Thursday, November 13, 2008

Is Florida a yardstick for 'Dores, 'Cats?

Vanderbilt's Jared Hawkins led the Commodores with 46 net yards rushing in the Black and Gold's loss to the then- no. 5 Florida Gators.Photo by Vanderbilt Athletics.
There were several firsts at Dudley Field last Saturday night.

One of those firsts was that there was, for the first time in my Vanderbilt experience (which, admittedly, is only since Fall 2001, my freshman year), a blimp at a Vanderbilt game.

It was the first November Vanderbilt game in a long, long time that had implications for the SEC Eastern Division title (if the first ever).

It was the first time Vanderbilt football had more than one game on the ESPN family of networks since 2005, and it was the Commodores' first night-game loss this season.

It was also the first time that the Vanderbilt offense has looked alive since before the Auburn game.

The Black and Gold registered their signature 14 points against the Gators in the second half. True, the second touchdown was against the Gators' backups, but it was Vanderbilt's first drive of 81 yards that looked most impressive. The Commodores even won the time-of-possession battle, thanks to their grinding second half drives, 32 minutes to the Gators' 27.

Ultimately, the stats that matter are 21 and 14: the number of points that Florida scored in the first and second quarters, on their way to a win that was never really in doubt after the exclamation point touchdown scored in the back of the south endzone at the end of the first half. By that point, Tim Tebow was moving the ball at will, and there was literally nothing that Vanderbilt could do about it.

How the Commodores respond to this game will be interesting. Obviously, it was a tremendous loss, and no one at Vanderbilt Stadium doubted who would emerge victorious after UF went up 3 touchdowns. But there was a silver lining to the loss.

In "holding" the Gators to 42 points, Vanderbilt managed to do something that no SEC team had done since October 4: hold the Gators to 6 touchdowns or less. And, as one particularly optimistic Commodore fan pointed out to me this week, Vanderbilt did "win" the second half, 14-7 (the problem with that is that after the 7 points by Tebow in the third quarter, Urban Meyer sent in his bench).

More importantly to the rest of Vanderbilt's season, the Commodores managed to put together two impressive drives of 81 and 87 yards against the Gator defense, grinding out 14 points on the strength of balanced attack from rehabilitated quarterback Chris Nickson. The only team that has scored more against the Gators this year (since the Ole Miss turnaround) has been LSU, who managed 21 (peer institution Kentucky only managed 5, while mighty Georgia only put up 10).

How does all this bode for the Kentucky game this week? If Florida is used as a measuring stick for the two teams, then Vanderbilt may stack up very well, indeed. Against Kentucky's defense, even Florida's bench was scoring at will, and the Wildcat offense went nowhere, only scoring 3 points.

The other measure of the two teams' ability are the South Carolina and Georgia games. Against the Gamecocks, Big Blue lost 17-24, while the Commodores won 24-17 (advantage, VU, though it's true that UK played in Columbia and the Dores were at home). With the Georgia Bulldogs, Kentucky lost a very close game, 38-42, while Vanderbilt lost between the Hedges 14-24 (advantage, UK).

So what does fuzzy math say about the football game between the two Eastern Division basketball schools? If we average the scores among the two teams' common opponents (Carolina, Miss. State, Ga., and Fla.), Kentucky is 18.5-35.5 (1-3), and Vanderbilt is 16.5-25 (1-3). We might conclude, then, that Kentucky's offense is better, by 2 points, and Vanderbilt's defense is better, by 10.5 points.

I do not know how the Commodores will fare in Lexington this Saturday. It will be a brutal game: the high on Saturday is only expected to be 43, and there is a 40% chance of snow showers. The low is 29. Commonwealth Stadium is always an obnoxious place to play, as demonstrated ably by the Georgia Bulldogs last week. And the Wildcats are liable to be up for Senior Night on their third ESPN appearance of the year.

But the Commodores, too, have a lot to be excited about. The signs of life against Florida could translate into a win in the dark, cold Bluegrass this Saturday. And Vanderbilt remains 5-1 under the lights (not to mention 5-1 with Chris Nickson starting).

Or, the game could become a repeat performance of the Duke Debacle: with Mac Adams' pointers injured and Chris Nickson still inconsistent, it's hard to tell which Commodore team will show up on Saturday.

We can only hope that Vanderbilt ends up with another first this Sunday: their first win greater than five since 1982.

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