Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Headline on the Tennessean Web site: "Recruits stay committed to Vanderbilt."
That headline might work on a story about a certain program in Knoxville — but at Vanderbilt? The kids who commit to Vanderbilt kind of know what they're getting into. I mean, they don't think they're going to a program like USC or Ohio State. They think they're going to a program like, well, Vanderbilt.
One of those recruits, quarterback Charlie Goro of Illinois (see photo), told the Tennessean's Mo Vaughn, "Everyone thought they were going to come out and maybe win two games. To have won five games already is pretty exciting."
You tell ’em Charlie. By the way, how good a quarterback are you?
Bobby Johnson knows more about the team and how to win than, say, Cresmarine on the Tennessean's comment boards. Sure, the offense is perplexing. What the heck has been going on with Chris Nickson the past two seasons? How does the offensive line hold its own against Georgia and then fall apart against Duke? How many freaking passes is George Smith gonna drop?
I bet you Johnson is perplexed too. But he's not going to be thinking out loud in a press conference or a call-in show. Look at what happened after the Miss State game. He had named Nickson the starter and stuck with him for what all Vanderbilt fans thought was way too long. And then after the game he said the poor offensive performance wasn't all Nickson's fault.
People freaked out. Oh no, he's never going to start Mackenzi Adams!
But then he did. And then against Duke, the offense was even worse than it was against Miss State, and now fans are really panicking. One blogger is saying we should start Larry Smith at quarterback because his completion rating at an Alabama high school was better than Mackenzi Adams' completion rating at his high school in Oklahoma. Huh?
But what's Johnson telling the press? That Vanderbilt's poor offensive showing wasn't all Adams' fault. Just like he did with Nickson after the Starkville game.
So Johnson's not one to ramble about the shortcomings of his players. Don't we all we want to work for somebody like that? But he does want to win, and I promise you he's wracking his brain to figure out a way to get the offense out of this slump. I'd love to see Larry Smith trot onto the field too, but this kid has never played in a college football game and I've got to believe that Johnson will know when he's ready — or when he's our only hope.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Bobby Johnson's telling folks that junior nickelback Dalron Spead should see action in the Florida game on Nov. 8.
That's great news.
Remember Spead's last play, against South Carolina? In the first half, he broke on a Chris Smelley pass, snatched it out of the air and raced about 40 yards downfield. That was a huge turning point in the game.
While Spead was darting down the field, I was thinking what an athletic play it was and how I'd never realized how talented he was. I mean, he was fast and strong.
And then he got tackled and fractured his leg.
Senior Jared Fagan has done an admirable job in his absence, but it will be nice to have Spead back.
Hey Dalron, we need you to get some interceptions and return them for touchdowns. Two a game would be nice.
Then Frank Wycheck, the former Titan tight end and erstwhile professional wrestler, asked Johnson, "So when are you gonna get the sixth win?"
And Johnson, not without irony, said, "Against Florida."
But this time the Commodores won't have a hand in making the decision.
If Vanderbilt had beaten Miss State in Starkville, the Commodores would have played Georgia at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. But they lost, and so they played Georgia at 12:30 p.m. ET on Raycom.
You know: "Let's go down on the field to Dave"; "Back up to you, Dave"; "Nice point, Dave"; etc.
But Vanderbilt's not playing this week, so if Florida beats Georgia on Saturday, the Gators will battle the Commodores at night on ESPN — and Georgia will play Kentucky just after noon on Raycom and have all those Daves talking about them.
And if the Gators lose Saturday, they'll face the Commodores at 12:30 p.m. on Raycom, while Georgia will play Kentucky at 8 p.m.
Does it matter when Vanderbilt plays? Why yes, it does.
So far this season, the Commodores have played five games at night, and won all of them. They've played three games in the day, and lost all of them.
Furthermore, the Commodores have played three games on ESPN networks, and won all of them; they've played once on Raycom and lost.
So if Florida beats Georgia on Saturday, then on Nov. 8 Vanderbilt will beat the Gators at night on ESPN, right?
Monday, October 27, 2008
For kicks, let’s look at a more probable scenario: Alabama, Florida and Georgia win all the games they’re supposed to, and the SEC’s next best teams, LSU and South Carolina, win all the games they’re supposed to, which would eliminate Arkansas from becoming bowl eligible. Also, Auburn beats UT-Martin, Ole Miss beats La-Monroe, and Tennessee beats Wyoming. All likely occurrences. So taking all this into account, and assuming that LSU and South Carolina will become bowl eligible, the following would have to happen for each of the six remaining teams to become bowl eligible (adjusted records in parentheses):
• Kentucky (5-4): Beat either Miss State on the road, Vanderbilt at home or Tennessee on the road. One win away. The Cats can do it the easy way and win in Starkville; sound familiar?
• Vanderbilt (5-4): Beat either Kentucky on the road, Tennessee at home or Wake Forest on the road. The exact same situation as last year.
