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Six Steps To A Vanderbilt SEC Championship
By Robert Funke

Dreams surely are difficult, confusing, and not everything in them is brought to pass for mankind. For fleeting dreams have two gates: one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those which pass through the one of sawn ivory are deceptive, bringing tidings which come to nought, but those which issue from the one of polished horn bring true results when a mortal sees them.
-Homer

I've had many conversations with a friend about the coming weeks of Vanderbilt football.

We were drunk like nine-year-old LSU fans off the Ole Miss win and a 2-1 record, and we considered what many SEC prognosticators have considered: The Vanderbilt Run.

It goes like this:

STEP 1: Beat UConn

The Commodores have a tough road game this week to UConn. UConn is pretty good, which means the Dores will likely not win. HOWEVER. Because they are some sort of fancy-pants New England school, the Huskies will be a different kind of opponent than the Commodores are used to facing, and Vanderbilt might just come home victorious. That would put us on a two-game winning streak, a 2-2 record, which would be like the greatest thing that's ever happened.

STEP 2: Do Not Lose To Eastern Michigan.

The Eastern Michigan NoOneCaresWhatYourMascotIses are on a SIXTEEN GAME LOSING STREAK. They recently lost to Ohio State by a score that required scientific notation. Their last win was in 2008, over the mighty Central Michigan SeriouslyNobodyCareses, and CMU smacked them in the mouth to the tune of 56 points at their next meeting.

This is a team that can beat Vanderbilt.

The crazy thing about Vanderbilt is that there is no team that Vandy can't hang with, and no team that can't hang with Vandy. It sure seems like Eastern Michigan is the Alabama of Terrible, but then, this is the same Vanderbilt that has dropped its last three against MTSU. And they were all before MTSU was respectable.

Come to think of it, I think we have actually LOST more "sure-win" games in the last decade than we've won! The MTSU games, Army, Navy, Duke, Bad Year Kentucky, Bad Year Rutgers. The list could go on, but I'd rather not. Point is: DO NOT LOSE TO EASTERN MICHIGAN.

STEP 3: Pray that Georgia Loses to Colorado, then narrowly defeats Tennessee in a taxing, mulit-overtime, injury-riddled game.

Since Georgia lost to Vanderbilt between the hedges a couple years back, they've only gotten worse. The same can be said of Tennessee (and South Carolina). I see these as the most favorable conditions for beating Georgia and further embarrassing Tennessee: Georgia gets demoralized out west, barely beats Tennessee, a team that really is That Bad, and then comes in on a false high/hangover for the Vanderbilt game. Vanderbilt, by the way, will have HYPOTHETICALLY beaten two non-conference foes, and, God-willing, will not be overconfident.

At that point the Commodores will (hypothetically!) be 4-2.

STEP 4: Get three wins from South Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. All beatable teams!

So. Pick up those three, STEP 5: get one big upset, and the Commodores could challenge for the SEC East. STEP 6: Show up big against Bama, maybe capitalize on a few breaks, and we're looking at Vanderbilt's first SEC Championship.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to tend to my Four Year Plan To Father Several Of Natalie Portman's Children. STEP 1: five pushups.

10 Things We Know About Vanderbilt Football
By Robert Funke

In the off season, I’ve studied up on how to get hits on online articles. Turns out, it’s easy! Well-structured prose is dead! Lists only, please. Welcome to the future of journalism, folks. Let’s get to it:

1) Robbie Caldwell can win. Happy Robbie Caldwell Day! Coach Caldwell got the Gatorade bath (‘scuse me; the “G” bath), and deserved it. The Commodores have a bye week, followed by winnable games against UConn and Eastern Michigan, which means that if I am killed in some sort of horrific blogging accident in the next two weeks, I will die fully believing that Vanderbilt will be 3-2 going into the Georgia game. And heck, the way Georgia’s been playing, they’ll probably drop their next few and then the ‘Dores will be favorites! Basically 4-2! Because when doesn’t Vanderbilt win the games in which they’re favored? Pretty sure that’s never happened.

2) Vandy loves Oxford. They won! They won an SEC game! They won an SEC game against racists! They won an SEC game against racists that they’ve beaten in four of our last six games! It’s Monday as I write this, which means two years of internet-time have passed since the game, so I won’t waste words recapping. According to sports media, Vandy won this game because of our running game, combined with the fact that Ole Miss is clearly at the lowest point any football team has ever experienced, combined with something about Star Wars.

3) Ole Miss deserves it. My favorite moment of the game was when they interviewed Dr. Oldy McSouthernpants Leghorn on the sideline about the Admiral Ackbar thing, and he was all “Aww piddleshoes! We’re a fine, venerable Southern institution of gentlemanly confederate soldiers! That was just a joke from a couple carpetbaggers! Having a sense of humor is decidedly uncivilized!” and then Warren Norman broke off an 80-yard touchdown run.

4) For your consideration: The Robbie Caldwell Trichotomy Theory. Everybody wants to know if Robbie’s going to be here next year. In a logical world, that will depend on his record (NOTE: Vanderbilt football often lives in Upside-down Opposite Day Whoopsie-doopsy Wonderland World). In my mind, there are three things that can happen from here (a list-within-a-list means that this will probably be the most widely-read article on the internet):
a) Vanderbilt finishes with either one or two wins. If this happens, I will not be upset, because it will mean Caldwell had his shot and failed, and the sun will set on this era of Commodore football, which brought us painfully close to respectability, but ultimately left us strung-out and desperate.
b) Vanderbilt finishes with four or more wins. If this happens, I will be thrilled, because it will mean Coach Caldwell is the real deal and managed to vastly exceed expectations. Extend that contract! We love our coach! We love his folksiness and his winning attitude! We love his stories about jingle-jangling turkeys!
c) Vanderbilt finishes with three wins. THIS IS THE WORST THING THAT CAN HAPPEN. Like some sort of computer glitch, Vanderbilt treats football mediocrity as football success and David Williams will give Caldwell a 30-year contract extension. Three wins means Caldwell isn’t good enough to take us anywhere, but isn’t bad enough to justify a firing. Vanderbilt fans would be wise to fear a three-win season.

What do you know? I don’t have room for six more things. That’s okay, because if you’ve made it this far, you’ve already justified this column’s existence. Email me, and I’ll tell you six more things.

* Or better yet - Let everyone know what you think about Robert's article by posting to the "Sports Blog" (Top of Sports page and right button or HERE)

I Fancy Myself An Emotional Exhibitionist.
By Robert Funke

That’s probably why so many sentences in my columns about Vanderbilt sports begin with the word “I.” That, and also I am not a very good sports columnist.

I realized, after the Mississippi State loss, that the proverbial wind was entirely out of my sails. I tried (and, more or less, succeeded in) summoning a small breeze through relentless youtubing of great Vanderbilt moments. Oh, times were good, and possibilities endless.

I tried to think positively, especially about AJ Ogilvy. There’s been a tendency among many (myself admittedly included) to come down on Ogilvy for recent struggles (himself admittedly playing poorly).

I forgive Ogilvy any errors for many reasons:
• He was not the biggest letdown in the Murray State game.
• He seems like a very sensitive guy.
• Bashing on college kids, though my natural tendency, is not cool, unless they are thugs who do not do the things normal college kids do (read: go to class, learn, not carry guns and sell drugs [read: the “college kids” playing basketball at UT and UK ((by the way, Tennessee’s season is not inspiring. It is sad and embarrassing.))]).

Now, unfortunately, I have one person who, I think, can be blamed for both losses, and, if you must, bashed a bit for them:
Kevin Stallings
Gasp!
Now. Before you jump on me (or Stallings) consider this:
• Stallings is my favorite coach in the world, and I don’t want anyone else at the helm, ever, unless, perhaps, Stallings voluntarily leaves for Purdue and UNC boots Roy Williams.
• I am blaming Stallings for the final two losses of the 2010 season. I would also readily blame Stallings for every win of the 2010 season.
• Kevin Stallings is the man.

Both of those final losses were poorly coached. In both games, we had significant advantages that we failed to exploit through our game plan. Keeping Beal out of most of the Miss State game? Putting Jenkins in the post? Having Goulbourne defending the final shot of the Murray State game? Keeping AJ on the bench? PRESSING? AGAINST A TEAM OF GUARDS?

For both of those games, I struggled to find moments where the person I wanted with the ball had the ball. It was uncharacteristically bad Stallings coaching.

I’ve said before that this team has had a leadership issue. Our athletic leaders—Beal, Taylor, and Ogilvy—have struggled to fill that void, which is not entirely anyone’s fault. In all my interactions with Beal, I’ve found him to be quiet; in games, he rarely got vocal and emotional on the court. Taylor, too, seems to be an incredibly gifted player, but not much of a commander or emotional leader. And Ogilvy, despite his penchant for double technicals, rarely seems to be at the helm.

