NASHVILLE — When a team has won five straight, launched itself into the BCS bowl picture and generally has left the impression it will skate through the “Nerders Row” portion of its schedule — Virginia, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Duke — it doesn’t expect to have games like this.
Georgia Tech defeated Vanderbilt on Saturday night 56-31. Looks one-sided. It wasn’t. Nor should it have been this sloppy or this difficult.
Expectations on North Avenue suddenly are meteoric. Maybe the altitude got to be too much.
It’s all still sitting there for the Yellow Jackets, everything they could possibly have wanted when this season began. A double-digit win total. An ACC championship. A BCS bowl game. A top-10 ranking. A second season under Paul Johnson to reaffirm that the first season under Paul Johnson wasn’t nearly a fluke.
But this game was a not-so-subtle reminder that there’s still the possibility of the bottom falling out. Vanderbilt entered this game with a 2-6 record. Its only victories had come over Western Carolina and Rice — and they don’t really count.
But where was this game at halftime? Tied at 28-28. When the Commodores drove to a field goal on their first possession of the second half, they led 31-28.
How bad should the Jackets feel about that? Bad enough to inch toward the balcony and maybe seek therapy.
In Vandy’s six previous losses, the Commodores totaled 9, 3, 7, 13 (that against Army, and only because of a field goal in overtime), 10 and 10. One of those 10’s came against the Bulldogs. So you need not wonder why Tech defensive coordinator Dave Wommack is as unpopular on The Flats as Willie Martinez is in Athens.
If the Jackets don’t want to concern themselves with impressing poll voters, that’s one thing. But they can’t give up an 80-yard kickoff return or a 62-yard touchdown run, as they did Saturday night, and expect to skate again. They can’t assume any of their remaining opponents will implode the way Vandy did.
Because there’s only one Vandy.
Jonathan Dwyer gave Tech a 35-31 lead late in the third quarter with a 3-yard touchdown run. Then Vanderbilt turned back into Vanderbilt.
On the ensuing possession, running back Jamie Graham fumbled on the Commodores’ 19-yard line. (It was one of three Vandy fumbles.) Two plays later, Dwyer was in the end zone again from 3 yards out and suddenly it was 42-31 after two touchdowns in a span of 40 seconds.
Early in the fourth quarter, quarterback Josh Nesbitt connected with Embry Peeples for an 87-yard score, and the game looked like a rout. But for most of the night, it wasn’t.
It would be overstating things to suggest this was an “escape.” It was more like a reminder.
After a string of impressive conference victories over Florida State, Virginia Tech and Virginia — two of those coming on the road — expectations surrounding this program skyrocketed. The Jackets had the look of a team that was together and focused, that was following their coach, that seemingly would not be derailed in this home stretch.
Even coach Paul Johnson, while stating he believed Vanderbilt was better than its record indicated, did not anticipate any sort of a letdown. When asked earlier in the week about playing a non-conference game against a lesser opponent, he said: “I think our football team, to be a special one, has to go out and want to win every game. … I’m not worried about [a letdown]. I hope our guys are mature enough to realize that Vanderbilt is a good football team. We’re playing against the SEC. We’re not supposed to be able to compete. It’s a chance for our guys to match up with [an SEC team] again.”
Except that when you think, hear and see Vanderbilt, you don’t think, hear or see SEC. You see a small stadium that’s one-third empty on a campus where football doesn’t matter
It matters again at Tech. When you stumble, everybody notices.