Thrill of Victory

Vandy's romp, Alabama's comeback cap big football weekend

Vanderbilt won big, the Titans got embarrassed (and the Vols nearly did, too), while Alabama edged LSU in what might have been college football’s game of the year. Here’s a recap of those games, and more.

Titans are dreadful in losing to Bears
Sometimes, it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you win or lose, and that’s why the Titans, despite four teams having worse records than their 3-6 mark, might be the NFL’s worst team. The Titans have now given up more points than any other NFL team, and their minus-126 scoring margin for the season is also a league-worst.

Yesterday’s performance was just classically poor football. It’s hard to out-gain your opponent by 25 yards but lose by 31 points, yet the Bears’ resounding pounding was every bit as credible as the scoreboard showed. The Titans had five turnovers (one returned by Brian Urlacher for a score), had a punt blocked that went for a touchdown and gave up a return to Devin Hester that nearly went for another.

Not that I’m necessarily advocating it, but being this bad is a great way to get a coach fired. The only thing that can make it worse is losing fan support, and LP Field was about half-full of Bears fans yesterday. With six losses already, the Titans will almost certainly be sitting out of the playoffs, so the biggest need at this point is just to play competitive football regardless of the outcome. With what the Titans have shown so far, you have to wonder how capable they are of doing that.

Vandy blasts Wildcats in Lexington
Don’t look now, but here come James Franklin’s Commodores playing their best ball of the season headed into the homestretch of the season. Vandy’s 40-0 whitewash of Kentucky was so one-sided that Sunday, it got embattled UK coach Joker Phillips fired (he’ll coach the last two games of the season).

Vanderbilt has become a balanced football team. Its defense has now pitched two shutouts, and has given up more than 23 points just twice in eight games. Offensively, quarterback Jordan Rodgers and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd are clicking, and tailback Zac Stacy is getting help from backups Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow as coach James Franklin seeks to get him some rest.

And now, VU needs just one more win to get bowl eligible. Its three final games (at Ole Miss, Tennessee, at Wake Forest) are each winnable, and if VU could run the table, you’re not only talking about a bowl, but perhaps a middle-tier bowl at that. The crazy thing is, VU has the potential to get better: in spite of the blowout, it finished minus-2 in turnover margin on Saturday.

Vols win game, but lose in style points
To the east, we have “Exhibit B” of, “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you do it,” in Derek Dooley’s Volunteers. Yes, the Vols got a much-needed, 55-48 win over Troy, but most fans were not talking about the victory so much as the 721 yards the UT defense gave up on Saturday.

That’s been too familiar a theme this season. Defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri was hired to take what was a respectable defense a year ago (341 yards, 22.6 points per game) and make it great, but instead, it’s become a disaster: 483 yards and 35.4 points a game this year. Fortunately for coach Derek Dooley, he got a spectacular performance from quarterback Tyler Bray (a school-record 530 passing yards on Saturday) to keep hopes of a winning season alive. With the Vols already paying ex-coaches millions of dollars not to coach, UT would like to see things work out in his favor.

Unfortunately for Dooley, only about 55,000 fans actually showed up in Knoxville for the game, a low-water mark that probably hasn’t happened in decades. Run the table in the regular season against Missouri, Vandy and Kentucky and win a bowl game, and it should be enough to settle fans down. But as ugly as this defense has been, anything short of that may not be enough to bury the memory of Saturday’s defensive debacle.

Around the SEC:
Alabama 21, LSU 17: It takes a lot for a program with a storied history such as Alabama to mark a single drive as “one for the ages,” but that’s exactly what ‘Bama’s game-winning drive at LSU was on Saturday night. The site of quarterback A.J. McCarron doing nothing all second half, then leading ‘Bama to a win in the nick of time just before collapsing in tears on the bench will be one that fans talk about decades from now. The difference between great teams and championship teams is that championship teams win tough games when they’re not on their “A” game, and that’s why this Alabama squad is a championship team.

Texas A&M 38, Mississippi State 13: I think it’s safe to say that MSU’s 7-0 mark was 100 percent due to an easy schedule after the Bulldogs have fallen by a combined 76-20 the last two weeks against the only two good teams they’ve played. Meanwhile, the Aggies have to be kicking themselves in wondering what might have been had they only been able to edge either Florida (lost by 3) or LSU (lost by 5) earlier in the year, because honestly, they look like a top-10 team. Saturday was another banner day for freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, who now leads the conference in scoring, rushing and total offense.

Georgia 37, Ole Miss 10: So Georgia’s decided to show up again, and Ole Miss was the unlucky foe that took the brunt of it on Saturday. With Auburn, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech to come, the Bulldogs should waltz into the SEC title game with a probable date against Alabama. Ole Miss now needs to beat Vanderbilt, LSU or Mississippi State to go bowling.

Arkansas 19, Tulsa 15: Hand it to the Razorbacks for proving that their mid-season re-grouping wasn’t a flash in the pan, as they handed the Golden Hurricane just their second loss of the season. Unfortunately, the Louisiana-Monroe loss is looming large, because the Hawgs have to win two of three over South Carolina (road), Mississippi State (road) and LSU (home) just to get bowl-eligible.

Florida 14, Missouri 7: UF’s offense has now scored 23 total points in its last two games, and the 44 the week before came on just 182 total yards. The lesson here: the Gators are going to have to learn to pass a little bit to play with the biggest of the big boys, and with their pedestrian receiving corps, that’s looking more unlikely.

Auburn 42, New Mexico State 7: Jonathan Wallace’s first start as a quarterback was a success as Auburn got that elusive second win over the Aggies. Still, it’s little consolation to anybody other than coach Gene Chizik, who didn’t exactly get a resounding show of support from his own president last week.