Vanderbilt football: Oh what a difference a year makes for Clark Lea

HONOLULU, HI - AUGUST 27: Head coach Clark Lea (L) of the Vanderbilt Commodores and Head coach Timmy Chang of the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)
HONOLULU, HI - AUGUST 27: Head coach Clark Lea (L) of the Vanderbilt Commodores and Head coach Timmy Chang of the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images) /

Vanderbilt football head coach Clark Lea was destroyed by critics in 2021 when the then-first year head coach saw his team wiped out by East Tennessee State to open the season. This year, the script was flipped soundly in the Commodores’ direction.

The Vanderbilt football program hasn’t seen much in the way of success since the departure of James Franklin after the 2013 season. Since then, the Commodores have suffered eight consecutive losing seasons, and have amassed only 10 total SEC wins.

The formula for Clark Lea to make those who hired him happy in 2021 was simple – just win a few games. Play competitive football. Remove the doormat from our label.

Year one for Lea wasn’t quite up to that task, with Vandy starting the year with that embarrassing loss to ETSU at home, only winning two games the entire season, and going winless in the SEC for the second straight season.

Vanderbilt football needed a fresh start in 2022

With the Commodores traveling to Hawai’i to open the 2022 season against a Rainbow Warriors team that had 51 new players from their 2021 squad and who promptly marched down the field on their opening drive to score the game’s first touchdown, nobody was sure if Vandy’s losing streak — dating back to October 9, 2021 — could end or not.

But end it did, and in quite a magnificent fashion for Vanderbilt football fans.

After that initial Hawai’i touchdown, the game was like an AM car radio in the 1970s – all Commodores, all the time.

With the exception of an early 2nd quarter field goal by Hawai’i, Vandy would score the next 63 points, including two scoop-and-score fumble returns for touchdowns. It was a masterful display by the Commodores who looked like an actual SEC team out there in the Hawaiian sunshine.

Yes, what a difference a year can make for a second-year head coach. Clark Lea most likely slept much better after this opening week game than he did in 2021. The Commodores demolished another FBS team, SEC style.

Now, before we get ahead of ourselves dubbing Vanderbilt the next up-and-comer in the SEC East, there needs to be some perspective thrown on this win.

Hawai’i had just been through one of the worst offseasons in college football history, with players being kicked off the team for blowing the whistle on former head coach Todd Graham, players leaving the program for the transfer portal like lemmings to the sea, and the aforementioned coach being fired after investigations into his alleged abuse of players.

Did we mention their beloved Aloha Stadium had been condemned for structural engineering issues and was being demolished, forcing the football team to a makeshift stadium until the new Aloha Stadium is done?

Not the best of times for the Rainbow Warriors.

Still, hopes were high with program legend Timmy Chang stepping in to take over as head coach, and many were looking for the Hawai’i offense to light things up “jes’ like back in da olden days” of Rainbow Warriors football.

No such luck. After the first drive, Chang’s team didn’t even look like they’d give a mediocre FCS team a run for its money. Was this simply because they were unprepared and still piecing together a roster and learning to play as a team, or was Vandy just that much better than last year?

Perhaps a little of both. Even knowing what Hawai’i had been through, it’s not unthinkable to surmise that Vanderbilt was a much-improved team, and even playing at the top of their game, Hawai’i wouldn’t have been able to win that contest.

So, here’s to Vandy! Opening the SEC football season with an impressive win, and sitting alone in first place for at least three more days until Tennessee and Missouri open their seasons on Thursday night.

Soak it in, Vandy fans. The ‘Dores may be the biggest Louisiana Tech and Ball State fans in the nation this week.

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