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The 3-2-1, Tennessee week

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Jordan Griffin (40) and Oren Burks (20) make a stop on Saturday inside a mostly-empty stadium.
USA Today

Here are three things we've learned, two questions and one prediction following Vanderbilt's 45-17 loss to Missouri.

THREE THINGS WE'VE LEARNED

1. Ralph Webb deserved better.

On Senior Night, it was hard not to feel that senior Ralph Webb deserved better than to score his last touchdown in front of what was literally a few hundred Commodore fans in the game's second half.

Webb played through pain over the second half of a tough season that's now going nowhere. He's run for over 4,000 yards playing on mostly bad teams for a school that's only had one other back eclipse 2,700. Had Webb sat out, nobody would have blamed him. Instead, he played through the misery and showed up to meet the media afterwards.

It's hard for me to point the finger at a fan base that's angry at Vanderbilt for its very public lack of commitment to football in so many ways. Against the backdrop of that, a cold and rainy night and a six-game SEC losing streak during which the Commodores haven't been even remotely competitive heading into the fourth quarter more than once, I wouldn't have been there either had it not been my job.

On Saturday, Webb learned the lesson that life doesn't always give you what you deserve on a night that should have been a celebration for him.


2. Statistically speaking, next Saturday's game may be the worst Southeastern Conference matchup of the last 50 years.

Across the last 50 SEC seasons, including 2017, there have been 46 squads officially credited with winless seasons in conference play. That number will drop by one, as either Vanderbilt or Tennessee will have a win to its credit on Saturday.

Both rank among the league's worst teams in conference play in the last half-century. Here's where those teams stand among those 46 teams, sorted by largest average loss margin:


Worst teams in SEC play of the last 50 years
Rank Team Team PPG PPGA Loss margin

1

1978

Vanderbilt

12.0

43.3

31.3

2

1994

Kentucky

14.3

38.9

28.1

3

1979

Vanderbilt

16.0

43.7

27.7

4

1980

Vanderbilt

8.5

35.8

27.3

5

1969

MississippiSt.

15.8

46.2

27.2

6

2017

Vanderbilt

19.7

46.0

26.3

7

2012

Kentucky

14.8

36.4

25.3

8

2011

Ole Miss

15.5

36.5

24.9

9

2012

Auburn

13.5

34.0

23.9

10

2001

Vanderbilt

21.3

29.4

23.4

11

2014

Vanderbilt

17.0

35.3

23.4

12

2013

Kentucky

19.7

36.4

21.6

17

2017

Tennessee

12.7

33.7

21.0

NOTE: Teams didn't play eight-game conference seasons until 1992; before that, seasons were generally six or seven games.

Four teams on the list--1975 to '77 Mississippi State, and 1993 Alabama--weren't actually winless, but had wins taken away.

Here are the programs that have endured the most seasons of total conference futility:

Number of full winless SEC seasons since 1968, by program
Program Number of winless seasons 

Vanderbilt

15

Kentucky

8

Mississippi State

8

Ole Miss

4

South Carolina, Auburn

2

Arkansas, Auburn, Alabama, Florida, LSU

1

3. The progress of the last decade, in perspective, has been overrated.

Much has been made of how much progress Vanderbilt football has made over the past decade.

In some respects, much has been made. For a program that didn't go to a bowl from 1983 to 2007, just about anything is progress. And the 2012 and '13 seasons, which ended with 9-4 records and Top 25 finishes, are quite significant at Vanderbilt.

But programs should be evaluated against their peers, weighing the good as well as the bad.

And even if you start the bar at a favorable spot for VU--the 2008 team that snapped the bowl drought and the string of 25 straight losing seasons--the Commodores still lag the field.


Cumulative SEC results over the last decade
Program SEC W-L Av. score W-L Av. score Sag/SOS

Alabama

71-8 (.899)

34-14

119-16 (.881)

36-13

2 - 18

Georgia

54-26 (.675)

30-23

92-38 (.708)

32-22

22 - 27

LSU

52-27 (.658)

26-21

93-33 (.740)

30-18

13 - 18

Florida

52-28 (.650)

26-19

86-42 (.672)

28-18

24 - 17

Texas A&M

25-22 (.532)

31-29

76-51 (.671)

37-26

24 - 26

South Car.

42-38 (.525)

25-24

80-48 (.625)

27-23

35 - 22

Auburn

41-38 (.519)

26-27

82-46 (.641)

31-24

27 - 14

Miss. St.