But the man who is paid quite a bit of money to be this team’s leader, Kevin Stallings, must be held accountable, on some level, for this issue.

In early games, the team would come out flat and discombobulated, only to put together some incredible second halves. Late in the season, the second halves dropped off. I have to think that Stallings, in some way, isn’t motivating the team the way some coaches do.

Part of that is what I love about Kevin Stallings: he’s a nuts-and-bolts, blue-collar coach. He’s not interested in loudmouths or thugs on his team, and he’s not interested in stirring controversy or getting infractions. He just loves the game of basketball, and for the most part, his coaching style shows that. Consider the Stallings time-out style: always reluctant to call time outs to “cool off” the other team, never reluctant to use a time-out to make mechanical adjustments. The prior shows a belief in biorhythms and mild superstition. The latter shows a belief in schemes, matchups, mechanics.

It’s that non-flashy, tried-and-true methodology that I love about Stallings. So I don’t really want him to change his style.

But this team was a perfect reflection of that style: impressive on paper, but often flat, disinterested, and cold, unprepared for a hot little team to put our pants on the ground. It’s how we played in every one of our losses, no matter the stakes.

So for “NEXT YEAR” to be the “NEXT YEAR” we’re all dreaming of, Stallings needs to look through his personnel and find an emotional leader. Steve Tchiengang plays with heart, but he isn’t enough of an athletic leader to rally these troops. John Jenkins, perhaps, could have the mix of voice, skill, and emotion to lead the team, but he still feels young to me.
Who’s it gonna be?

Uncomfortably Warm Pendant Light Fixture On:
AJ Ogilvy

By Robert Funke

I didn’t see the Mississippi State loss coming. The Dores had steamrolled their first-round opponent, the ever-dangerous Georgia Bulldogs, and came into the Mississippi State game looking bewildered and sleepless.

In fact, with the exception of “Brad Tinsley got his shot back,” I can’t think of a good thing to say about that game. But no player laid quite the egg that A.J. Ogilvy laid, earning him the night’s “Skuchas Award,” which goes to the player who has a game so bad that, one could argue, a four-man team would have fared better.

The game brought up some serious issues between me, a fan, and Ogilvy, Vandy’s star center. Which is why he’s the topic of this column.

A.J. Ogilvy is a frustrating player to cheer for. There. I said it.

I’m not interested in insulting collegiate players (and don’t even pretend “collegiate” is a word that could apply to DeMarcus Cousins), but even if I was, I would feel compelled to defend Ogilvy from his detractors.

I think the Mississippi State game serves as a perfect illustrative microcosm:

Towards the end of the game, when Vanderbilt finally got something going and cut the Bulldogs’ lead to three, I considered our big men, who had been most problematic for the night:

Steve Tchiengang had been playing poorly, and had contributed almost nothing to the cause.

Festus Ezeli had been playing poorly in the second half.

And Ogilvy, the star and elder statesman, had been playing abysmally, contributing significantly to the Mississippi State cause. He was awkward with the ball, he walked (thrice!), he dropped passes, and he looked generally disinterested.

And yet, for reasons I couldn’t explain at the time, I wanted him in the game.

The reason isn’t confusing or complex. It’s simple: A.J. Ogilvy is an enormously talented player. We had a shot at getting out from under the Bulldogs, but not without Ogilvy.

This is the reason some fans have trouble with Ogilvy. When Festus Ezeli has a bad game, it’s probably because Festus is a relative newcomer to the game of basketball, and is not very technically sound. When Steve Tchiengang has a bad game, it’s just because he left everything on the court in the previous game. But when Ogilvy plays poorly, it just feels like a waste.

A.J.’s issues are rarely with his athleticism, his strength, or his coordination. They’re with his focus. Passes bouncing off his hands. Going to the basket weak, like the ball going through the hoop would be mere icing on the foul-cake.

(Bear with me, A.J., or A.J.’s girlfriend, or A.J.’s mom or dad. I’m getting to something good.)

And yet, despite one of his worst games ever, I wanted A.J. in the game against Mississippi State. It’s the same reason I want him in every NCAA tournament game: A.J. Ogilvy is the backbone of this team.

Vandy fans aren’t used to having a strong presence under the basket, but that’s what gives this team the much-ballyhooed “balance” it has. Ogilvy doesn’t have to blow up; he just has to show up.

“This team can be great” is a conditional statement, and that condition is A.J. Ogilvy. Could Murray State upset Vanderbilt in the first round? Of course! And if the Dores play like they did against Mississippi State, you can bet on it.

But could Vanderbilt be a Final Four team? Absolutely.

And if this happens, you can bet that it will be because of the impressive play of a certain tall, emo-music-loving, frosted-tip-having, Disney-movie-tweeting Australian center.

I will close with an analogy:

If this team is the 80’s band Genesis (post-Gabriel), Ogilvy is Phil Collins.

If he’s having a bad night, it’s up to the talent around him to put something together without a drummer. This team, like Genesis, is talented enough to do so from time to time. But they sure can’t put on a whole concert without him. And if he’s on—and I mean really, really on… Wow. We’re talking “Sussudio.”

Let’s have a Sussudio tournament, A.J.. You’re our Phil Collins!

Something Quite Short of a Stats Junkie
By Robert Funke

It’s no secret that, as a fan, I am something quite short of a stats junkie. Considering that I care almost exclusively about Vanderbilt sports, this is a good thing, especially during football season. Nothing puts a twinge into the void in my soul quite like trying to convince the sixteen-year-olds that I tutor that Vanderbilt football isn’t all that bad.

Which is why basketball season has always been such a generous lover. Because I can look at our record without wanting to cry, and because I can consider the non-statistical aspects of a team that is making me feel all kinds of happy.

Take Vanderbilt’s 2007 and 2008 basketball seasons, for example. These two seasons, aside from having impressive resumes, lived and died on the play of two enormous players: Derrick Byars and Shan Foster, respectively.

Byars’s senior season was, in my mind, the greatest single season any Vanderbilt player has ever had. If we needed a three at the end of the game, I wanted Byars to shoot it. If we needed a layup, I wanted Byars to take it to the hole. If we needed to hold onto a tiny lead, I wanted Byars blocking shots and grabbing rebounds, as he did in the NCAA tournament.

And there’s Foster. The guy had the strangest-looking three-point shot I’ve ever seen go in nearly every time. He released it at the highest point in his jump, almost on the way down, a la NBA Jam. He was impossible to guard, and he had some of the most beautiful alley-oop dunks I’ve ever seen.

But more incredible than their stats and styles were their characters. On the court, they were leaders, clapping their hands, working the crowd, doing whatever was necessary to keep the energy level in Memorial Gym high, bringing both players’ teams upsets of top ranked Florida and Tennessee teams, respectively. Both players put their teams on their shoulders enough times to make such games cliché, and both players rightfully earned SEC player-of-the-year honors.

But off the court, they were giants as well. In college, I was in a legendary three-man electro-pop band, Hyzer Bee (Google it). I spoke with Byars about a show, and he became an instant Hyzer Bee fan. Somebody ask DeMarcus cousins how many three-man synth bands he listens to, and if any of them are random UK students from whom he has nothing to gain by chatting. You’ll have to find him first. Places not to look: class.

And Foster. No college player that I’ve ever seen has had a better bedside manner with fans. In an era where the appropriate way to celebrate a big play is to look MAD AS HELL and beat your chest, Foster’s celebrations were always the same: grinning from ear-to-ear and pointing up.

Foster has been back around campus lately. He could be found shaking hands with students before the Kentucky game. When I saw that, I thought, “Oh wow, what a great guy, taking a moment to show appreciation to his fans.” At halftime, I got a text: “The Truth (Foster’s nickname) is moshing in the student section with his face painted.”
This year’s Vanderbilt squad, the best I’ve ever seen, is different. There is no Byars, nor Foster. There are no SEC Player of the Year candidates. Player of the Game honors have gone to eight or nine different guys, depending on the game.

But this, too, is a team of character.

There’s Jermaine Beal, who has been quiet, patient, and steady for four years, only to explode into a senior leadership role, shooting the lights out and driving the lane when no one else will. The guy is a trip off the court as well—I once spent an evening helping him brainstorm the necessary resources for a shoestring-budget remake of Def Jam’s How To Be A Player, starring Dolla Beal. It was awesome.

There’s A.J. Ogilvy, who plays with angst and sass, and without attention to conventions, like the Australian basketball David Bowie.

And there’s Steve Tchiengang, who is quietly winning the hearts of every passionate Vanderbilt fan. No one plays harder. Period. And his Twitter feed is nothing short of adorable: “Blessed to see a new day. Can't wait to see what it has in store for me.” He tweets something like that every morning!

