What is the Oregon State question? Why drag a team removed from Vanderbilt's radar into a discussion of the Commodores following their 28-6 rout of Middle Tennessee in Week 1?
The angle and concept are not as foreign as one might think.
First things first: Vanderbilt looked VERY good against a Middle Tennessee team with a veteran quarterback and a generally positive reputation, playing at home. Vanderbilt didn't merely survive in a road environment; it thrived. While the lack of a really big number on offense could cause some concern, the fact that Vanderbilt established a big early lead reduced the need for an expansive, creative, aggressive playbook in the second half. There is no need to show Kansas State (an upcoming opponent) anything more in the playbook than necessary. Hyperanalysis of Vanderbilt's quiet offense after halftime is well-intentioned, but doesn't serve much of a purpose. If Vanderbilt's opener had been against a Power 5 team of appreciable stature, a 60-minute evaluation would carry more weight...
... which is why the Kansas State game takes center stage as the first shaper of VU's season.
Middle Tennessee was merely prelude... but oh what an exquisite prelude it was, especially on defense.
Brent Stockstill is not just a returning quarterback with considerable credentials (namely, a large pile of touchdown passes on his resume entering the 2017 opener). He came back to the Blue Raiders with his father, Rick, as the head coach. Familiarity within a system is often a significant advantage for teams with veteran quarterbacks in Weeks 1 through 3 of a college football system. Stockstill enjoyed supreme familiarity, given that his dad is the head coach.
Vanderbilt's defense made that level of familiarity worthless for MTSU.
Derek Mason could not have asked for anything more from a unit which pitched a virtual shutout -- not a technical goose egg, but a game in which the Blue Raiders didn't score a point until the outcome had long been decided. Stockstill didn't even crack 175 passing yards, let alone 200 or 300. This was a smothering performance by a defense which -- though experienced -- lacked the ultimate Commodore anchor (down) author, Zach Cunningham.
It was easy to think that as talented as Vanderbilt's defense is, the absence of Cunningham -- who made so many plays and took on so many responsibilities -- would emerge in spots against MTSU. These occasional occurrences might not have been copious in number, but just two or three breakdowns can translate into 14 or 21 points. VU did not make many mistakes to begin with on defense, but the fact that the Dores made no mistakes which turned into points has to be the best sign of all... against a quarterback who was supposed to pose a considerable threat.
On so many levels, this opener checked the boxes the coaching staff wanted to see.
Now, we turn to "The Oregon State Question" and what it means for this team and this season.
In the so-called "Week 0" of the college football season, Colorado State-Oregon State was the most important and intriguing offering on the five-game slate. Oregon State resided in the dumpster two years ago and made notable progress last season, thumping Oregon and giving Washington State and Utah very tough tests before falling just short. Given that Year 3 of a coach's tenure often takes an improving program to a noticeably higher plateau, it was felt in some circles that Oregon State -- under coach Gary Andersen -- was ready to take the next step, namely, to bowl eligibility in a cutthroat Pac-12 North Division. (The South Division is weak, but the North is not.)
Colorado State was touted as a Mountain West Conference title contender and, accordingly, a Group of 5 New Year's Six bowl contender. The Rams returned a lot of skill position talent on offense and were also entering Year 3 under their coach, Mike Bobo. Oregon State-Colorado State was largely (though not universally) perceived as a game between rising programs under coaches who were finding their footing. The winner of that game figured to receive a big boost, as opposed to the loser being viewed as a failure or an embarrassment.
Therefore, when Colorado State ran away with a 58-27 victory -- punishing Oregon State for every last mistake it made and showcasing the full potency of its offense -- the Rams became a hot item. The New Year's Six talk obviously didn't register on a national scale, because Colorado State football doesn't register on a national scale in general, but people who follow the Rams and the Mountain West (and the Group of 5) were thoroughly impressed.
Then came the next weekend.
While Colorado State's offense was smothered in Denver by the Colorado Buffaloes (who lost a lot of key players on defense, PLUS coordinator Jim Leavitt), Oregon State needed a touchdown with roughly a minute left in regulation to avoid losing to FCS-based Portland State at home.
In one weekend, the perception of Colorado State's 31-point win over Oregon State underwent a 180-degree turn. After Week 0 on Sunday, August 27, the story was "Colorado State is scary!"
After this past Saturday, it became evident that CSU 58, OSU 27 was much more a reflection of how poor Oregon State was than how good Colorado State was. Oregon State might adjust and evolve into a good team in six weeks or two months, but right now, the Beavers are a mess.
The Oregon State question, therefore, is simply this for Vanderbilt: Is Middle Tennessee in a bad place, a weaker opponent than most anticipated or were willing to expect?
As well as Vanderbilt played, Middle Tennessee rode the struggle bus. Yes, VU had a lot to do with those struggles, but it can still be true that MTSU has a lot of work to do before it can become an impressive team.
To place MTSU in that Oregon State-style context, note that the Group of 5 has been TERRIBLE thus far.
Go ahead: Name the Group of 5 team which has REALLY impressed thus far.
Navy (a solid win at FAU) and Western Michigan (a bold fight at USC) are probably the early leaders, and no one regards them as the very best of what the Group of 5 is supposed to offer this season.
Teams much more at the center of the G-5 conversation -- South Florida, Boise State, Troy, Appalachian State -- looked genuinely bad on offense, if not in other additional facets of competition. If no Group of 5 team throws down an imposing season, it will be hard to assign overly great weight to any conquest of a G-5 team -- from Vanderbilt or anyone else.
Vanderbilt's opener was solid and undeniably encouraging, but Week 1 has a way of throwing a curveball relative to how the rest of the season shakes out.
The Dores -- like America -- will know a lot more about who and what they are after the Kansas State game.