Inside the SEC: It’s report card time for Vanderbilt

Thursday, October 18, 2007 at 12:19am

Halfway through Vanderbilt’s season, it’s report-card time.

Let’s start with the positive. The defense, other than during an Oct. 6 loss at Auburn, has performed well and currently ranks third in the SEC in total defense. The pass defense, which ranks 17th nationally, has been particularly impressive.

We’ll give the defense a B-plus at this point. Nice job across the board. Vanderbilt’s defense has made impressive strides in recent years and deserves credit for that.

It’s not quite so bright on offense. Entering the season, I figured the VU offense would be formidable and that the defense might struggle. As it’s turned out, it’s been the opposite.

The quarterback position is in flux, an all-senior offensive line has mostly underachieved and no running back has become the unquestioned go-to player.

The Commodores are currently averaging 22.7 points per game, 11th in the SEC and just a tick ahead of woeful Ole Miss. The offense gets a grade of D at this point. Much improvement will be needed in the second half of the season.

As for individual players, those who figured to play well have mostly performed up to par. We knew players such as wide receiver Earl Bennett and linebacker Jonathan Goff were exceptional, and they’ve delivered.

Perhaps the surprise is sophomore cornerback D.J. Moore, who brings an electricity to the field not often seen at VU. He has three interceptions, ranks among the SEC’s top kick returners and even played at wide receiver last week.

Moore has a chance to become an all-time Commodore great, and he’s just getting started.

PAYING OFF: Perhaps throwing millions of dollars at Nick Saban was a wise move by Alabama, after all.

At 5-2, Saban is off to the best start of any first-year Crimson Tide coach in the past 20 years. On the surface, it might not seem overly impressive, but it’s noteworthy in light of history.

Beginning with Paul “Bear” Bryant in 1958, three of Alabama’s seven coaches had losing records through seven games. Bryant was only 3-3-1 in his first season. Of those with winning records, Bill Curry and Ray Perkins each were 5-2 while Mike DuBose was 4-3.

Saban described his first year at Alabama as a work in progress.

“I think any time you’re trying to re-establish or establish a program, there’s a lot of learning that goes on by a lot of people,” he said. “First of all, the players don’t know what to expect for sure. They have to learn what you want, how you want it done.

“You try to create the intangibles in a program that are going to help you play winning football on a consistent basis, and that takes time because you're changing habits.”

As we’ve said before, the Saban-Alabama union is much like a Hollywood marriage. It’s all about how one can benefit from the other and not much else.

In that sense, things are off to a rousing start.

While some Tide players still admit to having fond feelings for former coach Mike Shula, they can’t deny the results quickly produced by Saban, the nation’s highest-paid coach.

“I feel like Coach Saban’s staff is kind of what we needed for this program," Tide center Antoine Caldwell told the Huntsville Times. “I think a lot of the players respond a little bit better to someone like Coach Saban. It was difficult for me, personally, but business-wise, it's what we probably needed to do.”

MIND BENDER: Chew on this for a second: If No. 8 Kentucky beats No. 14 Florida on Saturday, the Wildcats will more than likely throw themselves squarely into the national-championship picture.

Reality as we’ve known it has officially come to an end. What’s next, Rush Limbaugh endorsing Hillary Clinton? AC/DC releasing a country album? The Chicago Cubs playing in the World Series?

Maybe Kentucky, after years of football futility, is finally getting some breaks. This is, after all, the school that allowed Paul Bryant to walk away in 1953. It’s a curse that has never seemed to be lifted.

Until now.

UK has won 11 of its past 13 games in the most unforgiving conference in the nation, including two over teams ranked in the top 10. You want amazing stories, look no further than Lexington, Ky.

SORELY NEEDED: LSU, looking to recover this week against Auburn after being toppled by Kentucky last Saturday, is crossing its fingers that star receiver Earl Doucet will return to action after missing the past four games with a groin injury.

No news about his status, however, is leaking out of the Tigers camp this week.

“He’s a stud, to put it simply,” LSU tailback Jacob Hester said of Doucet. “He’s our go-to guy. He’s the No. 1 receiver on any team you put him on. He doesn’t miss the ball. He catches everything thrown to him. That’s huge.

“He’s pretty much the only older guy on the receiver corps. You take him away, it’s a bunch of young guys who don’t have that leader to help them step up.”

Brett Hait covers Vanderbilt and the Southeastern Conference for The City Paper. He can be reached at bhait@nashvillecitypaper.com.

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