And there’s more, but I’m running out of room. This is my poop-joke-free column way of saying “thank you” to some of the guys who have made this season incredible.

Keep it up, boys.

Things I Like - Things I Hate
By Robert Funke

Things I like: dogs, old suitcases, late-night mid-tempo R&B radio, beating Tennessee.

Things I hate: eczema, racism, the Beach Boys, losing to Kentucky.

And in such heartbreaking fashion! I, like every tormented Vanderbilt fan, have been imagining all the ways in which things could have been different:

-If the refs hadn’t babied the Wildcats (especially the balder one, who liked to ask Calipari’s permission before blowing the whistle)

-If that basket had not been called goaltending (it wasn’t)

-If the ‘Dores had managed to hit just three of 20 from 3-point range

-If A.J. Ogilvy had managed to dish to Jeffery Taylor in that last second—Taylor was as open as the gap between DeMarcus Cousins canines. I should add, for the record, that it was awfully nice of DeMarcus to match his fans in not only classlessness, but now toothlessness as well. That easy insult was brought to you by the many classless, occasionally toothless Big Blue fans I had the misfortune of meeting on Saturday.

Anyway.

Vanderbilt’s season is far from over, and the ‘Dores actually rose a spot in the AP poll for losing to the Wildcats (and beating Mississippi State). In fact—and stop me if I accidentally count a heartbreaking defeat as a moral victory (those belong to the football team only)—plenty of Vanderbilt fans and followers are counting Saturday’s game as a harbinger of good things to come, once tournament time arrives. The Commodores showed grind Saturday, with a ferocity rarely seen outside the walls of 2nd street’s most venerable institution, Graham Central Station. That’s going to help in the long run.

Speaking of tournament time, has anyone else considered the possibility that this Vanderbilt team may ultimately play that Kentucky team four times this year?

Okay, okay, okay, I’ve already mentioned the Wildcats more than I would ever like. So let’s focus on the Commodores. Here are some hard truths:

-Steve Tchiengang and Festus Ezeli make everything possible. It’s easy to be hard on Ogilvy (he doesn’t keep his hands above his head, he lets passes sail past him out of bounds, he gets most of his points at the charity stripe), but the guy has been crucial to what this team has done. He can’t help how he’s been marketed. Ogilvy played against Kentucky and Tennessee with passion, and did more than his share. But it’s because of Festus Ezeli, who has proven himself to be a load under the basket, and Steve Tchiengang, who plays with more heart and hustle than the rest of the team combined, that Vanderbilt is consistently tough on defense. Ogilvy is a major strength of the team, to be sure, but it’s only because he has Steve and Festus behind him.

-This may not be the team, but it is certainly a team. It is both the best and worst thing about this team. On Saturday, how badly did the Commodores need a single hero? God bless Jermaine Beal and John Jenkins for continuing to shoot—any one of those eighteen (!) missed 3-pointers would have been enough. God bless Taylor for being the man for the first half, but he got quiet when we needed him to get loud. This team has been great, but without ever having the experience of being loaded onto a single player’s back. It’s why the ‘Dores should go deep in March, and it’s also why I doubt they’ll go too deep.

-The Commodores want a 3-seed. The ‘Dores have made it to the Sweet 16 twice as 6-seeds, and one-and-done’d as a 4-seed. Call me spoiled and superstitious, but I’ll take what’s behind door number 3. Our only hope is to win out—including a potential revenge game against Georgia, a game at Arkansas, where Kevin Stallings has never won, a hugely important game at Florida, and another tryst with Devin Downey in Memorial. No easy buckets on this schedule.

Some Crazy Things Have Happened
By Robert Funke

I’ve been away from my column for a while, and some crazy things have happened:

-Vanderbilt is now all but locked in for the NCAA tournament.
-Vanderbilt beat, and then whooped Tennessee.
-Jermaine “Dolla” Beal decided that he was our best player (until he took the Mississippi game off).
-A.J. Ogilvy shaved his mustache, instantly losing all strength in the paint (until he took the Mississippi game on).
-Andre Walker became my favorite Vanderbilt player (due in no small part to his awesome tweeting).
-Lance Goulborne cranked it up ten notches to carry the team to a win over an LSU team that should have been easy-peasy.
-Vanderbilt lost to Kentucky on a night that they were absolutely beatable.

And now Kentucky looms large on the horizon once more. I will be preparing the way any normal Vanderbilt fan would: writing enchanted poems. Here goes:

Panic! At The Free Throw (For A.J. Ogilvy)
I love you, but we need
More punk, less Evanescence
I love you, but we need
More dunks, less Herbal Essence

An Ode To A Winning Smile
Goulborne, Goulborne
You are so cool-bourne
You drive the lane
When ill-advised
You make it rain
When ill-advised
Making haters look like fools-borne
When you put up 18 jewels-borne

To The Handsome Young Man From Station Camp
We thought it was a cold night, John
But it was actually the flu
We Vandy fans did miss you, John
And all the things you do
And now that you are back in business
Kentucky’s in deep stew
But if the 3’s aren’t falling, John
Please settle for the 2.

Andre Walker Twitter Haiku 1:
If you said a girl was fine as heaven
Instead of fine as hell
Would people look at you differently?

Andre Walker Twitter Haiku 2:
Fat guuuuuuuy
In
A little coat

Andre Walker Twitter Haiku 3:
If anybody wants some
Of my McDonald's sweet chili sauce
Lemme know

Andre Walker Twitter Haiku 4:
Anybody remember peer mediators?
I used to hate those people man,
They always got me in trouble

Andre Walker Twitter Haiku 5:
Now that I think about it, Rocko's Modern Life
(in my eyes)
Was one of the greatest cartoon shows of all time

Dolla Beal Limerick
D-O-Double-L-Aaaaaaay
Is so hot shootin’ that jaaaaaaay
But if he’s got to get cold
Like the Dolla of old
Please don’t let it be against U-Kaaaaaay

A Curse On Both Your Trailers
Big as a Derby winner
Bald as Yul Brynner
If punching a South Carolina fan in the face and facing no punishment from your classless jerk of a coach is wrong
DeMarcus Cousins is a sinner

A Curse On Both Your Trailers II
He won their blue-black hearts
Throwing elbows by the dozens
But UK fans have always
Had relations with their Cousins

An Experiment In Time-Travel
By Robert Funke

This piece will likely be published after the Vanderbilt/Tennessee game, and I am currently living in a world immediately before the Vanderbilt/Tennessee game, so consider this week’s column an experiment in time-travel.

Also, for sport, I’ve decided to use as many sports clichés as possible in this column. I’ve also mixed metaphors and butchered the English language.

I’ve been watching the media disrespect the ‘Dores this entire season, from Gary “Worst Headshot Ever” Parrish’s frequent denials of “quality” wins, to Seth Davis’s insistence upon ignoring the ‘Dores until they beat the freaking Monstars. But that’s neither here nor there.

Despite having a fantastic record and some quality (okay, quality-ish) wins, the ‘Dores have shown incredible promise to anyone who could be bothered to watch their games. But they’re not getting any breaks from the media, and will likely drop right out of the rankings if they drop either of their two games this week, both on the road, against the top two teams in the SEC.

Not only are the two toughest games of the year back-to-back, but Kentucky gets a week to prepare for the ‘Dores.

And that’s only the stuff that’s within the SEC office’s control. Now I’d like to consider the factor operating against Vanderbilt that I can only attribute to witchcraft: Both Tennessee and Kentucky are coming into the game with their pants on the ground That’s right folks; I’m topical:

-Tennessee, hemorrhaging players, has been playing out of their minds, but it had to end eventually. Vanderbilt was primed to take care of business, but Georgia snuck in and took away their overconfidence. Prior to the UGA loss, I’d have called this game for the ‘Dores in an instant. Now I’m not so sure. I imagine they’ve made some necessary corrections since then, and Bruce Pearl has responded quite well to adversity this year.

-Two of this year’s criminals will be rafting into the game on the bloated carcass of Tyler Smith, who outlived his usefulness to the Volunteers, was thrown under the bus, and will now sail up the river.

-My point, though, is that Tennessee is getting a personnel boost for this game.

-Kentucky, a team that’s not nearly as good as its record, was soundly defeated by South Carolina, a team that’s far better than its record. Again, I liked Vanderbilt’s chances before EVERY SINGLE SPORTSCASTER IN AMERICA was wondering how the Wildcats would react to defeat.

Vanderbilt is a giant-slayer. Always has been. I’m putting money on Vanderbilt over every top-ranked squad to enter Memorial Gymnasium. But Vanderbilt’s rise to the world of the Top 25 came at the exact moment that these two giants had been taken down a peg.