• Auburn (5-6): Beat Ole Miss on the road this Saturday. The Rebels should be a slight favorite in this one.
• Ole Miss (5-5): Beat Auburn or Miss State, both at home. Definitely do-able.
• Miss State (3-6): Beat Kentucky and Arkansas at home and Ole Miss on the road. Things don’t look good for the Bulldogs.
• Tennessee (4-6): Beat Vanderbilt on the road and Kentucky at home. I predict the Vols will win all or none.
Like I said, Arkansas and Miss State fans shouldn't plan on going bowling this season. But Kentucky, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt fans have a great chance. Auburn too if the Tigers can beat Ole Miss this weekend. The Vols have the hardest row to hoe. If I was a certain coach in Knoxville, I'd be hiring a certain coach in Durham as a freelance offensive consultant.
Two key games: If Ole Miss beats Auburn and Vanderbilt beats Tennessee, there will likely be only eight SEC teams going bowling — unless one of the league's top five teams goes down in an upset.
• Kentucky beats Vanderbilt to go 6-6.
• South Carolina beats Tennessee to go 6-6 or tacks on a win over Clemson to go 7-5.
• LSU beats Tulane and Troy to go 7-5.
• Vanderbilt beats Wake to go 6-6.
• Auburn beats UT-Martin and Ole Miss to go 6-6.
• Tennessee beats Wyoming, Kentucky and Vanderbilt to go 6-6.
• Miss State beats Kentucky and Arkansas at home and Ole Miss on the road to go 6-6. A bit of a stretch but not impossible.
• Ole Miss beats La-Monroe at home and LSU in Baton Rouge to go 6-6. Hey, the Rebels beat Florida in Gainesville.
• Arkansas beats Tulsa at home, South Carolina in Columbia and LSU in Little Rock to go 6-6. OK, not likely but again not impossible.
But what’s the chance that exactly all these things will happen? Not good.
I can’t wait to hear all the panickers after we lose to a ridiculously talented Florida squad on Nov. 8. Don’t know about you, but I’m treating that game like a bye week. Let’s get through the Gator game alive, maybe get some young kids like Larry Smith some experience, maybe get Bryan Hahnfeldt a chance to brush up on his field goal kicking, and then focus on the next three games, all of which we can lose, as so many people are quick to point out, but also all of which we can win.
Oh, and we’ll be in the same situation we were last year, needing one win in three games. Except that Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest may not be bowl eligible when we play them and will need a victory over us.
But if we win just one of those, I think we’re going to the Liberty Bowl. Many are pointing out a six-win South Carolina’s bowl snub last season, but there was one less bowl to choose from because the PapaJohns.com Bowl didn’t have an SEC tie-in and it now does.
Last year, the SEC had nine bowl bids. This year, the SEC will surely have 10 bids:
1. BCS game, possibly but not necessarily the national championship game
2. BCS game, probably the Sugar Bowl
3. Cotton Bowl
4. Capital One Bowl
5. Outback Bowl
6. Chick-fil-A Bowl
7. Music City Bowl
8. Liberty Bowl
9. Independence Bowl
10. PapaJohns.com Bowl
Count ’em up. That’s 10.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Remember when Vanderbilt bounced the Vols out of a bowl in 2005? Well, the Commodores will probably get another chance this year.
In fact, here's a prediction for you: The winner of the Vanderbilt-Tennessee game goes to the Liberty Bowl.
Anyway, here's a breakdown of who in the SEC is bowl eligible (six wins) and who hopes to be:
Two of these three teams will probably land in BCS bowls, and their national championship hopes are still alive, too:
• ALABAMA (8-0)
• FLORIDA (6-1)
• GEORGIA (7-1)
ONE WIN AWAY
This is a gimme for LSU and probably not so tough for the Gamecocks, either. Kentucky and Vanderbilt aren't out of the woods, but one of them will become bowl eligible for sure after they face off in Lexington on Nov. 15.
• KENTUCKY (5-3): at Miss State, Georgia, Vanderbilt, at Tennessee
• LSU (5-2): Tulane, Alabama, Troy, Ole Miss, at Arkansas
• S CAROLINA (5-3): Tennessee, Arkansas, at Florida, at Clemson
• VANDERBILT (5-3): Florida, at Kentucky, Tennessee, at Wake Forest
TWO WINS AWAY
Auburn's game Saturday in Oxford is huge. Assuming that Tenn-Martin is a win, a victory against Ole Miss would put the Tigers in a bowl, but a loss would mean they'd have to beat either Georgia or Alabama to go bowling.
• AUBURN (4-4): at Ole Miss, Tenn-Martin, Georgia, at Alabama
• OLE MISS (4-4): Auburn, La-Monroe, at LSU, Miss State
THREE WINS AWAY
Tennessee has the best shot here.
