After witnessing Vanderbilt's ho-hum performance Saturday night in a 23-3 loss to FCS program East Tennessee State, Commodore fans may have gotten more enjoyment from the new unlimited drink refill stations at Vanderbilt Stadium than the actual game itself.
The biggest indictment against the Commodores from the loss wasn’t that they lacked effort or simply got caught overlooking a 20-point underdog. Instead, it’s that an SEC team got straight outplayed by an FCS opponent that surprisingly looked to be the more talented of the two teams.
Six FCS schools upset FBS teams over the weekend, but Vanderbilt’s 20-point loss was the largest margin of defeat. Four of the other five games were decided by 10 points or fewer.
"I am disappointed in our performance,” Lea stated. “I knew East Tennessee State was going to bring their ‘A’ game; what I wanted from our end is that we bring ours as well. It’s a process of taking preparation to performance — that’s something I’ve spoken about before — and learning how to win.
“I’m not shocked," Lea added. "Obviously, extremely disappointed and still believe in our team and just looking to answer the questions we need answered so that we can have a better performance the next week.”
There will be a small group that compare Lea to former head coach Derek Mason based on the humiliating nature of their coaching debuts. Mason lost his first game 37-7 to Temple in 2014.
And while Lea’s defeat to ETSU wasn’t quite as bad, it was the first time an SEC school has lost to an FCS program since The Citadel bested South Carolina in 2015. And if that weren’t bad enough, Vanderbilt paid ETSU a cool $415,000 for its troubles.
However, it’s way too early to proclaim that Lea is the next Mason, and it’s nearly impossible to know what kind of coach Lea will ultimately be based off just one game. While his tenure likely won’t be judged on this singular moment, the sobering reality is the 38-year-old faces one of the, if not the, biggest rebuild in college football.
“This is a learning moment as a program,” Lea said. “And an indication of where we are and where we need to start building from. I’ve got a locker room full of players that are disappointed. But we can’t do anything about what we experienced tonight. It’s about moving forward.”
Moving forward means addressing a laundry list of issues that surfaced on Saturday.
Vanderbilt couldn’t generate any pressure on ETSU quarterback Tyler Riddell, and it couldn’t stop running back Quay Holmes from shredding the ‘Dores for 6.5 yards per carry.
Ken Seals looked nothing like the promising first-year quarterback who broke the school’s freshman passing record last year. Similarly, fellow quarterback Mike Wright, who Lea labeled as one of the team’s best 11 offensive players, couldn’t jolt the stagnant offense back to life in his limited reps either.
Conversely, the two-quarterback system seemed to cause more confusion than create a competitive advantage for VU. Neither QB was able to develop a rhythm and the offensive line, which was simply outmatched, didn’t help. The ETSU defense racked up four tackles for loss, three QB hurries, two sacks and two interceptions.
But here’s where Lea can separate himself from the Mason comparisons. Yes, Vanderbilt got embarrassed, but there’s plenty of room for growth with a young team. For as good of a pregame speech as Mason could give, the Commodores usually followed up mediocrity with more mediocrity. Lea has the ability to not only change the narrative but change how Vanderbilt is perceived by the rest of college football.
“This is a tough result to stomach,” Lea added. “We understand that part of being in the arena of competition is you’re going to learn a lot about yourself.
“We have a long way to go. I knew that heading into the season. We can be disappointed but let’s not be defeated. Let’s understand that this is Game 1 of 12 scheduled games this season and let’s use this as an opportunity to fuel us forward and maybe a moment that expedites our progress toward the program we know we can build here.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_