal at the Vandy 4 yard line. A 1st down run netted 3 yards and moved the ball to the 1 yard line. However, Arkansas was stopped 3 times in a row for no gain and subsequently Vanderbilt took over on offense.
The run defense against Wake avoided giving up many long runs, but did surrender a large number of intermediate runs. However, as any math major will tell you, it still takes a lot of plays to move down the field when you gain 5 yards at a time. Odds are, eventually the drive will stop short of a touchdown. Against Arkansas, the run defense was feast or famine. Arkansas backs either gained lots of yards or were stuffed at the line. Vandy benefited by playing two teams without superior passing attacks. On the occasions when the running plays were stuffed and the offenses needed to pass to obtain a first down, they were not able to do so.
Lest we forget, Vanderbilt’s offense has also played a key role in their 2-0 start. QB Jay Cutler, a bona-fide pro prospect has thrown for 554 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions in the first two games. He has also added a rushing touchdown. His yards per pass attempt is a decent 6.8. All told, Cutler has been rather pedestrian so far, but he has avoided turnovers (only 2 interceptions and no lost fumbles) and has not put the elastic Vanderbilt defense into any bad situations.
One final factor in the Vanderbilt start is simple luck. Last season Vanderbilt had the luck of Frank Grimes. They were 0-5 in games decided by 6 points or fewer. This season, they have won 2 games by a combined 8 points. Tennessee still owes Pythagoras from last season, but in Vandy’s case Pythagoras has given them what amounts to an early season tax return (sorry we owe you from last year). Just a simple case of luck evening out over time.
Vandy has its next 5 games at home. The first 3 (Mississippi, Richmond, and Middle Tennessee) are all winnable. The next 2 (LSU and Georgia), well stranger things have happened. Vandy also gets another winnable game at home at against Kentucky later in the year sandwiched between road trips to South Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee. It won’t be easy, but Vandy definitely has a chance to make their first bowl trip since 1982. I’m sure if Vandy wins their next 3, ESPN.com will run an Ivan Maisel piece where he expounds some mumbo-jumbo about how Vandy finally ‘believes they can win’ and how head coach Bobby Johnson’s no cursing policy has ‘helped the players overcome adversity as a team’, when in reality the fact is this: Vanderbilt has a solid SEC team with good SEC players. No they won’t compete for a national championship, but neither will half the schools with bigger budgets, bigger stadiums, and better players. Kudos to you Mr. Johnson.