So tip-off is in twenty minutes, and Vanderbilt is heading into the most challenging week of their schedule with the two top teams in the SEC looking them squarely in the eyes.

It’s a little exciting. Vanderbilt can’t catch them on their heels, nor pull any punches. They’ve got to play them straight-up.

Fortunately, I’m more confident in this team’s straight-up ability than any Vanderbilt team I’ve ever seen.

I will make my prediction in the form of a puzzle:

Jeffery, AJ, John, Brad, and AJ.
Three lions beat the Volunteers.
To beat the Cats, four of five dragons must appear.

Vanderbilt’s Four Keys to Inertia:
By Robert Funke

The ‘Dores are hot right now, starting 3-0 in the SEC and putting together a set of road wins, one prettier than the other. The ‘Dores have begun to define their potential, but the next three games can potentially define the Dores, for better or worse. That doesn’t make sense? Shut up. You have no love for poetry.

Here are my keys to maintaining inertia. Learn them, and then let that knowledge osmose through your televisions into the minds of the players and coaches.

1: Stay 27th forever!

As any Vanderbilt fan knows, Vanderbilt is at its best when the boys have something to prove. Put more pessimistically, Vanderbilt is worst when ranked. This has been true historically, though this year it’s been especially clear: 10-0 when unranked, 2-3 when ranked.

I don’t claim to know why this is, but I’m confident that simple logic will keep the Dores from breaking the top 25 this season:
Condition A: UNC, by definition, must always be more highly ranked than Vanderbilt.
Condition B: UNC, by definition, can never be unranked.
Condition C: UNC has lost seven games, and therefore must be ranked at the lowest possible Tarheel ranking: 25th.
THEREFORE: Vanderbilt will never be ranked higher than 25th.
Voila! Permanent chip on shoulder.

2: Don’t lose to Auburn! (Or Tennessee! [Or Kentucky!])

It was fairly inevitable, but Vanderbilt fans are salivating over the prospects of winning at Thompson-Boling or Rupp Arenas. Before that happens, there’s a hot-shooting squad coming to town that, given a lazy night from the ‘Dores, could really poop on our parade. Vanderbilt is a good team, to be sure, and potentially the steadiest team Kevin Stallings has ever had the chance to coach. But no team—especially in college hoops—is a lock, ever. Just ask George Mason.

Auburn is no slouch team—they almost beat Kentucky last week (putting them in league with UNC and UConn. And, well, Stanford. And Miami-OH) and they’re capable of shooting the lights out. Memorial Magic does a lot of things, but this year, it hasn’t shut down hot shooters. If Vanderbilt comes out cold or lazy, this Auburn team has the ability to run away with it.

And what about Tennessee? Frankly, it’s time for this to pay the piper. Down four good players and starting walk-ons, it was hard for me to root against the Vols. Now that the criminals are trickling back in, I’m ready to see them lose. They’re playing desperate basketball, and the luck’s got to run out soon.

3: Don’t you dare almost beat Kentucky!

I am sick of seeing Kentucky win games in the last minute. If you’re going to lose, don’t lose on a last-second shot. The Wildcats have won four or five coin-flips this season. It’s getting really old.

4: Listen to Coach!

A wise man named Coach (Survivor: Tocantins) once advised (in a trailer for this season’s Survivor) that, to be victorious, competitors must “turn weaknesses into strengths.” Kevin Stallings’s squad has had a major weakness in A.J. Ogilvy. It’s not that Ogilvy isn’t good (he is), but that he is massively inconsistent, even over the course of a single game. Against South Carolina, the team’s top scorer and MVP hit his first shot of the game just moments before the first half ended.

Lest it sound like I’m bashing the Aussie, I should mention that Ogilvy, when he turns it on, is well worth the trouble. It should go without saying that AJ managed to rain the pain in the second half.

But the secret to Vanderbilt’s success has been the massive consistency the team has found under the basket. Between Festus Ezeli, Steve Tchiengang, and Andre Walker (oh, Andre Walker!), this team’s weakness is now its strength. Ogilvy’s playing weak under the basket? Get in there, Festus! Get in there Steve!

And then there’s Walker, the “glue” guy, as Stallings says. I’m never more comfortable with a lead than when Walker is in the court. Against Florida, Walker had eight points, ten rebounds, and seven assists. I’d like to follow that up with some sort of pun about “sniffing glue,” but I’ll pass.

This is a great, well-balanced team. If they can keep playing this way, or better yet, keep improving like they have been, the Commodores will be a force in March.

I Apologize For My Absence
By Robert Funke

I decided to hold off on the columns until I could sprout an upper-lip miracle, a la AJ Ogilvy, who made the same decision about playing good basketball.

There’s been a lot to report in the world of Vanderbilt basketball, but first, I’d like to address something that involves neither Vanderbilt nor basketball: the recent staffing mix-up at the University of Tennessee.

Believe it or not, I actually tend to sympathize with the Vols in this situation. Much like Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond in the Oscar-winning 1988 movie Rain Man, simple-minded Tennessee fans and players found themselves exploited by a fast-talking, money-making Northerner with a great haircut. How were they to know that he would betray them? I mean, other than listening to the “Lane Kiffin is a terrible human” consensus from literally every single person who is not a Tennessee fan. But, like Raymond, they couldn’t be expected to interact with other humans on a rational level. Now I hear they’re thinking of bringing Fulmer in as Athletic Director to clean things up. Please. Please do that.

But back to the issue at hand: basketball.

The Dores have really taken the fans for a ride this month. Since losing pathetically to a not-that-bad Western Kentucky team, fans have adopted the media’s approach to Vanderbilt basketball: “We’ll believe it’s a good team when there are no other possibilities.” 13-3 is a great record, sure, but I’ll admit, my expectations were higher. So were everyone else’s.

But the Dores worked their Memorial Magic on the Florida Gators, who, in the last few meetings, had beaten us with a rage not unlike that of Lenny, the character from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, played with aplomb by John Malkovich in the eventual film adaptation.

Not surprisingly, the Gators brought their Lenny game yet again, “shooting the lights out,” as the cliché goes. Had Vanderbilt let up for even a moment, Florida would surely have run away with the game. But the Dores fought for forty minutes, and they fought hard.

My overblown deduction from the Florida game is this: the Commodores will reign over Memorial Gymnasium once more, as it was for years, but was not in the Spring of 2009.

Which brings me to the first road test of the year: Vanderbilt’s 65-64 victory over Alabama.

Vanderbilt did not deserve to win that game. Fortunately, neither did Alabama, though the difference may have been some Commodore-friendly officiating.

Vanderbilt did it all, yes, but they did it all wrong: outscored in the paint 22-40 (blame: Ogilvy, whose mustache miracle was [once more] shamed into submission by the unholy aberration on top of his head), a weak shooting night from the field, and, finally, atrocious free throw shooting.

The dores missed as many free throws as Alabama shot (17). Most Vandy fans will forgive Festus Ezeli for his 1-5 showing, on account of his never having touched a basketball before the age of fourteen, I would suggest that the big man spend some serious time figuring out how to get the ball into the basket when no one is guarding him.

But while Ezeli’s night was predictable, freshman John Jenkins missed all three of his. I doubt John Jenkins has missed three free throws in a row since elementary school. Somebody look that up.

And yet the Commodores left with a win. Nothing makes this Vandy fan happier than winning a wake-up call. South Carolina is up next, and since Corey Smith punched Renaldo Balkman into some years back, I’ve loved nothing more than giving that team the Slingblade treatment.

I believe in this team. This team has as much potential as any Vanderbilt team I’ve ever seen, and likely more. Unfortunately, there’s no clear star, and the one we’d hoped for, Ogilvy, is no more consistent than he was last year. In the Byars era, a fan could look at the schedule and tell in which games Byars had not played well: they had L’s next to them.

This team is different, which is strange and exciting. You might say we’re All-Dan-No-Gump, but I disagree. I think this team may be all Gump. In the last week, Ogilvy has dominated one game, Jermaine Beal, Jeffery Taylor, and Lance Gouleborne have drained game-changing baskets, John Jenkins has been named SEC freshman of the week for the second consecutive week, and Andre Walker has quietly knocked on the door of a triple-double.

No more talk of this being Vanderbilt’s breakthrough year; no more talk of final fours; no more predictions at all, save one:

This team will surprise me.

This Team Needs Fewer "If" Statements.
By Robert Funke

Vanderbilt is 6-3, after posting respectable losses to Cincinnati and Illinois on the road, and then a rather unfortunate loss to Western Kentucky in a surprisingly unfriendly Nashville arena.

And so the Dores remain off the radar, where non-Vanderbilt fans expected them to be. What’s going on? This team was supposed to be the best ever!

