The baseball playoffs are just starting. The weather is still warm more than it is cold. Most teams have played more non-conference games than conference games across the country.
Those details mean a college football season is still young -- not in its infancy, but in its young-adult years. More learning needs to occur before fully-ripened adult knowledge can be gained.
One piece of knowledge yet to be attained in 2017: Just how good are the Vanderbilt Commodores?
To be clear, the past two weeks have offered one specific portrait of Derek Mason's team. Alabama games (for nearly every college football team) might exist on their own island, but if that game was going to be an isolated incident, the Commodores would have turned the page and punched Florida in the mouth the same way they did against Kansas State. It's true that Kansas State's offense is not clicking (more on the Wildcats in a bit), but Florida's offense had been no more impressive than Kansas State's through four weeks -- not, at any rate, to a significant extent worth commenting on.
If the Alabama game was an aberration -- a joker card in a deck -- Florida represented an offense Vanderbilt's defense should have been able to contain if not dominate.
If the Alabama game was a one-off, reserved for the reasonably accurate "but EVERYONE (other than Clemson) gets trampled by Bama" refrain, Vanderbilt should have been able to play Florida on even terms at the very worst, and largely control the matchup against Florida's offense.
"Should" did not translate into reality.
"Ought to" did not become a living truth.
It was fun for a lot of Vanderbilt fans to laugh at Tennessee when a winnable game slipped through the Vols' figures in The Swamp, specifically as a result of allowing Florida receivers to get behind the defense late in a half. Yet, toward the end of the first half this past Saturday, the Gators found long-ball magic against a defense which was out of position and a step behind. The Gators cashed that mistake by the VU secondary into points -- yes, the same VU secondary which almost single-handedly won the Kansas State game with airtight, focused play.
Yes, it is worth briefly noting that Kansas State's offense remains sloppy -- the Wildcats were ragged and uneven in an aesthetic nightmare of a home-field victory over Baylor. Had the Cats played that game on the road (much as they did at Vanderbilt), they might not have been as fortunate. It could well be that Kansas State will be a .500 team this year, and that the hype which (reasonably, it should be said) greeted Vanderbilt's win over the Wildcats was not proportionate to the actual merit of the achievement.
There are two full months left in the regular season, and Kansas State might be a much better team in late November, but the winds of change blow swiftly through college football, and right now, the past three weeks have put Vanderbilt in a very different place compared to that night against Kansas State. There is no guarantee that Vanderbilt will reverse course and restore the warm afterglow of that win over Bill Snyder...
... but that's the point connected to the present moment and this Saturday's upcoming game against Georgia.
If Vanderbilt is to be remembered as anything special -- anything above average, anything conspicuously impressive -- in 2017, that shimmering status, that improved identity, won't be forged against Kentucky or Missouri. Vanderbilt can climb to six wins against the UKs and Mizzous of the world. It can make a fifth-tier bowl bid and be mildly satisfied, knowing that most of the program's history has not involved bowl bids.
Truth be told, that would not be a bad outcome for this season. Most VU teams -- heck, most VU decades -- have been worse.
Yet, with stadium expansion now forming a part of the discussion surrounding Vanderbilt football, and the school offering every appearance that it takes football more seriously than it once did, the culture of VU football can't rest on the easy assumptions and mildly good standards of the past.
It must evolve and change.How to do that? Beat Georgia. Beat the team which is nowhere close to Alabama... but is far better than the 12 other teams in the SEC save the possible exception of Auburn.
Beat a team which is simultaneously impressive and dominant yet also the product of a very weak SEC whose middle class and underclass have failed to step up.
Vanderbilt can not merely symbolize an SEC rebellion from its mercilessly criticized lower ranks; the Commodores can BE the rebellion itself and, in the process, stay in the SEC East race.
Yes, when Georgia and Florida play later in the season, one team will lose, benefiting Vanderbilt. The problem? One will win, hurting Vanderbilt. A favorable backloaded SEC schedule gives VU a very realistic hope of a 5-3 SEC season if it beats Georgia. Given that the Dawgs still have to play Auburn while Florida faces LSU and Texas A&M, a Vanderbilt win this Saturday could create a very cluttered SEC East in mid-November.
If Vanderbilt can't beat Georgia -- and importantly, can't sow doubt in Kirby Smart or his players -- a big November from the Dores against the weak portion of the SEC East won't prevent the Georgia-Florida winner from taking the SEC East.
This is the time to take a stand.
This is the time to regroup from the Florida game, when the lessons taught by Professor Nick Saban and Alabama in a Football 101 beatdown were simply not applied in Gainesville.
It's only Week 6, but this truly is Vanderbilt's last chance to make a resounding and resonant national statement.
Beating Tennessee (which might not be coached by Butch Jones when the two teams meet) will give Vanderbilt local bragging rights and a series of neighborhood satisfactions, but if the 2017 Dores want to forge a different national identity which will, in turn, truly reshape the culture of the program as it seeks to become something more than it has been, this Saturday is IT.
This is a last chance in 2017. This is the kind of moment Vanderbilt and Mason and Andy Ludwig and Kyle Shurmur need to conquer if they want to change perceptions and assumptions in a positive way.
No opponent after Georgia -- no opponent in the back half of the schedule -- can transform Vanderbilt. The Commodores must mold their metamorphosis on October 7 if the rest of their year is to entertain large aspirations, not merely modest ones.