• ARKANSAS (3-5): Tulsa, at S Carolina, at Miss State, LSU
• MISS STATE (3-5): Kentucky, at Alabama, Arkansas, at Ole Miss
• TENNESSEE (3-5): at S Carolina, Wyoming, at Vanderbilt, Kentucky
Help me figure out what just happened.
Three weeks ago, we were 5-0. Ranked No. 13 in the nation. Everybody was saying, "This is not your father's Vanderbilt."
And they were right. We'd taken care of scrappy Miami Ohio and Rice. We'd packed Vanderbilt Stadium for ESPN night games with No. 24 South Carolina and No. 13 Auburn and humbled both of them. We'd gone to Oxford and pulled off a miracle against Ole Miss the week before the Rebels stunned Florida in Gainesville.
Remember the incredible adjustments our coaches made at every halftime? Remember the way we'd stick around until we could get the big break or the big play — and we always did? Remember how Chris Nickson was shredding defenses and stepping up to make the clutch throw?
That was a different team. It was a team Vanderbilt fans had dreamed about.
That was a long time ago. In the past three weeks, we've been the same old Vanderbilt:
• A disappointing performance against a bad Mississippi State team.
• A nice little moral victory in Athens.
• A horrible performance on homecoming against Duke.
Now nobody expects us to win another game this season. Right after the game yesterday, I was as hopeless as anybody. Go back and read my live posts from the game. Desperate, angry stuff.
But here's the deal: We were way better than we were supposed to be in our first five games. It was a magical run that defies logic, especially now.
We never expected to be 5-3 after eight games. What if we had beaten Miss State and Duke instead of South Carolina and Auburn?
We wouldn't be psychologically devastated right now. We'd be better than we thought we'd be. We'd be mentally prepared to try to win one of our next four games and go to a bowl.
Instead, we almost got six wins without even thinking about it. Now the magic is gone and we're one win short and it seems like one big nightmare.
And it will probably seem like even more of one after we get blasted by Florida in two weeks.
But hang on. This team surprised us at the beginning of the season and now that nobody believes we can win another game, it can surprise us again.
Sure, the Commodore offense is deeply disturbing. I like to say we should start thinking about next season and play Larry Smith. Other people are saying we should fire Ted Cain.
I don't know. But you know what? I'm going to let the coaches figure it out and I'm going to sit back and watch this team for the rest of the season. It will be fascinating, that's for sure. We look like the best team in the nation one minute and the worst team in the nation the next. Our running quarterback is the one player we can't afford to lose one minute and the one player we need to get rid of the next. We expect to beat Auburn one minute and we expect to lose to Duke the next.
I have no idea if our players are underachievers or overachievers. I have no idea if we're going to win six or even seven games, though history has taught me to be a pessimist when it comes to the Commodores.
But I'm keeping an open mind. The Duke loss still stings. But I'm keeping an open mind.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
• Duke returns the kickoff to the D40. That could be big.
• Billinger & Smotherman drill the ballcarrier. 2nd & 8.
• Receivers covered. Lewis throws the ball away and gets an ineligible receiver call.
• Still second down. We should have declined. The back gets a couple. Marve's played a great game.
• Third and long. We've gotta have a stop here. Incomplete. We're really putting the heat on the Duke QB. 11:54.
• DJ lets a 56-yard punt bounce and now we've gotta go 96 yards. Actually, the refs are saying 87 yards. 1st & 10 on the 13.
• I've been doing some cooking outside. Barden just grabbed an Adams pass. It's 1st & 10 on the VU 44.
• Adams throws behind Graham.
• Hawkins goes five yards up to midfield. Third and five. Let's get it!
• First down to Barden at the D43! Great catch by Barden!
• First & 10, Adams dumps it to Hawkins but there's a flag. But it's not a hold! It's a roughing the passer!
• First & 10 on the Duke 26.
• Adams fires incomplete to Barden. Second & 10. 7:32.
• Adams rolling left, throws it away.
• Do you want to see Hahnfeldt try to tie it? Me neither. Incomplete pass. We look sloppy.
• Here comes Hahnfeldt. I don't feel good about this. Kick's up, it's no good. I'm not going to say Same Old Vanderbilt. Or Same Old Hahnfeldt. Not gonna say it.
• But I will say this: Late in the fourth quarter and we have seven points? Are you kidding me?
• Outside checking the chicken. Hear we're leaving receivers open. Nice. And more missed tackles.
• Six minutes left. The tailback gets stuffed by who else? Chris Marve. 3rd & a long one.
• Asack the big backup comes in. We stuff him a yard short. Marve. 4th & one.
• Duke's punting. Let's put DJ Moore in at quarterback.
• Graham calls a fair catch at the 15 yard line. 4:25 to go.
• This is it. This is the season.
• 1st & 10 on the VU 15. Moore's in the game.
• Mackenzi keeps the ball and loses four. No comment.