Vanderbilt, at its best, is a team of leaders—so much so, in fact, that every good year in recent memory has a single face behind it. Shan Foster, Derrick Byars, Matt Frieje—each of these recent players has one and only one season with his name chiseled into it.

These are the players who, when the team was playing sluggishly, took matters into their own hands. In Vanderbilt’s first two losses of the year, fans were treated to a waiting game: who will decide he wants to be responsible for winning?

Will it be A.J. Ogilvy? Ogilvy is the most decorated player on the team, a preseason All-SEC pick. This season, he’s put up some impressive numbers. Against Arizona, the Aussie supplemented 20 points with four blocks, and against Missouri, he scored 25.

But sometimes the guy just doesn’t show up. As SEC Player of the Week, Ogilvy scraped together only eight points against Illinois. His three rebounds were cancelled out by three turnovers and two fouls. Against St. Mary’s, Ogilvy put up a whopping two points, three turnovers, and three fouls.

Vanderbilt just lost to Western Kentucky. Ogilvy? eight points, one rebound.
Such erratic numbers signify an inconsistency that makes him unlikely to fill the leadership void, which is just as well. Kevin Stallings loves saving his players for their senior years.

Which brings us to the next candidate for team leader: Jermaine Beal, the only senior on the team.

Beal has always been a role-player for the Dores, a stabilizing force. He’s led the nation in assists to turnovers and this season, he’s added some scoring to that steady hand, averaging just over 13 points per game. Against Cincinnati—undoubtedly the team’s worst performance to date—Beal led the team in points and steals.

Sure, Beal has bad games, but unlike Ogilvy, Beal rarely goes completely AWOL. But Beal hasn’t shown the game-changing athleticism or the dynamic ability to pull the team out of some of its first-half quagmires.

Take the recent loss to Western Kentucky, for example. Beal only really arrived with five minutes to play, deciding then that it would be a good time to put together a scoring barrage.

True, Stallings benched him and Ogilvy to start the game. But with the team’s recent effort, I'm with Stallings: it was worth a shot.

Finally, there’s Jeffery Taylor. In the Western Kentucky game, Taylor was wading through the swamp of an effort his teammates were giving. Taylor scored 21 points, adding nine rebounds, and yet, at the end of the game, when Vanderbilt needed a playmaker, Taylor disappeared.

As Kevin Stallings put it, “He’s got a gear that nobody else on that court possesses.” This is true. Good luck finding the shifter.

Taylor is easily the best player on the team. Fans know it, announcers know it, Stallings knows it. In fact, the only person who hasn’t quite figured out how good Jeffery Taylor is seems to be Taylor himself.

As anyone who’s seen Taylor play will tell you, Taylor is the type of player who can score at will. He’s unstoppable though under the basket—or above the basket, as the case may be.

And though he leads the team in scoring, he has yet to show the kind of on-court leadership this team seems to lack. If a player of Taylor's caliber isn't scoring, he should be making enough noise to draw the defense's attention, freeing other players.

But thus far, he just hasn't been aggressive enough. He hasn't had the "just try to stop me" attitude that makes great players such an asset, even when they're having off nights.

Taylor has plenty of cheerleaders, this author among them. But there is an undeniable gap between what Taylor can do and what Taylor has done. And with that schism, it’s getting harder to justify that Taylor will do what Taylor can do.

Vanderbilt fans are right to salivate over what this team is capable of, should the pieces fit together. The pieces are tantalizing. Star freshman John Jenkins finally started to heat up against Illinois, scoring his only 11 points in the last quarter of the game. But it wasn't enough.

And what if the Dores got consistent great play from Steve Tchiengang? Tchiengang, surprisingly, has developed into the toughest player on the team, when he shows confidence.

And suppose Lance Goulbourne started finishing on some of his many, many (many) drives to the basket? Goulbourne loves to drive to the basket, a dimension this team could use more of. He just needs to finish these drives.

Or get better at passing.

This team needs fewer "if" statements. The Commodores have an arsenal. It’s time to take the safeties off. In fact, it’s past time.

It seems safe to come out of my cocoon now.
By Robert Funke

During football season, I was a worm—cynical, sarcastic, disappointed, generally unpleasant. I now emerge from my Vandy Sports Cocoon, covered in some strange transformative phlegm, a basketball butterfly—hopeful, excited, genuinely pleasant.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t hopeful and excited before the season, because I then said (and will continue to say) that this is the most talented group of ballers of the Kevin Stallings Era, May It Last One Thousand Years. But that hope was an exotic car, and I was the blind, suicidal Pachino at the wheel. Football season left me nutty and impetuous, with nothing to lose. Now I’ve seen the team; I’ve found hope in a youngster named Kevin, and I’m ready to speak up at his hearing.

First, rankings. There has been a bit of grumbling amongst the Commodore faithful about the lack of respect the ‘Dores are getting from the media. If preseason rankings measure potential (which they do, or the completely untested Kentucky Wildcats, May All Bad Things On Earth Happen To Them And Only Them, would not have cracked the top 20), the deep, talented, experienced ‘Dores were certainly overlooked (kind of 30th).

But after the first week, Vanderbilt was RANKED. Then we looked bad against a good Cincinnati team and were UNRANKED. Then we won against a good Missouri team and are now RANKED AGAIN (ESPN/USA Today), but UNRANKED IN AP.

Here’s my point: This early, who cares?

Sure, spending the whole year in the 20-30 position would probably equal a tournament berth. But if the Commodores are half as good as fans think they are, then they should be patient. Just focus on winning each game, regardless of rank, and the ranking will surely follow. Our schedule gives us plenty of head-turning opportunities.

Besides, why on Earth would any Vanderbilt fan want Vandy to be more highly ranked than its opponents? The top five victories that made me glad to be a Vanderbilt fan? All upsets. If we’re expected to win, we don’t get the spoils of Vandy victory: The Look On Their Faces. Kentucky/Duke/UNC fans never get that.

So what have we learned about the players thus far? First, there’s A.J. Ogilvy. Ogilvy had the most media hype entering the season, and with good reason. He’s put up impressive statistics for the last two years, and is already doing so again—he’s this week’s SEC player of the week.

But, unfortunately, Ogilvy has answered the biggest question of the preseason—Will he be consistent?—with “probably not.” Ogilvy is a great player, and at his best, the backbone of this team. But while his good games (Mizzou, DePaul) are good, his bad games (St. Mary’s, Cincinnati) are poopy.

Which leads us to this year’s Stallings Senior Surprise: Jermaine “Dolla” Beal. Beal has always been a role-player, and a consistent one. This year, it seems, Beal has decided to step up his game without sacrificing his steadiness. He has never once made me wish he wasn’t on the floor—something that can hardly be said for Ogilvy, this year’s SSSIT (…In Training).

I expect Beal (and next year’s Ogilvy) to follow in the footsteps of previous SSS players Derrick Byars, Shan Foster, Matt Frieje, and Dan Langhi. When the team is playing poorly, look for Beal to decide he wants to win, first. He may not be the best player on the team (that honor goes to Jeffery Taylor; let’s hope he figures that out soon), nor the most productive (probably Ogilvy), but he is likely the smartest, the most clutch, and the one I want with the ball in any close game.

Tune in next week. Topics to be addressed: The Jeffery Taylor Enigma, Steve Tchiengang: The Gentle Hulk, and The Goulbourne Factor.

Battleship: Vols
By Robert Funke

Vanderbilt lost to Kentucky. The Dores played fairly well in the first half, then asked their offense to bring them “the usual,” leading to the second most pathetic performance I’ve seen this year. Mississippi State, duh.

But that’s over and done with. To clear my head, I went on a trip to the countryside, where I ate great food, drank fine wine, and was serenaded to sleep by the gentle guitar work of linebacker John Stokes. He did some John Mayer songs and a hot Counting Crows joint, but I was out of tweeting range.

And now there’s one game left. It’s against Tennessee. No doubt Vol fans and players alike see this as an easy win. It’s hard to argue against them. Vanderbilt hasn’t put up much of a fight against the Vols for the last couple years, and there are few signs that this year will be any different.

Can we win? Sure. I’ve said the Commodores have a chance in every game this year. Tennessee got spanked last week, and Vanderbilt in the shape of the first three quarters of the Georgia Tech game could beat an especially turnover-happy, penalty-happy, simultaneously downtrodden and overconfident Volunteer team.

For Vanderbilt to win, though, their defense is really going to have to pick up their scoring. That’s really been the job of Special Teams this year, and those guys just can’t shoulder the scoring responsibilities for the whole team—

—Blah blah fire Ted Cain blah Warren Norman is great blah etc. etc.

