Sunday Hangover: Fool's Gold?

Here's a little something that'll jolt you awake like no morning coffee ever could: Vanderbilt is the final undefeated team in the SEC East.

In the mightiest division of the mightiest football league in all the land, a division which has produced national champions, No. 1-ranked teams and more hype than the iPhone, Michael Phelps and Tom Brady's protective boot combined, the top team belongs to the guy with the big head and the funny hat. And this time, it's not Steve Spurrier.

It's Mr. C. and Vanderbilt.

Go ahead, take a seat, kick your feet back and just let that settle over you like Beijing smog.

It's like the Green Party winning the White House, Pauly Shore brushing up on his Oscar speech or a story about the Redskins actually involving players wearing pants.

Sure, their 14-13 win over Auburn was artistic only in the way cubism is artistic, which is to say only if you're drunk and squinting, but it counts just the same.

And now Vanderbilt is 5-0 and leading the SEC East not in GPA, not in polysyllabic smack talk, but in real honest to God football.

It's history in more than one way. But is there a future follow?

Unfortunately the Commodores, unlike a Travis Henry paternity test, the results aren't all positive.

And the problems are so glaring Sarah Palin can probably see them from her house.

Think alarm bells like Shawn Kemp just showed up to pick up your daughter, or your 401(k) plan just invested in Lehman Brothers.

Heading into Saturday's game, the Commodores were averaging just 278 yards worth of offense. Two-hundred-seventy-eight. That's not a yards per game average, that's a four-round total for Tiger Woods. That's John Daly's cholesterol count.

And the Commodores aren't making up for it on the other side of the ball. Heading into Saturday's game against Auburn, the 'Dores were giving up 80 more yards per game than they were producing. That's a three-wood in the hands of the world's best golfers, an entire touchdown drive from the 20. It's the full length of Charlie Weis' ego.

It's far from elite offenses that are marching up and down on the Commodores. Entering Week 6, Vanderbilt's opponents ranked 94th, 79th, 31st, 49th and 90th in offensive yardage. The high-water 31 belongs to Rice, which managed exactly 10 points and 318 yards against Texas, a team with a secondary so young they probably still get carded trying to watch an R-rated movie.

In Week 1, Vanderbilt only out-gained Miami University (which is now 0-4 against FCS teams) by 20 yards. The Owls racked up 407 yards against 347 for Vanderbilt in Week 3, while Ole Miss dominated the 'Dores 385 to 202 yards in Week 4.

Sure, Vandy outgained Auburn 263 to 208 yards, but Tommy Tuberville's attempts to move the ball can be considered an offense only in the same way the Jonas Brothers and the Rolling Stones are both rock stars, which is to say only technically and in the most general sense.

And the Commodores aren't much more dynamic than the Tigers.

All-SEC receiver Earl Bennett is gone from last year's squad and so too is Vanderbilt's vertical passing game. Completing a 10-yard pass is a Texas Tech moment for Vanderbilt, which is the nation's fourth worst passing offense. The Commodores are completing less than 56 percent of their passes at an anemic 5.45 yards per attempt.

So far, Vanderbilt has had the luxury of playing ahead, and even though the Commodores fell behind 13-0 to Auburn, they still had plenty of time to execute their ground-heavy attack. But at some point in the SEC, the Commodores are going to be forced to throw the ball.

Even the way Vanderbilt uses its quarterback seems to suggest danger. Through the first four games, Chris Nickson was the team's second leading rusher, carrying the ball an average of 14 times per game. That's two more carries a game than Tim Tebow is averaging and two more carries than Vince Young managed with Texas in 2005. In fact, it's only one less carry than Reggie Bush averaged per game in his Heisman campaign. And it's a heck of a lot of hits to ask your signal caller to take, particularly one that's left two straight games with a shoulder injury.

Even if Nickson's health isn't an issue, history suggests Vanderbilt is headed for trouble. Before Saturday's game, the Commodores were 114th in total offense and 73rd in total defense. In the past 10 years, the number of teams with that type of profile that have put together a successful season is roughly equivalent to the number of BCS title Duke has won.

Last year, both Auburn and Virginia Tech finished with lackluster offensive profiles and wrapped up relatively successful seasons. Virginia Tech finished 100th in total offense, but paired a motionless offense with the nation's fifth-ranked defense. The Tigers were 97th in offensive yardage, but sixth in defense.

In 2003, Ohio State finished 11-2 with the nation's 93rd ranked offense, but the Buckeyes were 10th in defensive yardage allowed. Notre Dame finished 10-3 in 2002 against a soft schedule (and was pounded by N.C. State in the Gator Bowl) but still finished with the 13th-ranked defense.

In short, it takes a heck of a defense to overcome an offense like the one Vanderbilt is currently fielding.

So how has Vandy managed to turn a non-existent passing game, a subpar offense and a middling defense into a 5-0 record? Turnovers. Their defense may be giving up yards, but as a unit they're more opportunistic and predatory than payday lenders and Heather Mills combined. The 'Dores are No. 1 in the nation in turnover margin and they've done it the honest way, forcing 11 interceptions. The Commodores secondary has been truly impressive and is even more effective in the short field of the red zone, which might partially explain why Vanderbilt is only giving up 16 points per game despite giving up gobs of yardage.

But can that dominant turnover margin last? A season ago, the Commodores finished 73rd in the nation in turnover margin, losing the ball more often than they took it away. And Vanderbilt had to rebuild its front seven almost after losing Curtis Gatewood, Theo Horrocks, Gabe Hall, Jonathan Goff and Marcus Boggs.

The Commodores' secondary may be best-in-class in the SEC, but if Vandy loses the turnover battle in any game, it may have the kind of uphill climb Edmund Hillary might defer.

Of course, the good news for Vanderbilt is that it's almost certainly headed for its first bowl in a quarter century and, given that the Commodores will likely be favored in all but two of their remaining games, they could be headed to a 10-win season.

So stand up and cheer that one of college football's all-time underdogs is finally in the sun. Just don't bet the house it's going to continue.

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