• Adams sacked at the 10. Everybody's booing.
• Adams from the shotgun, Hawkins gets to the 19. We're going for it on 4th & 6. And we have three timeouts.
• Adams from the shotgun, incomplete to Smith. Ballgame. And why is George Smith in the game?
This is bitterly disappointing. We're 5-3 and will be 5-4 after the Florida game. Our defense is stout. Our special teams are good. Our offense is unbelievably horrid. Let's go with Larry Smith against Florida. OK, maybe against Kentucky.
• We're stopping them and calling timeouts. 3rd & 12. Duke has three receivers to the left. Lewis rolling right. And Myron Lewis interferes in the end zone. No, it's an offensive interference! Do we take the penalty? We are. We're moving them out of field goal range. 3rd & 27 on the 36 with 2:16 left.
• Duke calls a timeout.
• Here we go. Incomplete. Clock stops. We've got a timeout left. The Duke QB should have run around and then slid.
• Delay of game on Duke. Gives em more room to punt. Johnson will accept the penalty.
• Looks like the block unit is coming out on the field. Don't forget Knoxville last year.
• Moore up to the 16 and looks like a block in the back. What's the percentage of our returns that end in blocks in the back?
• Yes, block in the back on Brent Trice.
• 1st & 10 on the with 1:58 to go on the 8.
• Walker up to the VU 34. First down.
• Adams to Walker. He can't get out of bounds. 1:38 to go.
• Incomplete. Clock stops.
• Third and a yard. Complete to Barden. First down. He's got five big catches.
• 1:10 to play. Incomplete. 1:01. We're trailing 10-7 and haven't led at all today.
• Adams from the gun. Incomplete to George Smith. Big surprise. Stop throwing to George Smith.
• Third down. Adams gallops for a first down and out of bounds around the D40. 00:49. We've got a timeout.
• Adams incomplete to George Smith. No comment. 46 seconds to go.
• Adams throws an interception to the 1 yard line. Game over. Season over. We didn't deserve to win and we got beat by a bad team. Pathetic. Johnson got taken to school. Guess he's not going to Clemson. Guess we're not going to Birmingham, Memphis, Shreveport, wherever.
• Now the game's really over.
• Good night.
• And hello, Larry Smith. Because it's not too early to start thinking about next year.
• Moore on the kickoff return. Out of bounds at the 28. 5:08. Duke up 10-0.
• Rugby punt by Upson, whose play has now digressed to that of the rest of the team. Now about 3 minutes left.
• THIS IS THE SAME DUKE TEAM THAT GAVE UP 49 POINTS AT HOME TO MIAMI (FLA).
• If the defense doesn't score, we're not gonna score.
• Duke will probably eat up the clock.
• OK, maybe not, a receiver just gallops 37 yards. Poor tackling. This is a nightmare. We're going to get shut out by Duke.
• 1st & goal on the 4. The boo birds are out. But this has nothing to do with our defense. This has to do with the worst offense in the nation.
• Incomplete pass. Myron Lewis is asking the referee for offensive pass interference. Nice idea. Maybe we could win a debate against these guys.
• Third and goal on the 2.
• Lewis sacked by Chris Marve, and T.J. Greenstone has the ball! Can our defense stay on the field and try to score?
• Incomplete pass.
• I left the room for a few minutes and now there's a review and now it's 3rd & short on the D18. As Larry Munson used to say, "We've got 4,000 miles to go!"
• Half a yard to go. Hawkins gets the ball. He's got it. Now we're 3 for 11 on first downs. Yikes. How big was that missed field goal? Oh, and we've got 108 yards offense in the fourth quarter.
• Sean Walker TOUCHDOWN! 79 yards! We're back in it! Mackenzi on the play action pass! Hahnfeldt boots the PAT! Early in the fourth quarter!
• Jared picks up five.
• Jared picks up two. Second and three. Yeah, let's establish the run.
• Graham takes the pitch and picks up the first down. We were 1 for 7 on third down in the first half. We need a touchdown here bad.
• 1st & 10 on the VU 42. Hawkins gets a couple. Our offensive line not looking very good.
• 2nd & 8 on the VU 44. Adams to Barden to the D49.
• 3rd & 1.5 yards. Are we exact or what? Hawkins didn't get it. We stink. We've got to move the ball.
DUKE FIRST DRIVE
• Eight yard pass. We can't tackle.
• 2nd & 2. Tailback gets the first down at the 25. We can't tackle.
• 1st & 10. 10:10 left in the game. Duke back on the move. Quick pass and another first down. We can't tackle.
• Tailback gets a seven yard gain. This is what happens when your offense doesn't take care of business and keeps giving the ball back to the defense. This is Starkville all over again.
• 3rd & 1 and again, we can't tackle.
• QB sneak. First down. Of course. Cutcliffe is taking Bobby Johnson and his staff to school.
