When the Vanderbilt Commodores look across the sideline this coming Saturday, they will recognize a team cut from a very similar piece of cloth.
The Kentucky Wildcats, in moments of success and failure, bear the scars and represent the uncomfortable, in-between reality which characterizes Vanderbilt football at the moment.
As Vanderbilt prepares for its final three-game stretch of the season, the main goal is undeniably clear: Win six games. It would be great to get seven, but the Commodores must make sure they get to six. Academic performance would put VU in position to potentially get a 5-7 bowl bid much as SEC competitor Mississippi State did last year, but no team wants to backdoor into a bowl. The status or health of the Vanderbilt program would not be better if a bowl bid accompanied a 5-7 record. Some rewards exist in spite of the quality of the on-field product, and Vanderbilt does not want to be remembered that way, even though the history of the program owns few bowl appearances.
Even though Kentucky is a basketball school and Vanderbilt a baseball powerhouse with a considerable basketball pedigree, it's not as though SEC football is an afterthought in Lexington or Nashville. Both schools would give a left arm or a right leg for an SEC East title and a first-ever trip to Atlanta. SEC football inspires passion and its cousin, named Aspiration. Vanderbilt is becoming more aspirational as an athletic program, and even though making the Final Four (plus beating Louisville) owns supreme importance for Kentucky, the program's journey across many decades reaffirms how much UK fans would love to see a breakthrough on the gridiron.
Seeing Kentucky and its fans go crazy when beating longtime oppressor Tennessee, and crumple into a state of total devastation when being gut-punched -- AGAIN -- by Florida, equally convey how much Wildcat football matters to the locals. VU and UK are both programs for which bowl appearances are not to be taken for granted, but they are also programs for which 6-6 or 7-5 records are nothing to proclaim from the rooftops.
Yes, in 2008, merely getting across that bowl threshold was a huge deal for Vanderbilt, and yes, past Kentucky bowl trips were supremely cathartic in the Bluegrass, but those were one-season occurrences. Once the thrill of those important yet modest accomplishments wore off, the vision turned to much bigger goals and higher expectations. Threatening the big boys is now -- and should be -- a primary annual aim for the Cats and Dores. Big Blue and VU should both exist in a realm where -- given how mediocre the SEC East has become -- the idea of 10 straight 6-6 seasons and fourth-tier bowl invitations should be cause for disappointment more than joy.
No, it's not realistic at either Kentucky or Vanderbilt to expect nine wins on an annual basis, but with Florida wobbling, Tennessee reeling, and South Carolina and Missouri both much less than they were just four years ago under Steve Spurrier and Gary Pinkel, winning nine games once every three years in the SEC East is hardly an unreasonable goal. VU and UK can't be in the hunt all the time -- at least not until they show they can obtain new levels of staying power -- but even at this point in time, wanting to contend for the SEC East once every three seasons represents a proper mixture of ambition and self-awareness.
Every Kentucky or Vanderbilt fan must, therefore, ask the following question: Does our current head coach give us a legitimate chance of reaching that position (SEC East contender once every three years)?
Most Wildcat or Commodore fans would probably have a firm answer to that question. Of those, the likely majority answer would be "No." However, the importance of holding bigger aspirations and carrying higher standards does not mean that either coach has exhausted his supply of chances. One can be aspirational yet deeply aware of the limitations of current circumstances.
It is true that neither Mark Stoops nor Derek Mason has won eight games in a regular season since coming to the SEC from assistant-level positions at schools outside the conference. It is true that Kentucky will have to beat Georgia or Louisville (possibly both) to reach eight wins this regular season. Yet, Kentucky and Vanderbilt have both endured enough injuries -- Kentucky to quarterback Stephen Johnson and linebacker Jordan Jones, Vanderbilt to Tre Herndon and Bryce Lewis in the secondary -- that their coaches can plausibly explain why they fell short at certain points.
Kentucky, at 6-3, at least has the security of knowing a bowl bid has been locked up, but should the Wildcats finish at 7-5, they will have failed to improve over their 2016 regular season, which is not what Big Blue backers expected before this campaign. Similarly, Vanderbilt fans would feel relieved if their team reached 6-6, but that would also mean zero win-loss improvement relative to last year. It's not what anyone fervently hoped on Labor Day. It will be tolerated for 2017, but it does not represent a portrait of what the future needs to become.
One can spin the future by saying that Georgia will lose a lot of experience next year, and that even with Jake Bentley, South Carolina does not show signs of becoming an elite team. (Good? Yes. Anything better than good? No.) However, Florida and Tennessee might finally hire good coaches again, an important point to consider in this discussion of UK and VU.
Vanderbilt's 6-6 bowl season in 2008 felt like a big deal -- and WAS a big deal -- partly because Tennessee, Florida and Georgia were all supposed to be good that year. Moreover, with 12 teams in the SEC then, teams had to play three games in the opposite division, not two, creating harder schedules for SEC East teams. The margin for error was a lot smaller, making 6-6 a much better record than it is now.
This year's South Carolina team is not overly impressive. It lost at home to Kentucky, which was coincidentally UK's best performance of the season. The fact that the Gamecocks were the last team standing on Georgia's road to the SEC East title -- like the fact that Georgia clinched the East on Nov. 4 -- shows how far the SEC East has fallen. (This does not take away from Georgia's greatness, but it does show how few good teams exist in the division.)
Vanderbilt and Kentucky, to put the matter plainly, live in a world (and an SEC) where six wins don't mean what they used to, and nine wins don't mean what they used to. Yet, with at least four more SEC coaches changing in the coming months, teams can't be assured that this currently soft SEC East will remain soft in the future, and since both the Dores and Cats lost to both Ole Miss AND Florida this season, they have demonstrated flaws against lower-end teams, not just higher-end foes.
Vanderbilt and Kentucky will live with and accept bowls this season (VU with at least six wins should it get there). Yet, as the 2017 season winds down, it is impossible to ignore the reality that barely making a bowl -- while a big deal in past seasons -- cannot be a permanent new normal on a long-term basis. 2018 will have to bring something more to the table for two SEC football programs which very rarely get to feast.