Can I be frank for a moment? I’m having trouble finding my muse for this week’s column. Let me count the ways:

The ‘Dores are staring 2-10 in the face. It’s a real shame to see one of Vanderbilt’s better defenses squandered on such a cripplingly inadequate offense. After the Mississippi State game, it became apparent that we would have to hold an opponent to fewer than seven points to have a chance at victory, and our defensive players must feel like any game they aren’t the best defense in the country is an automatic loss. They’re kind of right.

The highlight of my football season? The arrests of those three young fools in Knoxville. I crowed and high-fived over that for about 12 hours. After getting it out of my system, I realized that I had fallen victim to an ugly, ugly cynicism: These boys’ arrests seemed to affect football more than they affected the players’ lives, which is a large portion what I despise about Tennessee football.

That said, I don’t want to write about basketball. The preseason expectations were as high as they’ve been in my lifetime, and Kevin Stallings’s squad has unspeakable potential. Writing and reading about basketball is no longer an acceptable substitute for watching it, and more talented sportswriters than I have already covered about every angle of the season opener against Lipscomb. It’s my last chance to write about football, and I think I gave it my best shot.

So here we are. “Let’s get it on!” has become “Let’s get it over with.”

Make no mistake: a win in Knoxville would be delightful. But my optimism is finally flat. And maybe, just maybe, it’s time for Vanderbilt fans to place their hope in something bigger, something deeper.

Basketball.

Rebuilding Year!
By Robert Funke

For those of you who didn’t tune in (or follow my admittedly excessive real-time game-tweeting at twitter.com/vandyvendidad), Vanderbilt lost again, but in especially heartbreaking fashion. It was a “moral victory,” which is defined in Commodore fan terms as, “covering the spread without winning.” But this weekend served as a reminder of why I give the ‘Dores my heart to break.

Vanderbilt used to be a team of pathetic losses and moral defeats. The Vanderbilt football team of the Woody Widenhofer era was an especially morally-defeated team. I remember being a young fan watching my favorite team on television, only to see my father (former Vanderbilt basketball player Bad Bob Funke from Pee Wee Valley, Kentucky), shouting curses at referees and coaches and Fulmers and such, while my mother, who is less football-literate, but wise in the forms of human expression, would look at Widenhofer’s vacant gaze from the sidelines and say, “He looks like he doesn’t even care! They’re falling apart, and he doesn’t even care!” The Widenhofer era was a dark time for the Funke family.

Then came Bobby Johnson, and so began a new age of moral victories. Before Bobby, we were a bad team that never won. Gradually, we became an average team that never won. Then, we were a dangerous team that never won. Then, in 2005, we gave “winning” a try, and have since stayed competitive, showing arguable improvement annually.

This year, we haven’t scared any of our SEC brethren. While I would argue that the biggest change between 2007’s team and the 2008 Music City Bowl Champion team involved some mix of luck, sorcery, and attitude, the 2009 Commodores are undeniably thinner, weaker, more frail and less skilled than last year’s squad.

But after this weekend, I’m okay with that.

My biggest fear was that the Vanderbilt Commodore football program had completely collapsed, whooped back into the Stone Age (or at least the late 90’s). I feared that Bobby Johnson had finally surrendered to the evil spirits that have defeated so many coaches past, but no!

It’s just a rebuilding year, folks. Take heart. I think we’ll pick up one more win this year—if only on the back of mutant punter Brett Upson—and come back strong next year, Evidence comes from this weekend’s heartbreaking loss to South Carolina:

Larry Smith is not very good. But after this weekend, he showed that he can be, and pitting him against Charlie Goro next year will make a lot more sense than pitting him against Mackinzie Adams now. Whether Adams should have seen more snaps earlier this year is up for debate, but whether he should be a starter moving forward is a no-brainer: stick with The Future for now, let Goro push him next year.

Our offense was able to keep the defense off the field (or at least only on the field for half of the game) for the first three quarters. Even though they scored zero (0) touchdowns again, we were able to compete in time of possession, a statistical category in which we’ve been pathetic this year.

Warren Norman is excellent, and will continue to improve. Our running back situation could be very good.

Our offensive line has injured itself from “veteran” to “young,” which is bad for us now, but theoretically good for us in the future.

With another offensively pathetic showing, our offense is now so bad that I see a game in which the offensive unit scored zero (again, 0) points as our most impressive SEC showing thus far. This bodes well for a restructuring of our offensive coaching staff, which will be absolutely necessary for us to be competitive in the future.
Defense: still stout, and improving against the run.

Vanderbilt may never be an SEC superpower, and Vanderbilt may be in the SEC basement at the moment, but there’s nothing like a moral victory to rekindle hope in that silly bunch of brutes.

That said, the Georgia Tech game will almost certainly be this year’s rock-bottom. We match up horribly against the Yellow Jackets. Brace yourselves.

Oh, and one more thing: if the ‘Dores can hold Montario Hardesty to under 80 yards, the Vols are going down. Suck on that, Talkin’ Vol.

Things Are looking Up!
By Robert Funke

Sorry for the delay. I was busy crying in the shower and stroking my framed photograph of Shan Foster for most of Sunday and Monday.

Okay, okay, okay. The Bulldogs sniffed, walked in tight circles, grit their teeth, and pushed out a stanky dookie right on Dudley Field. Listen to what I’m about to say. These are the facts, and the only person who can prove me wrong is the Commodores. I’m okay with that sentence.

-Vanderbilt football is awful. Vanderbilt defense is good enough to win plenty of games, given an even mildly potent offense. However, our offense is lightyears from “mildly potent.”

-As Vanderbilt defense is to Vanderbilt offense, so Larry Smith is to the rest of the offensive unit. He’s good enough to win us a few games, were he given an offensive line that could protect him for more than a blink. Unfortunately, our offensive line couldn’t block a rushing attack from the surviving Allman Brothers who, it seems, would offer a more effective pass rush than Western Carolina. Perhaps our offensive line struggles because of injuries. What’s your point?

Blanket cynicism aside, the team showed great improvement Saturday. There is no doubt in my mind that the team that showed up against Georgia could have handled Army (who sandwiched their victory over the Commodores between whole wheat defeats at the hands of Tulane and Temple), and Mississippi State.

-Our receivers dropped a lot of passes. However, in an interesting twist, they also caught some passes. Improvement: receivers.

-Our play calling went from “terrible” to “not exactly terrible.” Improvement: Jimmy Kiser.

-Brandon Barden has relatively good hands. Improvement: Larry Smith’s options.

-Despite the claims of nearly every sportswriter in the Southeast, Larry Smith is not an especially mobile quarterback. He’s not a turtle; I’m just tired of seeing reporters claim that he’s a hare. Improvement: ending racism in football.

-Jamie “Lockdown” Graham played receiver. Results yet to be seen. Improvement: Larry Smith’s options. Danger: defense.

-Ted Cain remains a valuable and available candidate for employment in many lucrative fields including, but not limited to: non-Vanderbilt offensive coordination, literally anything else. Seriously, employers. Think about it. Improvement: the economy.

The game was closer than the score, which is sort of nice, in a “same-old-Vandy” kind of way. But in a similar spirit, it’s time to focus on the bigger picture: basketball season.

The Commodores are blessedly off the radar. The only publication that gave us any credit this year is Athlon, which was awful sweet of them. We are also highly ranked in SLAM and Lindy’s, two publications I have never seen with my own eyes.

Why is this awesome? I love a Vanderbilt team with incredible potential and low expectations. I, for one, can’t wait to place our veteran squad with new, improved depth and John Jenkins against Kentucky’s clique of barely-post-pubescent Calipari recruits. I would insult their intelligence/character, but I think “Calipari recruits” does the heavy lifting there.

Basketball. Basketball basketball basketball. Improvement: my disposition.

Modest Proposals for Vanderbilt Football
By Robert Funke

How does a sports columnist approach a defeat at the hands of Army, especially when the reasons for defeat were the very same things that have plagued us all season long? Things like an impotent offense that magically seems to get worse with practice? Things like another dozen penalties?

First: Congratulations. To myself. Last week, I correctly identified the problems in our offense. I also correctly identified our strengths. I am a great Vanderbilt sports columnist. Tell your friends.

Second: Write a column. I did some soul searching. I felt like I had three choices for how, exactly, to approach this thing.

Option 1: A cuss-word-filled tirade against Ted Cain, who makes a very qualified applicant for any job that isn’t “Vanderbilt Offensive Coordinator”—keep an eye on this one, potential employers!* Nope. Did that a couple weeks ago.

Option 2: Start talking about basketball season. This was a tempting option, but I think I’ll hold off at least another week. Vanderbilt doesn’t do “hype” well.

Option 3: Babble inanely about ways to make our team more successful that have nothing to do with coaching, athletic skill, or strategy.