VANDERBILT SECOND DRIVE
• Graham fumbles a punt with 6:59 left in the third quarter. There goes the season.
DUKE SECOND DRIVE
• Our defense is really swarming. Giving up seven points through three quarters is pretty good. Not scoring any points is not.
• Third down. Lewis sacked and fumbles but recovers it — sans helmet.
• Field goal is good. 10-0. We've got to score here. But don't try so hard to make something happen that you can't hold onto the ball (Jamie Graham).
Bobby Johnson just told the broadcast crew: "We got to get moving on offense a little bit."
This was a horrible display of football. The two plays of the game were the two or three botched field goals by Duke. Oh, and the missed field goal by Hahnfeldt. Did I mention we stink?
The crowd's booing. People are calling from Nickson to enter the game. That's a sign the ship is sinking.
VANDERBILT'S THIRD DRIVE
• DJ Moore takes the snap and gets a couple yards. We're on our own 15. Wow, we're getting bad field position.
• Hawkins gets about 4. Hey, think we can get a first down.
• Mac keeps the ball and GETS A FIRST DOWN! Our offense just moved up to 116th in the nation.
• Nice pass to Barden, who's on the loose up past the 40. Back to back first downs. Barden is a real weapon.
• Hawkins gets another 4 yards. 2nd & 6.
• Now Jared's off to the races and gets 13 yards and another first down. Jamie Graham and George Smith threw some nice blocks.
• Adams now racing down the field and then gets hit way out of bounds. Stupid play by Duke. Our guys are smarter. Our school is better.
• Now 1st and 10, and Graham takes the direct snap. I like it. Get the ball in the hands of your playmakers so they can, you know, make plays.
• Two tight end set with Barden and Bradford. Run by Jennings. Third and 7. End of first quarter. Hey, let's score a touchdown.
• The Vanderbilt broadcasting team is interviewing the director at the Mall of Green Hills. Exciting.
• We hold and give up a sack. Our offense peters out. Hahnfeldt booting a 34-yarder. It's up and it's no good. Wide left. Having a 96 percent success rate in the red zone didn't do much for us there.
DUKE FOURTH DRIVE
• Our D is playing tough, flying around. Marve is a force in the middle. Third and 8.
• Incomplete pass. We're getting the ball back. DJ needs to take one to the house.
• What's up with our two-man punt return formation.
• DJ loses the punt in the sun and gets out of the way, then it takes a Devil bounce. 48 yd punt.
VANDERBILT FOURTH DRIVE
• Hey, I was wondering, what's our longest play from scrimmage this season? We haven't had a lot of big plays this season, outside of DJ's two big punt returns against MiaO and Rice, and Ryan Hamilton's interception return against Ole Miss.
• We're wearing all black. Adams is sacked. Probably not related. Mackenzi has been sacked three times, one-third of Duke's sacks in prior games, and a third of the sacks we've given up all season.
• Third and 13. George Smith can't hang on to Adams' pass. George Smith quite often can't hang on. Should have had it. Put in somebody who can catch. Oh, and I'm glad we've already won five games this season because we don't look like we can do it ever again.
• Not one of Upson's better punts. Slightly more than 10 minutes left in the half.
DUKE FIFTH DRIVE
• Jay Cutler's at the game. Let's put him in.
• Incomplete pass.
• We're winning the battle for time of possession. Time out. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
• OK, we're awake now. We need to pick up a turnover and take it to the house.
• Georgia-LSU started 30 minutes after we did and the score there is 7-7.
• Oh, and Florida beat Kentucky 63-5. Glad we're not playing the Gators today.
• Pass on third and long.
• We're lazy getting back and Duke reels off a quick seven yards.
• We stuff the ball carrier. Third and 2. Tim Fugger's looking good.
• That big backup quarterback picks up another first down to the 35.
• DJ breaks up a pass at the goal line. 2nd and 10. We really need a stop.
• Reshard misses a tackle. Wake up guys! Frosh DB Casey Heyward's in the game for the injured Jared Fagan.
• Pass and another first down to the 23.
• The Duke RB gets nuthin. We need a turnover.
• Incomplete pass. Third and 10. We can't stop em on third down. They're four of eight.
• Myron Lewis drills Thaddeus Lewis from the blindside. Fumble or incomplete pass? If it's a fumble then they're probably out of field goal range. This is a big review. It'll be fourth and either 10 or 20. FUMBLE!
• Now they're kicking a 50-yard field goal. WIDE RIGHT!
• It was a 12 play, 24-yard drive.
Had some technical difficulty there... We go three and out and Upson shanks a punt. We look terrible. Duke's now down to the VU36. 2nd and 11.
• Billinger gets his hand on the ball. 3rd and 11. First down. We stink. Duke's five of 10 on third down conversions. Of course, our offense isn't helping by keeping our defense on the field.
