Hosting the No. 1 team in the country -- and the undisputed best team in the SEC -- on CBS Saturday afternoon is a big deal for any program. Why wouldn't Vanderbilt fans and players express excitement and hope about welcoming big, bad Alabama to Nashville? There's nothing wrong with that.
Now, however, the SEC and the college football world will see what Vanderbilt is made of... and more specifically, whether Vanderbilt's perspective on the Alabama game was fundamentally healthy or conspicuously unrealistic.
I wasn't expecting a 59-0 drubbing -- few people were -- but in the same breath, the idea that Vanderbilt was ready to beat Alabama also seemed like a considerable reach.
Full disclosure: I expected VU's defense to keep last Saturday's game close for a full half, maybe the first several minutes into the third quarter, but the Commodores' offense showed against Kansas State that it wasn't close to being prepared for this occasion. Even the most optimistic Vanderbilt forecast -- MAYBE WE CAN WIN! -- did not involve the Dores scoring more than 20 points. A 16-13 kind of win probably represented the best-case scenario in the minds of many Vanderbilt fans.
A realistic view of Saturday's game before kickoff involved VU making it a contest, only for Alabama to lean on the Dores, take advantage of its recruiting depth, and dominate the final 20 minutes for a 31-7 or 35-10 victory. No, 59-0 was not a predictable result, but neither was a game that went down to the wire or was even remotely close in the final 10 minutes. The lack of development in Vanderbilt's offense meant almost certain -- and violent -- death against Bama. I merely thought it would mean a 25-point loss, not a 59-point demolition.
Ultimately, Vanderbilt -- specifically the players in that locker room -- must emerge from that game with the mindset I addressed a week ago: Treat the Bama game as an education in how to play tough, winning football. View it as a graduate school football classroom... and apply the lessons learned in that classroom versus Florida in Gainesville.
This game, not the Alabama game, is the one which will truly shape Vanderbilt's season. This is the SEC contest which, if won, will make a home game against Georgia in October a duel (quite possibly, at any rate) for the SEC East championship. This is the game Vanderbilt has to win -- not the Alabama game -- if it wants to make the jump to the next level. (Notice the specificity of phrasing: I didn't say "THE TOP LEVEL," just the NEXT level. Vanderbilt can't go from "average" to "elite" in one jump. It must go from average to "very good" before it can become truly special at a later point in time.)
The problem with the 59-point loss to Alabama is that a drubbing on national television could easily erode confidence for every VU player. College sports always has been and always will be a theater of competition in which bad results in one game often carry over into the next. Hangover, letdown, depression, slump -- whatever fans call the term, it marks a core part of the college sports experience.
Coaches make their bones -- and players demonstrate their greatness -- by treating bad games as opportunities to learn. Good college coaches and players use a 59-0 loss to an elite team as a positive turning point by allowing such an event to expose everything which needs to be improved... and then creating that improvement.
The improvement happens, though, only if confidence hasn't been damaged.
Kyle Shurmur should be so much more aware -- after facing Alabama -- of how to properly read a defense and respond to pressure in the pocket.
Vanderbilt's offensive line should be so much more able -- after facing Alabama -- to fend off opposing pass rushers and know how to make timely adjustments on the fly.
VU players should feel far more conscious of what they need to do on the field. That is empowerment; the trick is to feel empowered by Alabama's education, not diminished. If Kansas State fed Vanderbilt a false sense of confidence, Alabama cannot create a false sense of inadequacy. VU players should feel more equipped to succeed after the Tide rolled through Nashville, not less.
The Dores couldn't face a more perfect opponent in Week 5 to measure how much they did (or didn't) learn versus Alabama.
The Florida Gators -- an undermanned team due to the suspensions attached to the ongoing credit card fraud investigation at the school -- have won two SEC games mostly because their opponents spectacularly stumbled when on the verge of victory. Tennessee was 10 yards away from a touchdown and a 24-20 victory in Week 3, but Butch Jones and his staff did not give John Kelly the ball in a three-down sequence. Kentucky led Florida 27-14, but then committed defensive breakdowns on two separate Florida touchdown drives and then committed offensive holding in the final 10 seconds to prevent the Wildcats from kicking a game-winning field goal.
Florida has displayed admirable perseverance in recent weeks, but the Gators have been average at best, sometimes terrible, in their SEC wins. They are begging for a loss unless they dramatically develop.
A good team, a disciplined team, a team which doesn't make massive mistakes, will beat Florida. A good team will punish the Gators' errors and not give them a lifeline when they're on the ropes.
If Vanderbilt plays as well on defense against Florida as it did against Kansas State, the Gators' offense will not score often. If VU's offense can merely be 15 percent better than it was against Kansas State -- and not make a huge catastrophic mistake (which it almost did versus KSU, only for replay to overturn it) -- the Commodores not only could win; they SHOULD win.
Florida offers no appearance or suggestion of the idea that it is ready to play authoritatively well. Unless the Gators are reborn this upcoming Saturday, Vanderbilt is stronger in the trenches and has a secondary which should shut down UF's receivers. Unless Florida becomes a different team, it will likely need help to win on Saturday.
It's up to Vanderbilt to not extend that helping hand.
Refusing to assist Florida will flow from multiple sources, but the chief reason VU will lose to Florida in The Swamp -- if it does -- is that it won't fully trust itself after losing by 59 points. Vanderbilt -- if it loses -- will lose because it will allow the Alabama onslaught to linger as a negative burden, instead of viewing it as a chance to apply Alabama's lessons to its six SEC East games.
Derek Mason shouldn't have a problem getting his defense to contain Florida's offense. His chief challenge is to ensure that morale and confidence are higher this week, fortified by the knowledge that players are more prepared after getting a first-class football education from Nick Saban and Company.
It was -- and is -- okay for Vanderbilt to have been excited about Alabama's arrival to Nashville on CBS. It will be unfortunate and disappointing if Vanderbilt players allow that loss to hijack their level of performance in the most important game of their SEC East season, the game which could set up (if won) a possible division-deciding showdown against Georgia.
Wanting to beat Bama is good. Expecting to beat Bama -- when not fully equipped to do so -- is a manifestation of hubris and unrealistic expectations.
It would be a shame if Vanderbilt faltered against Florida because it dreamed of being an elite team before it took the next step up the college football ladder.
No one has any time for being elite in the SEC East. The realistic and attainable goal for Vanderbilt is to be better than every other team in the division. That can't happen without a win over Florida.
Did Alabama crush Vanderbilt's will to succeed, or did it empower the Commodores to be their best selves in a highly winnable SEC East?
That's the question which will be answered in The Swamp this coming Saturday. This is the moment which will shape how big the Georgia game is... and how exciting the 2017 SEC football season will be for the men who wear the "V."