Bingo.

First idea: Let’s talk mascots. I love Mr. Commodore as much as the next guy, but frankly, he’s not getting the job done. I’ve come up with two alternate mascots: the Vanderbilt Blacksmiths (Smithie the Blacksmith) and the Vanderbilt Vampires (Count Cornelius). For more detailed plans of my proposed mascot rebranding, visit VandyVendidad.tumblr.com.

Next idea: Also mascot-related. A couple years ago, Vanderbilt debuted “Big C,” a large, inflatable, Big-Boy-esque rendition of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Like the Sarah Palin of Vanderbilt athletics, he’s a polarizing, but nonetheless entertaining, figure. He’s wacky! What’s he going to do next? Stand in front of the student section, obstructing the students’ view of a game-changing play? Bounce upside-down on his head? Run around and look crazy? It doesn’t matter what he does; it’s always going to be terrifying.

Because Big C is creepier than your Uncle Paul. Which is why I propose we buy 49 more Big C costumes.

Imagine an army of FIFTY BIG C’s, running around the field, bouncing on their heads, convulsing on the ground! It would freak you out! Lane Kiffin would think someone slipped acid into his coffee! Think about it, boosters!

Final idea: Change the stadium. While I appreciate the time and money and enthusiasm that has gone into updating our facilities over the last few years, especially Dudley Field’s recent renovations, I think we’ve been going about things the wrong way.

Trying to make our football stadium more intimidating in the SEC is like trying to run a simple running offense against SEC defenses. We aren’t big enough for that. Seriously. You dolts. So how can we leverage Vanderbilt’s unique offerings into a more threatening home field environment?

Solution: Memorial Magic.

I propose we start playing football games on Ingram Court in Memorial Gymnasium. Think about it. Memorial Gym is our single greatest asset. It throws off other basketball teams with its unique raised court, odd goal-post placement, and bench location. Think of what it could do to football teams! Have you ever tried to wear football cleats on a wooden surface? Good luck!

Our students can get loud in Memorial. Imagine trying to hear a snap count with cries of “Walsh You Suck!” thundering across the mezzanine. Nearly impossible.

That’s my brainstorm. Granted, these proposals are unorthodox. But since when does Vanderbilt go about sports according to orthodoxy? We’re revolutionary, remember? Less than a decade ago, we dismantled our athletic department!

I’ll see you at the homecoming game.

*As a sympathetic member of the country’s booming unemployment sector, I’ve decided to stop calling for Mr. Cain to be fired, and instead call for someone else to hire him away from Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt and its fans: the odd couple
By Robert Funke

I have a few rules about fandom, especially Vanderbilt Commodore fandom.

Rule 1: There is no stronger bond a fan can possibly have with his team than that of a student or alumnus to his alma mater.

This rule is the very basis of collegiate sports. Every college team has a built-in fan base: its students. It’s so simple, and yet, for Vanderbilt students, it’s difficult. The amount of Vanderbilt students wearing Ol’ Miss attire to the game was horrifying. It is acceptable to be a fan of other teams. It’s even acceptable, when Vanderbilt plays those other teams, to feel like your loyalties are divided. But—but—but—never mind. Forget it.

You know what? I’m not even going to continue with this list of rules. I noticed VandySports.com’s Mike Rapp considered “The Students” part of the “Bad” in his weekly Good, Bad, and Ugly breakdown of the game. As a Vanderbilt loyalist, I, too, am often frustrated with our students. They show up an hour late, they leave an hour early, dress in irrelevant colors (as if they don’t make oxford shirts and ties in black or yellow), they are drunk, but not in a fun way (a la LSU), they are easily distracted, they complain about forgivable mistakes (like a running back getting tackled for a mere gain of three yards on a draw up the middle on first-and-ten) as if they were unforgivable mistakes (like a running back getting tackled for a mere gain of three yards on a draw up the middle on third-and-ten).

But I’ve seen our student section get excited for Vanderbilt sports. I’ve seen them wearing black and gold. I’ve seen them knowledgeable about our team and players, and I’ve seen them chanting and cheering and thundering and hollering and doing every single thing that makes the SEC such a fun place for a sports fan. It happens.

Vandy fans go wild in two settings. The first, obviously, is basketball. The second is when we win.

We aren’t winning, at least not in the SEC. We aren’t even playing respectable football. Right now, Vanderbilt seems completely outmatched in the SEC. Here is the reason: We aren’t doing the little things well.

Any decent Commodore fan will cut the team some slack for not blowing the Rebels line off the ball every down, or for dropping the ball on a double reverse, or for not keeping both feet in bounds on a tricky sideline catch. We understand. We’re an underdog. Do the little things well, and we’ll be happy. And you’ll have a chance at winning, which makes us even happier.

Here are the little things we are not doing:

FOLLOWING THE RULES. Every offensive line in the country—nay, the universe—must stay still until the football moves. I would bet good money that the Commodores committed more false start penalties (6) this week than any middle school team in Nashville. Somebody fact-check me on that.

KICKING. Scoring record, schmoring record, Bryant Hahnfeldt was an inconsistent kicker. Ryan Fowler isn’t shaping up to be much better. In my fantasy universe, where all women are vampire slayers and all Vandy kickers make over 70% of their kicks under 40 yards, we are on a three-year bowl streak. And I can grow a beard.

THROWING AND CATCHING. I’ve been defending Larry Smith, and still feel that he’ll be a great quarterback someday, but good gawd. He missed some incredibly open receivers. To be fair, though, some of those open receivers couldn’t catch swine flu.

FIRING INEFFECTIVE STAFF. Our offense is bad. Who coordinates our offense? Ted Cain? Was the offense good last year? No? How about the year before? No?

Last week, Bobby Johnson and the team sent out a personal request (via InsideVandy.com) for students to show up early and get loud for the game.

My response: We were there. Where were you?

Fixing A Flaccid Offense
By Robert Funke

My dear dog, the late Elmo, would excitedly mount other dogs, only to be reminded of his pathetic lack of testicles. He would then, without fail, let out a big sigh, watch me sing the alma mater, and stagger dejectedly away, confused about the source of his impotence. “It’s not your fault, buddy,” I wanted to say.

So who neutered the Vanderbilt offense? The answer, I’m afraid, is the same it has been for the last three years: offensive coordinator Ted Cain.

Since I got the job as the Vandy sports columnist at Nashville Newzine, I’ve occasionally wondered how many columns it would be before I got a rant out towards Cain.

That number is two (2).

Let me preface this by saying that, to me, “Ted Cain” is a symbol, not a man. He is a symbol of “Vanderbilt’s offensive impotence.” Therefore, when I say, “I hate Ted Cain,” I mean “I hate Vanderbilt’s offensive impotence.” I have never met Ted Cain, and if I did, I would likely find him frustratingly pleasant and good-natured.

But since the end of the Jay Cutler era, I’ve found myself more and more obsessively fixated on the idea that this man, this Ted Cain, remains in the employ of Vanderbilt University. We have the worst offense in the SEC, and one of the worst in the country.

I say this now, of course, because of our performance against the mighty Bulldogs of Mississippi State. They came in unheralded. They pooped on our field. They rang their stupid cowbells. They gave their coach a Gatorade (excuse me, “G”) bath, and then they left.

Before I lose it completely, let me say that our defense played admirably yet again, despite being on the field twice as much as the offense. I like our defense against almost anyone in the conference. They play heroically. Now to the game notes:

At the beginning of the third quarter, it was quite feasible that we could double our total offensive production in a single play. We had thirty-three (33) yards on twenty-nine (29) rushing attempts. I don’t put the numbers in parentheses because of grammar or protocol. I do it so that you see those numbers twice. We had more punts than first downs. I realized, at one point, that it seemed more likely for us to catch a pass on defense than on offense. Our only score was set up not by a drive, but by a fumble on the Mississippi State five-yard line (spoiler: it wasn’t a touchdown). Note to defense: just pick up the ball and run it in next time.

Prior to the opening game, the media seemed to believe that a no-huddle offense would somehow fix our offensive woes. Not true, friends. The no-huddle offense does little more than allow us a dozen punts per game. Our typical series gambit last year was “Draw, Draw, Pass, Punt” whereas this year’s is, “drawdrawpasspunt!”

After the game, the once-proud ‘Dores walked to the student section with the gait of poor Elmo, saddened that someone had removed their virility. It begs the question, “How bad must Vanderbilt’s offense be before someone is held accountable?”

Listen, Bobby. He may be a nice guy. Judging by the way we run up the score on cupcake teams, he could be a fantastic D-II offensive coordinator. But the man does not get results. People who don’t know football think this is your fault, but I know it isn’t. I’ve said it for three years now.

Fire Ted Cain.

