At this time last season, Vanderbilt was 5-0 and ranked 13.5 (13 and 14 in the respective polls) headed to Starkville for a chance to become bowl eligible for the first time since 1982. This year, the Commodores are a disappointing 2-3 (including 0-3 in the SEC) and headed to West Point for a chance to become .500 perhaps for the last time this season. The question is why?
We have posited a number of reasons on VSL. To beat the proverbial dead-horse just to make sure it's good and dead, I could go on about the offensive play-calling (which is absolutely awful, despite the head in the sand mentality the coaching staff appears to be taking). But I won't. Instead, I'd like to point out a few key statistics that are indicative of why the Commodores have struggled this season. Don't post comments about how I'm using stats to be a Vanderbilt apologist. I will be the first to admit that Vanderbilt's 5-0 start wouldn't have been apparent based on the stats compiled at this point season. I will also concede that Vanderbilt has been extremely hard-hit this season by injuries. Still, the team's performance thus far as been nothing short of excruciating to watch. The question is: why?
1. Red-Zone Efficiency. Vanderbilt has made 2 more trips to the red-zone this season than last. The difference between this year's 21 trips and last year's 19 is how successful they've been once they get there. Last season, Vanderbilt converted 18 of 19 red zone trips, including 13 touchdowns. This season, Vanderbilt is a disappointing 14-21 in the red zone. Of those 14, only 9 have been for touchdowns. Perhaps even worse is Vanderbilt's red zone defense this season, as compared to last. Last year, Vanderbilt limited opponents to scoring just 62% of the time (5 TDs and 3 FGs on 13 drives). This year, opponents are 11-11, including 6 touchdowns. Through 5 games last season, the defense would bend but not break. This year, the defense is bending AND breaking. Don't get me wrong, I don't think the red-zone defensive breakdown is that bad. The fact that they are preventing opponents from getting in the end-zone almost half the time is impressive. A few stops here are there would be great, but you can certainly understand why that's difficult based on the next stat...
2. Time of Possession. After 5 games last season, Vanderbilt was averaging a time of possession of slightly more than half the game (30:51). This year, the are averaging just under 4 minutes less for an average TOP of 26:58. The defense is exhausted because the offense can't get first downs. Even if they move the chains, the no-huddle is making what few drives the Commodores have that much shorter, thereby giving the defense less time to recover (Vanderbilt had run 295 plays at this point last season; this season, they've run 368). Perhaps the most indicative example of the impact of the defense's time on the field: the red-zone defense discussed above.
3. Penalties. Whenever you watch a Vanderbilt basketball game, you are sure to hear the phrase "Princeton offense" at least 5 times. When it's football, the cliche of choice is "disciplined football." Not this year. At this point last season, Vanderbilt had earned 16 penalties for 152 yards, the total averaging out to 30.4 yards a game. This year, Vanderbilt has amassed more than twice as many penalties (34) and been assessed 239 yards. Worse, they are averaging 47.8 yards of penalties a game. Those numbers are bad, but they are even worse when you consider Commodore opponents have only been assessed 22 penalties for 188 yards.
4. What It's Not. As Seamus highlighted in his excellent post-mortum of the Ole Miss debacle, Vanderbilt's defense (despite the 2-3 record) is very good and should not be overlooked. With all that said, would it surprise you to learn that this year's defense is BETTER than last year's at stopping opponents on 3rd down: 36.5% last season, 30% this year. It's also not a lack of turnovers. Vanderbilt's early success last season was sparked by forcing, and subsequently taking advantage of, turnovers (again, see red zone efficiency discussion above). Still, Vanderbilt has a +7 turnover margin this season, compared to a +9 margin last season. Hardly a steep drop-off.
Commodore fans have reason to be gloomy headed to West Point this weekend. To say Saturday's game is a "must-win" is honestly laughable because the math getting to 6 heading into our SEC East schedule is more difficult than the calculus class I had to withdraw from freshmen year. Unless something changes, and fast, the rest of this season is about looking towards the future and finishing with some pride. Not the way we wanted to follow-up our first bowl win since Eisenhower, but the numbers don't lie as to why the Commodores find themselves in this particular predicament.