Vandy's 21-game SEC losing streak: 'We don't talk about that'

Vanderbilt Athletics photo / Vanderbilt second-year football coach Clark Lea does not discuss the program's 21-game Southeastern Conference losing streak with his players. The Commodores open league play this year against Alabama, Ole Miss and Georgia.

ATLANTA - The Vanderbilt Commodores will enter their 2022 football season having lost 21 consecutive Southeastern Conference games.

Vanderbilt's first three league opponents this year are Alabama, Ole Miss and Georgia, a trio that went 37-6 last season and respectively earned trips to the Cotton, Sugar and Orange bowls. Alabama and Georgia played last season for both the SEC championship and the national title.

"We don't talk about that, and we don't spend time on it. That's just not who we are," Commodores second-year coach Clark Lea said Tuesday as SEC media days continued. "We're not fighting to win an SEC game. We're fighting to become a dominant force within the conference. Obviously winning in the SEC requires winning that first game, but when that happens, it's not going to be a huge celebration. We're going to shift focus quickly to the next opponent, because that's what winning programs do.

"I don't take ownership of anything that happened before, but I certainly take ownership of last season. We fell way short of our expectations."

The Commodores last prevailed within the conference on Oct. 19, 2019, when Derek Mason's next-to-last team topped Missouri 21-14 in Nashville. Vanderbilt then dropped its final four league games of 2019, went 0-9 in the COVID-shortened season of 2020 and lost all eight league contests of last year's 2-10 finish.

There were close calls last season against Kentucky and South Carolina, but there was also a 62-0 debacle against Georgia and a 45-21 closing loss to Tennessee.

"That's not what we focus on," junior quarterback Mike Wright said. "We focus on playing at the highest level as the team. That's what we do. We don't focus on the SEC or the nonconference. We focus on one game at a time, and my focus right now is getting our team ready for the season.

"When the time comes, we'll focus on (the Aug. 27 opener at) Hawaii. We never look ahead, because you'll miss what's happening in the present."

Vandy's debut under Lea resulted in a stunning 23-3 loss to visiting East Tennessee State, with the former Commodores fullback admitting Tuesday that "our physical, mental, technical and tactical deficiencies were evident from the start." He added that is was a necessary experience that exposed the true starting point for the rebuilding.

"Towards the end of the season, internally we could start to feel the fibers of our program strengthening," Lea said. "We could start to feel the shift from a compliant program to a committed program. We could feel a brotherhood forming.

"So that delivers us to team two and a team that will still be relatively young in experience, but we'll be further along in the formation of identity."

What pressure?

South Carolina second-year coach Shane Beamer and Gamecocks transfer quarterback Spencer Rattler were part of the 2020 Oklahoma team that rebounded from a 1-2 start to win the Big 12 before waxing Florida in the Cotton Bowl.

Rattler is a former five-star prospect, making him the highest-rated quarterback in South Carolina history, and Beamer was well-equipped Tuesday to field a pressure-related question regarding his most publicized player.

"People forget that Spencer Rattler was the starting quarterback at Oklahoma and that he had a pretty high amount of pressure replacing guys by the name of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts," Beamer said. "In his first two conference games at Oklahoma as the starting quarterback, we lose to Kansas State and Iowa State, but he never flinched.

"I know the narrative was that he got benched last year in the Texas game, but he got sat down the year before, too. He came back in the second half, played his butt off, beat Texas in four overtimes, and he never lost a game as a starting quarterback again. I don't worry about Spencer. He's been through the fire before."

Mega conferences

Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked his opinion of the looming 16-team SEC with the 2025 additions of Oklahoma and Texas and the looming 16-team Big Ten with the 2024 arrivals of Southern California and UCLA.

"If we move toward the mega conference, that whole thing about competitive balance is going to be in question," Saban said. "Look, I'm not here to say we should have it or we shouldn't have it, but if we wind up with two 20-team leagues, how is that going to impact all the people that are not in those leagues?

"That's a question for all of you to speculate and answer on."

Odds and ends

Alabama junior linebacker Will Anderson, when asked about Crimson Tide linebacker legend Derrick Thomas: "I've watched some of his highlights, and he was a freakish athlete. He was in the backfield as soon as the ball was hiked. I felt bad for those tackles he was going against." Former Tennessee defensive lineman Brad White, who had 245 tackles from 1977-80, passed away this past weekend at the age of 63. Mississippi State coach Mike Leach on why quarterback Will Rogers was not among the Atlanta traveling party: "Will's still going to get more questions this year than everybody else. You guys will have time to have your fun with him."

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