House Money: 2010 Vanderbilt Preview

Austin Monahan (VM/Stan Jones)

Acknowledge the sadness of losing Bobby Johnson. Confront the confusion of a coaching decision made just a month and a half before the start of the season. Lament the injuries that have befallen a first-year head coach who had just 51 days to prepare for his big moment in the Nashville sun. And then move on with the show.

Yes, if you're a Commodore, it's time to view this 2010 collegiate football season in one way and one way only: house money. Really – that's the healthiest way to perceive and process everything that has happened (and will happen) in relationship to VU football.

First, let's not ignore the events that have gone before us. A healthy psychological profile does not include wishful denial.

It's just going from bad to worse for the Vanderbilt Commodores on the gridiron, and we still haven't played a single regular-season football game in 2010.

First, Vandy's longtime coach – and a comparatively successful one at that – exited stage right just a month and a half before the start of the season, as Bobby Johnson retired and left his team in a state of complete shock. Johnson clearly improved the locker room culture in Nashville, having delivered Vanderbilt its first winning season and bowl bid since 1982 and the program's first bowl win since 1955. The fabulous feat doubled as the second bowl win in program history. Pigskin pundits don't expect much of Vanderbilt on an annual basis, but Johnson made the Commodores respectable, a more than modest achievement in the world of college football coaching. That's how Vandy's summer unfolded on July 14.

And then things deteriorated even more, as homespun-and-dadgum-fun coach Robbie Caldwell – with his riotous turkey talks and tall tales – entertained football fans throughout the United States. A coach who makes people smile was not rewarded for his virtues. The things that have transpired on the practice fields of August did not plaster a parade of pearly whites on the luckless Mr. Caldwell's honest face.

Tight end Austin Monahan has been forced to miss the entire 2010 season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, while running backs Zac Stacy and Warren Norman are both questionable for this Saturday's opener against Northwestern. Stacy sprained his left knee, while Norman underwent arthroscopic surgery in his right knee.

Plainly put, a team that had its stomach punched with the Bobby Johnson shocker is now getting kneed in all sorts of places. The hits just keep on coming for a program that needs the not-so-merry-go-round of madness to stop spinning. Monahan, who was slated to share tight-end duties with Brandon Barden, has had to wonder what kind of black cartoon raincloud has been following him during his VU career. Monahan has grimaced in pain – physical and psychological – as injuries have ended his season prematurely in each of the last three years. He tore the ACL in his left knee last season and missed the final six games. In 2008, he missed the final eight games with a shoulder fracture.

What's happened to Monahan – while hardly unique in the realm of this violent sport we call football – serves as a perfect metaphor for the state of the program. Vandy has a team of strivers and hard workers. Morale on the program was marvelously maintained by Bobby Johnson over an extended period of time, and Caldwell – a trusted lieutenant – should continue to get complete "buy-in" from everyone on his roster. The fractures on this team are never, EVER found in the locker room, a credit to the kind of men who populate the VU program.

The fractures DO occur on the field, though, and Vandy just can't seem to escape them right now. Broken bones and the broken hearts that soon follow them are never far away for this program, which has lost its longtime leader due to an unexpected retirement, and now has an even thinner roster of potential pass-catchers in an offense that's plainly going to struggle. Hordes of college football experts were already expecting little from Vandy this fall, as a team with precious few offensive weapons was not going to bring very much to the table. SEC offenses are stacked with talent this year – especially on the West side of the divisional divide – and the Commodores were never going to match up favorably. This is a program that relies on defense and the kicking game to stay competitive in most seasons, so it's not as though Vandy was going to hang its hat on offense in the first place.

Yet, the ‘Dores needed whomever they could count on to post credible numbers and represent a reasonable threat on the offensive side of the ball. The passing game – made vulnerable because of the absence of dependable downfield threats in 2009 – does not enjoy a more favorable prognosis in 2010. Monahan was going to be a big target for quarterback Larry Smith, and that's why his season-long absence is going to cut so deep for this team.

Monahan's injury-forced exit from the lineup also magnifies the need for every VU running back to maintain health. The very limitations of Vandy's passing attack will force the Dores to pry loose opposing secondaries by pounding the run first. Vandy's foremost strength on offense is its rushing attack, so – given the eternal need for just about every offense to establish run-pass balance – the calculus for VU is clear. Commodore Caldwell must lead with his team's main dance step, the running game, and then see if opposing linebackers and safeties will bite on play fakes, thereby setting up big vertical pass plays. The Stacy-Norman combo is going to be needed this weekend against Northwestern, in an SEC-Big Ten battle that will be used as a measuring stick of sorts for the rest of 2010. Without those two, Smith and his receivers will have a hard time throwing the ball in predictable passing situations.

Oh, Vanderbilt's defense, with middle linebacker Chris Marve – the SEC's leading tackler among all returning players in the conference – will still be appreciably solid. There are good things to be said about the defensive 11 that will strap on the pads for the VU crew in 2010. But oh, for an offense that struggled plenty in 2009, the outlook has only deteriorated this year because of Old Demon Infirmary. Vandy's defense could stand on its head many times this year, and all that would emerge from such noble performances would be a repeat of last season's Mississippi State game, a 15-3 defeat in week three of the campaign.

And this is how Robbie Caldwell gets welcomed by the football fates? This is how the new Commodore at the wheel must take the helm at an SEC program?

It's enough to make a grown man cry. So, there's only one proper response: Acknowledge the tsunami of sadness from the past two months. Process and absorb the steady procession of bad news. See the present day and the future with clarity.

Then move on. And then, last but certainly not least, everyone in the VU football family – coaches, players, fans – should try to view all of this as an opportunity.

No, that statement should not be taken to mean that a bowl game is on the horizon or that this club will push .500 in 2010. The use of the word "opportunity" is designed to stress the point that for a team with no expectations – due to the coaching changes and practice-field injuries that have taken place in recent weeks – losses should not hit hard. Every game, with the pronounced exception of Eastern Michigan – is a game in which Vanderbilt's football team will be playing with house money. When you're not expected to do anything, but you have immense competitive pride as these players do (and should), the one lasting source of hope is that you can play freely. When a 1-11 or 2-10 season is the consensus prediction in preseason annuals and metro daily newspapers, a team felled by a bunch of unfortunate developments should allow pressure to slide off its shoulders.

A coaching staff that has a lot to prove should find a mental groove in which it can emphasize teaching and player development. A 4th-and-3 situation in the middle of a game – one that would normally demand a punt – can now be treated as a why-the-hell-not chance to go for a first down and test the capabilities of offensive performers who will need to grow.

Let's face it: On a roster with 55 freshmen/redshirt freshmen/sophomore players, it makes sense to use 2010 as a time of learning, free from overwhelming pressure. If outside fates (and an acceptable though untimely coaching decision by a now-retired, white-haired gentleman who prohibited profanity on the practice field) conspire to work against you, don't curse those fickle fingers of Lady Fortune. Laugh at them instead.

Play with joy and liberation. Let South Carolina and Georgia – two programs truly under the gun this year – deal with the psychological hell of trying to live up to cutthroat expectations. Let Tennessee enjoy the unique misery it's about to experience.

Vanderbilt players, it's time to play with house money in 2010. Let the chips – and Robbie Caldwell's sense of humor – fall where they may.

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