37-42 (.468)

23-26

72-54 (.571)

29-23

35 - 31

Missouri

22-25 (.468)

24-26

43-32 (.573)

29-25

36 - 36

Ole Miss

31-48 (.392)

25-29

68-57 (.544)

31-26

41 - 22

Arkansas

30-49 (.380)

26-31

67-58 (.536)

30-27

39 - 10

Tennessee

26-53 (.329)

23-28

62-62 (.500)

28-25

46 - 25

Vanderbilt

21-58 (.266)

17-28

52-71 (.423)

22-24

73 - 31

Kentucky

21-59 (.263)

20-33

53-70 (.431)

25-28

71 - 40

Also, how many coaches have been fired for not approaching the impossible standards that Alabama has set?

TWO QUESTIONS

1. Can Vanderbilt match Tennessee's motivation on Saturday?

Yes, Tennessee is an awful football team. But late-November games between awful teams are often decided by who wants to win more, and that would definitely seem to favor the Vols this week.

Tennessee considers it beneath itself to lose to Vanderbilt. It doesn't have to deal with the distraction/cancer of ex-coach Butch Jones any more. The Vols have the motivation of avenging last year's loss that essentially served as a program-wrecker for the last year. It's Senior Night as well.

There's also this: the Vols have never lost more than seven games in a season. Not many teams can say that, and it's my understanding is that's been a big talking point in Knoxville lately.

Vanderbilt has been playing unfocused and uninspiring football for over a month now. I thought effort was lacking on some plays of the Missouri game. A winning season is out of reach, and a bowl game is also. It's a rivalry game, and beating Tennessee should be a big deal, but with so much of the roster coming from out of state, do the players feel that way?

It's hard to those of us not in a locker room to know whether a team will show up motivated this week. Perhaps Vandy shows up with nothing to lose, and the Vols are the squad ready to mail it in.

On Saturday, we shall see.


2. Do we see more of linebacker Josh Smith and tight end Jared Pinkney?

Smith began the season as a starter at linebacker, but has barely played in some games. Smith ran off a string of games where he didn't see much action until late, but seemed to play motivated and make plays.

That's more than can be said of many of his teammates. Against Missouri, we saw a lot more of Smith, who finished second on the team in tackles. The defense played better, and perhaps that wasn't coincidence.

Pinkney has also been MIA for about a month. Against the Tigers, he led the team with 119 yards receiving. Whatever the reasons Pinkney hasn't seen the field--focus, blocking, whatever they may be--the truth is, he's one of the team's more talented players.

Perhaps there are good reasons not to play either more on Saturday. Maybe what happened was the product of a 35-point halftime blowout. But, in a situation where the Commodores literally have nothing more to lose, perhaps the Missouri game showed that VU can't afford to keep them off the field.


ONE PREDICTION

Coach Derek Mason will be back for 2017, if he wants to be.

After last year's contract negotiation, followed by Vandy's 3-0 start, I never questioned the notion as to whether Mason would come back for 2017 at any point of the season. As I've noted before, it's not until you win roughly one of every eight SEC games that VU traditionally parts ways with a coach.

But with every VU coach, there's been a breaking point. It wasn't just the performance on a cold, windy Senior Night that was so reminiscent of the uninspiring performance that VU turned in during a 34-13 loss to Wake Forest that was Robbie Caldwell's last game as head coach in 2010. (To be fair, Caldwell, hired as an interim for that season, was fired before that game.)

Coaches also can't afford to lose the fan base, and as attendance has dwindled with each passing game, the presence of so few fans for the start of the second half was also not the best sign.

Then, there was Mason's demeanor at the post-game press conference:

Speculating about anybody's job is not a thing to be done lightly, and certainly not something I like to blindly speculate about. I feel confident in saying that Mason was in no jeopardy of losing his job entering the Missouri game. The picture since is not quite as clear, however, I have no evidence yet to suggest anything has changed.

The question I have is whether Mason wants to be back. It's not fair to take one press conference at the end of a tough loss in a string of tough losses and extrapolate from that much about his desire to continue. The evidence suggests that Mason has always been resilient; after all, he did come back from 2014, and he is in the process of assembling what I believe is his best recruiting class yet.

But losing can wear on anyone. Frustration with Vanderbilt's administration seems to be at a peak unlike any during my time covering VU. That has to go at least double for football, where administrative commitment to facilities, as well as a public plan to do anything about it, are inexcusable. Vanderbilt has made Mason a multi-millionaire. He could have a coordinator's job again in a heartbeat, without any of the headaches, and nobody would blame him for doing so.

Again, my prediction is that we'll see him in the same town in the same role next year. But the fact that there might be just a sliver of doubt, where there was absolutely none a week ago, might make the days following the Tennessee game interesting if things don't go well.