• Oh, touchdown Duke. This is shaping up to be a nightmare. The problem is that our offense is horrible. Once again. This is Miss State all over again, except Duke's defense isn't any good. We're just shooting ourselves in the foot.
COMMODORES WEAVING SOME MORE OFFENSIVE MAGIC
• Adams now 1-5 for 14 yards and an interception.
• Sean Walker thinks he just got shoved in the back but no flag. Adams now 1-6 for 14 yards and an interception.
• Walker's down on the field. Looks like his knee.
• Third and 10 with less than a minute left. Hey, maybe we can give the ball back to Duke and give up another touchdown. Did I mention how horrible we look? And Duke's getting the ball back in good field position. If we don't win today, we can beat Florida in two weeks. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.
• Oh, Duke just blocked the punt. And the crowd is booing.
BLUE DEVILS ON THE VU 13. (!)
• 2nd and 23. DJ almost intercepts in the end zone. Almost, of course.
• Delay of game penalty. 3rd and 28 with 00:15 left. Pass down to the 25.
• 43-yard field goal attempt. It's short!
We stink and we're only losing by seven. But this is Duke.
Player of the game: Steven Stone gets a sack, stuffs a runner and puts pressure on quarterback.
Play of the game: Duke holder gets hit in the head on a field goal attempt that never happened.
DUKE FIRST DRIVE
• Duke burns up a timeout and loses its challenge disputing a third-down spot.
VANDERBILT FIRST DRIVE
• Dores have poor field position starting out; 1st and 10 on our 15.
• We pitch the ball to Sean Walker. How ’bout let's just line up and run the ball down these guys' throats?
• Now Adams runs the ball and picks up a yard or so. Third and 7 at the 18.
• Adams throws into double coverage and gets picked. Horrible, horrible decision. Do we have to start every single stinking game in a hole?
DUKE SECOND DRIVE
Duke now has it 2nd and 4 on the 29.
• Big sack by Steven Stone on Duke's Thaddeus Lewis. We haven't had a sack in a long time.
• Whoa Nellie, they're kicking a long, long field goal. But the ball hits the holder in the helmet and the Dores have it 1st and 10 on the D39. We get some breaks.
VANDERBILT SECOND DRIVE
• Both teams look shaky. Hey, we hand off to Hawkins. Great idea! He gets three yards.
• Adams had some running room but got tripped up short of the first down. Duke has a scrappy defense. Third and 1.
• DJ's in the game as a receiver. Now Adams is sacked. Who are we playing, Georgia? Oh, I forgot, it's not in our game plan to score in the first quarter.
DUKE THIRD DRIVE
• Upson boots the Devils back to their 10. That dude is great.
• But Duke's freshman running back breaks a tackle and goes 24 yards for the game's first first down.
• Nice stop on the run up the middle; third and one and the backup quarterback picks up the first down.
• 3rd and 2, the quarterback throws the ball out of bounds. We're putting pressure on him. Steven Stone came to play. 4:38.
• This Duke game is huge, and I think every Commodore knows it. We've got a bye week next week, and then we play Florida, who's taking the Cats to the woodshed right now. So we're not looking ahead to next week because we're not playing anybody, and we're dang sure not looking ahead to Florida.
• Speaking of a bye week, the last thing we want to do is spend two full weeks thinking about a loss to Duke. Remember how great our last bye week was? We'd just beaten Ole Miss in a miraculous way and we had a couple days to celebrate being undefeated and then two weeks to prepare for Auburn.
• Speaking of that bye week before Auburn, remember how well our coaches and players handled the pressure and the excitement of being undefeated, hearing talk about how great they were, hosting GameDay on campus, facing the then-No. 13 team in the nation, preparing for what was then a premiere college football team with a devastating defense?
• Speaking of a premiere college football team, it's nice not to have to think about playing Florida next week. We'll have two weeks to prepare for the Gators, during which the Gators will be preparing for and then recovering from the latest college game of the year against Georgia.
• This bye week will be great if we can beat Duke, and it will be torture if we lose. We'll know in about four hours.
