The leaves are beginning to change colors. A ferocious hurricane season won't persist much longer (thank goodness). In three weeks, nightfall will arrive much earlier when Americans adjust their clocks.
This is a changing of the seasons, the middle of October. Labor Day feels like three months ago, not one, given everything that is happening in America right now. Life is constantly being reshaped in many ways.
All of the above references did not mention college football, but what is true in Mother Nature and in American cultural life is also true in the sport that lives and breathes on autumnal Saturdays.
Vanderbilt's victory over Kansas State might as well have occurred in a different universe, let alone a different season on the calendar. Whether that victory was expected or not, it definitely reset expectations for the 2017 Commodores. That result, more than anything else, makes the past three weeks so disappointing.
It's not that Vanderbilt lost the past three games which offers cause for both concern and lamentation. Alabama and Georgia are really good teams, and Florida -- for all its weaknesses -- is the two-time defending SEC East champion with a pedigree that merits a certain amount of respect. Losing to those three teams is no sin.
However, everyone who supports Vanderbilt football would be able to sleep a little more easily -- and feel more hopeful about the future -- if VU could have taken at least one of those games to the wire and held at least one of those three teams under 30 points. That the Dores had their doors blown off in three games, including the defensive side of the ball -- even with their injuries and limitations -- speaks to the idea that this team doesn't have a robust Plan B when Plan A, which was shown in the Kansas State win, doesn't materialize.
A dynamic which is evident at many college football programs could -- at the present time -- be cited at Vanderbilt. One could make the argument that head coach Derek Mason is an expert at fixing and building a defense, but that he doesn't devote nearly the same amount of attention to his "weaker" side, the offense. The defense showed what it could do when fully healthy (or close to it) against Kansas State, but the offense has not yet had anything close to what one would call a breakout game. The defense's injuries -- especially in the secondary which formed the cornerstone of the Kansas State triumph -- have, one could reasonably claim, left this team without a leg to stand on. The offense wasn't able to carry the load. It played well for roughly 60 percent of the Florida game, but that's as good as it became. Anyone who wants to be a pessimist about the Vanderbilt offense has reason to do so.
This is where the changing of the seasons comes into play.
Vanderbilt is done with its "championship season," the four games (three in the SEC) which were going to determine if this could be a championship team in 2017. Vanderbilt realistically needed to beat Florida and Georgia, but it at least had to beat UGA, in order to carry legitimate SEC East title hopes into the second half of the season. Vanderbilt fell short -- not a sin, but certainly a time to turn the page and focus on a decidedly different set of challenges.
What begins Saturday at Ole Miss is the softer portion of the schedule. Vanderbilt won't win its division, but now comes the need to become an eight-win team instead of a 6-6 team, a team which shows it has advanced relative to last season instead of remaining stuck in place. Now comes the part of the season when winning is expected, not hoped for. This is when the offense can redeem itself -- and simultaneously refute the idea that VU devotes insufficient attention to offense under Mason's watch. This is when Kyle Shurmur -- who roasted and toasted Ole Miss and Tennessee last season -- can pitch the ball around the yard and ring up huge numbers. This is when Ralph Webb can bust loose, now that he isn't going up against Bama's or Georgia's front seven.
As miserable as the past three weeks have been, imagine a world in which the Commodores win their last six, or at the very least take five of them (and do not lose to Tennessee). A school which is beginning to take football more seriously would have reason to believe that the long project of remaking VU's pigskin identity is bearing fruit, demonstrating progress, and gathering momentum. Mason and his staff would be able to convey a stronger message on the recruiting trail. The offseason wouldn't be free of concerns or reservations, but it would generally be more hopeful.
The SEC East won't put Vanderbilt in Atlanta in December -- that goal will have to wait another year -- but now begins Vanderbilt's third season. (The first one was the opening two games as the warm-up for Kansas State and the start of that four-game second season, which is now over.)
Change is all around us in college football. Vanderbilt is no longer playing a beastly team with overwhelming physical strength -- that's the great news. The not-as-great news: A loss now will feel far more oppressive and discouraging than anything which has transpired the past three weeks. Now, Vanderbilt bears real pressure instead of playing with house money.
How the Commodores handle this distinctly different competitive context will say more about them than losing to Alabama and Georgia teams which are likely to play prestigious New Year's Six bowls.
The changing of the seasons is upon us, and Vanderbilt will show its true colors in the autumn of 2017.