Vanderbilt Triumphs over the Mighty Owls of William Marsh Rice University
By Robert Funke

Vanderbilt wins. No poop jokes this week. No cheeky impotence comments, either. Let’s just talk football.

Vanderbilt can win. Vanderbilt can even run up big scores, as we have against Rice and Western Carolina. But it would be lily-livered of me not to mention that the Catamounts and Owls have a combined record of 0-8, and beating up on C-USA teams is, frankly, the minimum expectation for an SEC team, no matter how apologetically underdogged we may be in our own league.

But we can win. That much is clear now. The embarrassing loss to Mississippi State is slightly less embarrassing today, now that we’ve returned to .500 and Mississippi State fought valiantly against LSU and had a rather Vandy-esque moral victory this weekend. But I’m not here to talk LSU football; I’m here to talk Commodore football.

First, I would like to commend our defense once more. They are our rock and our shield, and any wins we get this year will be on their backs. The Commodore D was able to knuckle down against a pass-happy Rice offense that’s put up relatively respectable numbers against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. Between Myron Lewis and Chris “The Sticky Bandit” Marve, the Commodores have filled D.J. Moore’s shoes, and perhaps then some.

So let’s talk offense. Last week, I lashed out against Ted Cain, the Vanderbilt O.C. who, befuddlingly remains employed, week after week, year after year, please God, make it stop. Bobby Johnson, obviously a reader of my columns, made it clear on Monday that it is not Cain, but quarterback coach Jimmy Kiser who calls our—time to walk the walk on my “No cheeky impotence comments” pledge—occasionally unimpressive plays. For the record, even without Cain calling the plays, our offense must be better coordinated.

So. Here’s the rundown.

Larry Smith has the best arm the Vanderbilt QB position has had since Jay Cutler. The problem: the man has NO touch. Lord knows, our receivers can’t catch a ball that hits them in the hands too hard, so touch is something Smith will need to develop. Furthermore, Smith was far too easily harassed by the 170-pound pass rush attack that Rice threw our way. Smith can be great, but he needs help.

First, our offensive line must play to the peak of their ability, every single down. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, but so is a winning season.

Second, we need to use our receivers more effectively. Smith has a big arm, so we should attempt more big plays. Vanderbilt cannot win without aggressive passing, nor can we win, as we saw last week, without any catching. Two of our biggest plays involved receivers: Udom Umoh’s 54-yard pass and John Cole’s fantastically smart reverse-play touchdown. Unfortunately, we lack blazing speed in our receiving corps, so it’s tough to throw many big bombs down the field. But it never hurts to try

Finally, we need to give our tailbacks a fighting chance. All three of our top runners—Zac Stacy, Warren Norman, and the newly-rehabilitated Jared Hawkins—can dazzle, provided our receivers catch enough balls to deter defenses from cramming seven men in the box.

The things that made Commodore fans ill last week were far better this week, but our coaches need the confidence to “play to win,” as they say. If you ask me, Larry Smith can be a great quarterback if we let him. There are some pissed-off Rebels coming to town next week and I would rather have played them while they were still overrated, but such is life in the SEC. I’ll see you at the game.

Death Valley Is A Real Place. It Is In California, Not Louisiana
by Robert Funke

Vanderbilt and LSU seem to be mirror images of one another right now. One is a team that, two years ago, was the best team in the land, and now seems to be on the good side of average (or the average side of good), and the other is a team that, two years ago, hadn’t played a bowl game in a quarter century, and now seems to be happily average, or perhaps the good side of weak, but with the potential to be on the weak side of surprisingly good. The respective post-game reactions were telling.

Les Miles had an attitude of, “Look, it wasn’t pretty, we looked bad, but it was a win, folks, and we’re still undefeated. Stop mailing me dead animals, you ignorant bayou cretins.” Bobby Johnson, on the other hand, had an attitude of “Look, we showed some flashes of talent, we competed hard, we gave it our best, and we played a respectable game against a perennial giant. But we still lost. We want to win. Stop congratulating me, you pathetic ninnies.”

I know we could have done better. I also freshly remember doing much, much worse.

The ‘Dores traveled to Baton Rouge to supposedly-terrifying, stupidly-nicknamed “Death Valley” for a game against the poorly-coached mutants at Louisiana State University. LSU was the only really disappointing showing last week (except for the SEC teams that lost, of course), so it seemed to all that Vandy might have a shot at pulling out a surprise.

Turns out, we did. A loss is a loss, but I think that if we played LSU ten times this year, we would win two of those games. In all my years of God-given life and God-advised-against gambling, I wouldn’t ever bet on a Vandy win over the Tigers, but we had a pretty good showing.

If you want a box score, look up the box score. Here are the facts:

• Zac Stacy is a great running back.

• Ted Cain still insists on making draws the bulk of our offensive plays, and will need to score more than once a game to convince me he’s not worthless.

• Larry Smith will be just fine.

• Our receivers are really bad at receptions.

• Our defense played incredibly well, considering our offense didn’t give them many breaks.

• A season without bye weeks becomes a problem when we start to lose two starters per game.

When Jamie “Lockdown” Graham limped off the field at the half, I nearly wept. When he appeared to be fine at the beginning of the second half, I nearly wept (happiness).

I still think this could be a pretty good year for us.

I loved the game day atmosphere in Baton Rouge, though. The occasional LSU fan would try to bedevil me, saying, “come on, everybody, one, two, three, TIGER BAIT, TIGER BAIT, TIGER BAIT.” “Everybody” ignored him.

The archetypical LSU fan looks something like a man who stood a few rows below me. Overweight. Handlebar mustache. Eyes glazed over; vacant smile. Seems to have been drunk for the better part of the last thirty-five years. His buddies, also drunk, are hard at work sexually harassing the Vanderbilt cheerleaders, but he’s oblivious, smiling, smiling. He’s just happy to be at a football game. His team is winning.

To round up other sporting news of interest, things didn’t go much better for the Chicago Commodores, who looked potentially impressive, but ultimately flaccid against the Packers. Bright spot: Brian Urlacher had a season-ending injury. That means Commodore Hunter Hillenmeyer should get more playing time. Awesome. Sorry, Brian.

And finally, to end on a high note, I would like to point out that the Tennessee Volunteers got pooped-on yesterday.

The Vanderbilt Shutout Made Me Feel Funny...
Inside My Body

By Robert Funke

Something is different.

First shutout in a decade. First time two Vandy running backs have had one-hundred-plus-yard games in blah blah years. First time ever that they’ve both been true freshmen.

Sure, the Commodores took care of business Saturday, but that happens from time to time. They took care of business, but that isn’t the shocking thing. And that is the shocking thing.

The shocking thing is that it’s not shocking. Get it? OR DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND?!

Things are different. As I worked my way up the stands to my usual Vanderbilt football perch, I couldn’t help but realize that the student section looked a bit more spirited than usual. For once, I was too distracted by the black-and-gold attire to notice the occasional buffoon wearing a grease-stained pink oxford shirt with a lavender tie and crimson croakie. For once, I was convinced that the team for which this student section cheered wore black and gold football uniforms, not pink and green sundresses.

Now, you might take from my tone that I am a typical Commodore cynic, jaded by years of losing and unenthusiastic about the team, unconvinced by a bowl season that, let’s face it, had some uncharacteristically lucky breaks. I am not. Four years ago, Jay Cutler threw a football to Earl Bennett in a little town called Knoxville, Tennessee, and at that moment, everything changed. Vanderbilt beat the University of Tennessee, shaking from its back the losing-streak monkey that had humped us annually for over two decades.

It was a crocus peaking through the snow, signifying the end of winter, and if you’ll walk with me through this rather trite metaphor, the snow stayed on the ground for two more seasons before spring arrived and we won a bowl game last year.

I truly believe that it is a new season for Vanderbilt football.

The students wore gold. The young running backs moved like cheetahs on roller skates. The receivers caught passes like pigskin OB/GYN’s on roller skates. The offense scored points. The crowd did the wave (something I do not support, for the record, in any situation). Chris Marve (nickname: The Sticky Bandit) lived up to his hype. Larry Smith (nickname: The Present) looked great.

Vanderbilt, an SEC team, played like they belonged in the SEC.

The matchup in Louisiana this weekend should be interesting. On a Saturday when it seemed that every SEC team was defecating all over lesser squads, Vanderbilt stood in the ranks of such typical bullies as Tennessee, Florida, Auburn (and, uh, Kentucky and Mississippi State and Arkansas and surely-they-can’t-be-that-good Ol’ Miss). Only three SEC teams had close games: UGA, LSU, and 'Bama. Georgia and Alabama had tough opponents, so LSU's near-loss to Washington was the only surprise.

I doubt they’ll still be on their heels Saturday. But who knows?