Moral Victory prediction: 9-3
AP preseason poll: No. 24
Record/ranking as of Oct. 24: 7-0; No. 2
Moral Victory prediction: 4-8
AP preseason poll: no votes
Record/ranking as of Oct. 24: 5-2; No. 31
Moral Victory prediction: 6-6
AP preseason poll: no votes
Record/ranking as of Oct. 24: 5-2; No. 28
JURY'S STILL OUT:
Moral Victory prediction: 4-8
AP preseason poll: No. 37
Record/ranking as of Oct. 24: 3-4; no votes
Moral Victory prediction: 12-0
AP preseason poll: No. 5
Record/ranking as of Oct. 24: 5-1; No. 5
Moral Victory prediction: 10-2
AP preseason poll: No. 1
Record/ranking as of Oct. 24: 6-1; No. 7
Moral Victory prediction: 7-5
AP preseason poll: No. 7
Record/ranking as of Oct. 24: 5-1; No. 13
• OLE MISS
Moral Victory prediction: 5-7
AP preseason poll: no votes
Record/ranking as of Oct. 24: 3-4; no votes
• MISS STATE
Moral Victory prediction: 4-8
AP preseason poll: no votes
Record/ranking as of Oct. 24: 2-5; no votes
Moral Victory prediction: 10-2 and SEC championship game
AP preseason poll: No. 10
Record/ranking as of Oct. 24: 4-4; no votes
• SOUTH CAROLINA
Moral Victory prediction: 9-3
AP preseason poll: No. 26
Record/ranking as of Oct. 24: 5-3; no votes
Moral Victory prediction: 8-4
AP preseason poll: No. 18
Record/ranking as of Oct. 24: 3-4; no votes
Of course, coaching Vanderbilt rarely helps in that department. After inheriting a mess from Woody and posting three consecutive two-win seasons, Johnson saw his average plummet to a hair above .500. Cutler's senior season and the big win over Tennessee in Knoxville kept him dead even, with 71 wins and 71 losses.
The next season, he dipped below .500. After last season, another gallant 5-win finish, Johnson had an 80-86 record, or 48 percent wins.
One thing nobody noticed: The Auburn win got Johnson a single victory away from again hitting .500. But after two straight road losses, he's 85-88.
An 11-2 or 10-3 record this year would put him over the hump. Sure, that's wishful thinking.
What matters is that Coach Johnson is laying a foundation he can build a winner on.
Duke (3-3) at Vanderbilt (5-2)
3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25
Dudley Field, Nashville, Tenn.
After dropping two road games, the Commodores return home to Nashville. Don't underestimate the home field advantage in this one.
Vanderbilt is 2-2 on the road this season, with its two victories coming against an overmatched Miami of Ohio club and an Ole Miss team that gave up six turnovers, including a fumble in the end zone that killed what would have likely been the winning touchdown. The Mississippi State game in Starkville was a bitter disappointment, and a trip to Athens left the Commodores wearing familiar labels like "scrappy" and "resilient" but also with another loss.
But at home the Commodores have been dynamite, surprising a powerful South Carolina defense, answering a hot Rice Owl offense score for score before shutting them down in the second half, and holding Auburn scoreless for three quarters. Three home games, three impressive victories.
Now Duke comes to town. Here's what to expect:
WHEN DUKE HAS THE BALL
First of all, expect Vanderbilt to win the battle of field position. The Commodores are among the nation’s leaders in net punting, while Duke is last in the ACC in punt returns.
Expect Duke to grind it out on offense. The Blue Devils are among the ACC leaders in time of possession, while the Commodores are last in the SEC in first downs allowed.
One concern: The Duke receivers aren’t as fast or athletic as the Commodore secondary, but QB Thaddeus Lewis can turn it upfield when he needs to (remember what State’s Tyson Lee did to us on third down?).
But also expect Duke to settle for field goals when they get near the goal line. Vanderbilt is among the SEC leaders in red zone defense, and Duke has a reliable field goal kicker.
WHEN VANDERBILT HAS THE BALL
The Commodores are spectacular when they get a whiff of the end zone, leading the SEC with 96 percent red zone offense efficiency. And usually, those scores are touchdowns. Mackenzi Adams has torched opposing defenses in the red zone; take his end zone laser strikes against Auburn and Georgia for example.
The Blue Devils have only nine sacks on the season. On third down defense, though, Duke has a stout 32 percent conversion percentage.
Much has been made of the Commodore’s lowly ranking in total offense, but they’re sixth in the run-oriented SEC in rushing, while Duke is 11th in the ACC in rushing defense, giving up about 160 yards a game. Expect the newly fine-tuned offensive line, which performed admirably against Georgia, to open some nice holes, and expect Jared Hawkins to have a big game. Also, Vanderbilt coaches will be more likely to turn Mackenzi loose on designed quarterback keepers than they were against the wicked Georgia Bulldog hitters.
And don't be surprised if Chris Nickson enters the game for a series or two. This is the kind of defense he excels against. But if he gets on the field, hopefully he can hang onto the ball.
Both Duke and Vanderbilt are among the national leaders in fewest penalties and best turnover margin. For some reason, Duke’s opponents incur very few penalties which perhaps indicates a lack of complexity for the Blue Devils on both offense and defense.
Here’s another thing: Duke players spent the summer working on their speed. Think players from Florida and Georgia were working on their speed? Nope. You work on your speed when you’re slow. Vanderbilt now has the team speed to hang with other teams in the SEC, as evidenced by the lack of big plays its defense has given up this season.
The Commodores are faster, deeper and more athletic than the Blue Devils, and that should give them a shot of confidence out of the gate.
