Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Commodores still dead last in talent — but what exactly does it mean?

Chris Low, ESPN's outstanding SEC blogger, just released his spring power rankings, and Vanderbilt is No. 10.

The Commodores are ahead of Auburn (11th) and Miss State (12th), and within striking distance of South Carolina (7th), Tennessee (8th) and Kentucky (9th). The king, as it should be, is Florida, followed by Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU, Georgia and Arkansas.

Vanderbilt's ranking is about right. Unlike many sportswriters, Low appreciates Vanderbilt's mission and recognizes the excellence of Bobby Johnson, his staff and the way the program is run in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. If anything, putting the Commodores at No. 10 was a nod to their recent winning season and bowl victory.

But make no mistake, the talent at Vanderbilt remains dead last. The Commodores' size and depth and speed is far better than it's ever been, and it puts them in striking distance of a win if everything goes their way. But they're not going to beat anybody on an off day (Exhibit A: Miss State; Exhibit B: Duke).

Don't try to tell me that the Commodores have better talent than a single team in the league. I went back to rivals.com and tallied up the average rating of a recruit in each SEC program over the past four years. Here's how they rank, on a 5-star system:

1. Florida: 3.872
2. LSU: 3.723
3. Georgia: 3.641
4. Alabama: 3.613
5. Tennessee: 3.378
6. South Carolina: 3.262
7. Auburn: 3.171
8. Ole Miss: 3.017
9. Arkansas: 2.927
10. Miss State: 2.748
11. Kentucky: 2.561
12. Vanderbilt: 2.377

And don't try to tell me that stars don't matter. The team with the most talent, Florida, has won two out of the last three national championships. And the one the Gators didn't win was captured by LSU, the team with the second-most talent. Last year's pre-season No. 1 team was Georgia, the third-most talented team, but the top spot was held most of the season by Alabama, the fourth-most talented team.

Fortunately, coaching counts for something. So do intangibles that can't be rated by stars. Look at Vanderbilt's victory over South Carolina. Or Auburn. Or Ole Miss. Or Kentucky. Johnson outcoached the guy on the other sideline. The players kept their cool — I can still see the Gamecocks' Captain Munnerlyn melting down in Nashville and sending yellow flags flying. The bend-but-don't-break defense and the numerous goal-line stands. The No. 117 offense that was nearly unstoppable in the red zone.

And what happens when Vanderbilt's two-star kids play as a team and get some breaks and beat some of the big boys? Other coaches in the league get fired. Last season, the Commodores finished with a better record than four teams with more talent: Auburn, Tennessee, Mississippi State and Arkansas. Three of those coaches got fired. The fourth, Bobby Petrino, had a freshman-laden squad and finished strong with a win over LSU and lots of hope for his second season.

That's why Vanderbilt fans are so excited about this recruiting class. If Bobby Johnson can take a bunch of two-star student/athletes and turn them over to his world-class food coach and strength coach and then coach them up and every now and then beat a bunch of four- and five-star athletes, then imagine what he might do with a bunch of three-star student/athletes.

Last year's Vanderbilt team defied logic. Maybe this year's will too.

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