It was bound to happen eventually. The karmic collection agency, which has plagued every Vanderbilt football coach since Doby Bartling, finally found James Franklin at home. We're guessing they said something like this: "Coach Franklin, we've let you get by long enough."
Thus, Franklin had to pay the tithe to the High Church of Same Old Vandy.
On Saturday, The Commodores leapt to a 14-point first-half lead against No. 8 Arkansas, but for the fourth time this season, they let a conference opponent score a touchdown in the last minute of the first half.
The God of SOV is not a vengeful Old Testament Yahweh; he is Loki the Trickster.
With the team holding an eight-point lead and deep in Arkansas territory, Vanderbilt running back Zac Stacy — the 'Dores do-it-all speedster — fumbled, and the Razorbacks took it back, scoring a touchdown and tying the game with a two-point conversion. A field goal with less than seven minutes remaining gave the visitors their first lead — and Loki reached into his endless bag of frustrations.
Vanderbilt — now under the capable and surprisingly exciting leadership of quarterback Jordan Rodgers — drove the field, setting up the potential game-tying field goal, a 27-yard chip shot, as sure a thing as the right to assemble peacefully in front of the State Capitol. And kicker Casey Spear flat missed the thing.
Of all the Vandy losses in recent memory, this was quite possibly the Vandiest of them all. The Commodores outplayed the Razorbacks — something even Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino admitted. They raced to an early lead. They held on to that lead for 85 percent of the game. They fought off numerous Arkansas ripostes.
But they've been playing with borrowed karma for too many weeks. Things that recently had been going Vandy's way went the other: A team who led the nation in interceptions failed to pick off a pass; typically sure-handed cornerback Casey Hayward dropped three picks; a kick that Spear has made a million times fluttered peacefully off-target like a Wiffle ball thrown too hard. All the Era of Good Feelings talk Franklin has brought to West End, all the premature heralding of a new Gilded Age of Vanderbilt football — none of it mattered when Spear put boot to pigskin. The gods had had enough.
Had Spears connected, of course, overtime was still forthcoming. But suppose for a moment Vanderbilt managed to defeat Arkansas. For the first time since 1937, the 'Dores would have defeated a Top 10 team at Dudley Field.
That's a rush-the-field kind of win if there ever was one. Unfortunately, the Vandy students who managed to drag themselves to the game would have needed help bringing down the goalposts. The student section was about as populated as an Occupy Brentwood rally. Even with the much-ballyhooed change of culture Franklin has fomented, the excitement has somehow yet to trickle down to what should be the prime constituency: the student body.
In this regard, Vanderbilt is always going to be playing from behind. Its student body is far smaller and more cosmopolitan than the rest of the league. Few of the 6,800 undergraduates came up hearing tales of the glories of Whit Taylor's run in the rain or how Corey Harris got robbed out of the rushing title by UT's statistician. (Full disclosure: that statistician, Bill Petty, is a great-uncle to this columnist, and after 19 years, the former is very tired of the latter telling him how wrong he was.)
There is little built-in connection for the students to Commodore football culture, such as it is. A kid from the Chicago suburbs who scored 34 on the ACT, for example, doesn't have a love for Vandy pigskin ingrained in his DNA. Apologists will say Vandy students have more going on than their analogs at the state schools. Yes, the academic expectations are higher, but somehow the student body manages to pull itself away from the textbooks during basketball season, helping to create Memorial Gym's well-earned magic reputation.
But the student section at Dudley Field remains an embarrassment, an empty quarter whose paucity of humanity stands in even sharper contrast when the band takes the field. Removing the 200 or so marchers of the Spirit of Gold leaves a laughably tiny rump of undergrads, outnumbered by sidewalk alumni, visiting fans, security offers and service animals.
Tucked away in their studies (or, more likely, in their ennui or their hangovers), the missing students are missing a chance to see the rarest of Vanderbilt teams: one that just might be the best college squad in the state.
Sure, that's faint praise. Memphis has a football team whose play is most politely described as "postmodern," rejecting any established constructs of the game of football. MTSU is nearly as bad, but in a less confounding way. In Knoxville, whoever or whatever is the God of UT Football must be demanding offerings of knee ligaments, leaving the Big Orange nowhere to go but sideways.
Of course, the Commodores will have to prove themselves as champions of Tennessee by knocking off the Volunteers. And to head to the Valhalla of the bowl season, they'll need to find two wins in their last four games. Only one of those is at home: Nov. 12 against a very beatable Kentucky team.
The team will show up. But there's no guarantee their classmates will join them. Best intentions aside, some things really don't change.
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