The immediate glow of Vanderbilt’s 45-14 victory over Elon on Saturday was enhanced by a postgame fireworks display.
The lights dimmed. The sky lit up. And music blared through the speakers.
The first song was Styx’s "The Grand Illusion."
Vanderbilt fans desperately want to believe that their program is on its way to bigger and much better things under first-year coach James Franklin and his staff.
For those who saw it first-hand — the announced attendance was 27,599, a generous assessment to be sure — there were plenty of reasons to be emboldened.
These Commodores showed real big-play ability. Four of the five offensive touchdowns came on plays of 15 yards or more, and the defense scored on a 21-yard interception return. Five different players had at least one rush of 14 yards or more, and five different players had at least one reception of 14 yards or more.
Was any of that for real? Or was it merely the product of playing an inferior, albeit determined, opponent.
Everyone has — after all — seen this sort of thing previously.
Lopsided victories over Division I-AA opponents had become commonplace under Bobby Johnson. In fact, it was the most consistent and compelling sign of the program’s improvement from the misery of the Rod Dowhower-Woody Widenhofer era, when every game — regardless of the caliber of opponent — was an adventure.
The Commodores crushed Western Carolina 42-0 in 2009. Richmond went down 41-17 in 2007 and 37-13 two years earlier. In between, Tennessee State fell 38-9.
It seems safe to assume, therefore, that the transition did nothing to set the program back a step or two. The schemes were different, sure, but the players executed them with passion and a fair amount of precision.
For those skeptics, though, there were just as many opportunities to feel that the final score was a mirage. Heck, Franklin even conceded that much.
True, the offense converted three fourth-down opportunities. Yet two of those came after it failed to move the chains with runs on third-and-short. Elon was not perfect in that regard either but managed to convert twice on third-and-1, once a third-and-goal from the 1.
Then there was the fact that quarterback Larry Smith, whose accuracy long has been questioned, finished with a completion percentage below 50. That, despite the fact that he connected on eight of his first 12 throws. Franklin put an entertaining spin on that Monday, but seriously.
On top of that, Smith was pulled mid-possession in the fourth quarter and taken to the training room after a couple of hard hits. If he can’t hold up against Elon’s defenders, what is going to happen to him against the likes of Alabama and South Carolina?
The mixed signals, in fact, extended beyond the field and into the football facility.
Two connecting meeting rooms that serve as the postgame interview area each had a clock on the wall. The one clock was right on time and the second half spun eagerly toward the future. The other was stuck in the past, not moving. The time was 4:39 and there was no sign of life.
Making progress or mired in mediocrity? Real promise of what is to come or a grand illusion?
Tough to say.
All that is certain is that the ‘1’ under the win column next to Vanderbilt’s name is real. A win is still a win.
A loss against Elon would have been devastating. That did not happen
So those who choose to believe in what is possible — until they see something different, at least — remain free to do so.