I’m worried about this one, but in the same way I was worried before the Miami of Ohio game. If the Commodores play their game, they should win this one by double digits. Of course, I said that about the game in Starkville, so I'm still worried.
But the homefield advantage and their superior talent should be the difference. And don't forget, success is a win by any score.
But what I’d like to see is this:
• For us to jump on the Blue Devils early and, for once, not have a deficit to overcome.
• For us to win handily and get some young guys some playing time. Larry Smith, anyone?
Final score: Vanderbilt 31, Duke 17
• The Moral Victory! preview and prediction.
• The Moral Victory (slightly past) mid-season update to see who's underachieved and who's overachieved in the SEC.
• Assorted pregame musings.
Then starting at 3 p.m. ET we'll have impassioned and perhaps occasionally enlightening commentary as the game progresses.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
The fault here lies not with the players or coaches, but with the rocket scientists who plan the schedule. In the last 17 homecomings, we've played Georgia seven times, South Carolina six times and Florida once. That's 14 out of 17 homecomings against a Top 25 caliber program and SEC East rival.
Aren't you supposed to try to win your homecoming?
I went to the homecoming game in 1999, in which the Commodores parted with tradition and played The Citadel. Now that was a homecoming game. We won 58-0.
Other good homecoming opponents: Connecticut in 2002 (we won 28-24) and Navy in 2003 (we lost 37-27, but we had a decent chance to win).
On Saturday, we'll play Duke for homecoming. Makes sense. Not as good as the Citadel or any other I-AA team besides Appalachian State, but still a good idea. Same kind of school. Same type of athletes.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
• Record in daytime games: 0-2. All five of our victories were under the lights. The Duke game is at 2:00 CT.
• Record in home games: 3-0. We're 2-2 on the road. The Duke game is at home.
• Record in non-conference games: 2-0. We're 3-2 in the SEC. Duke is a non-conference game, but you already knew that.
• Record against unranked opponents: 3-1. We're 2-1 against ranked opponents. Duke, of course, is unranked. So was Mississippi State.
• Record against unranked opponents at home: 1-0. We're 2-0 against ranked opponents at home.
OK, we've milked our record for all it's worth.
How big is our home field advantage?
Does it really make a difference whether we play at night or during the day?
We'll see. But I believe the team will be glad to be back on Dudley Field.
Luciana Chavez of the Charlotte Observer reports that David Cutcliffe's name is being kicked around as a possible replacement for Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee.
And as usual, airplanes are involved.
A University of Tennessee plane stopped in Raleigh late Sunday night then returned to Knoxville in the wee hours Monday morning, Chavez reports. Later Monday, it went on to Stillwater, Okla., home of Oklahoma State University.
"It wasn't here for me," Cutcliffe said.
"I don't think anything is going to happen to Coach Fulmer," Cutclife said. "I'm not even going to speculate on that. He's such a good friend it would hurt me even to speculate."
Chavez notes that Fulmer with Cutcliffe is 85-19 with two SEC titles and one national title. Without Cutcliffe, Fulmer's record is 65-30 — with a loss to Vanderbilt.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
OK, everybody is officially preoccupied with the number six.
As in six wins.
As in Vanderbilt getting its sixth win on Saturday against Duke.
When asked about it during his Monday press conference, Coach Bobby Johnson started to downplay it — "We're just preparing to win our next game we play in" — but then said this:
"Our guys can count and they know how many wins we have right now and how many we need to be bowl eligible. We've all taken math here at Vanderbilt.
"We're not trying to hide it and we're not ignoring it by saying this and that. That is part of our story this year and you can't ignore that big thing that is sitting right over there staring at us."
Ah, the big thing sitting right over there staring at us.
And as Vanderbilt folks know full well, the longer we let it sit over there the bigger it's gonna get.
Monday, October 20, 2008
A couple of weeks ago, I told you how as a young man I was headed toward a life of blurting “War Eagle!” to strangers, but through an unlikely string of events ended up getting into Vanderbilt, becoming a fan of the hapless Commodores and even graduating from that fine institution.
At state schools, students learn useful skills like pharmacy, animal husbandry or landscape architecture, and then they graduate and get a job that actually relates to what they studied.
At a private school like Vanderbilt, students read a lot of books with big words and big ideas and then incorporate these words and ideas into their everyday conversations to show how smart they are and then when they graduate they either (A) go work for Daddy's Fortune 500 company or (B) go back to school to be a doctor or lawyer.
As for me, I had to pay off my ROTC scholarship by serving four years in the Army. First, I spent half a year in Arizona studying Soviet order of battle and Soviet weapons. As soon as I finished my training, the Soviet Union dissolved.
Then I was stationed in Germany. My new wife had a double major in European history and fine arts, and we bought a Volkswagen and hit the autobahn.
But this isn't about all the places we visited in Europe. This is about what happened when we returned to the States to go to graduate school. My criteria: A state school with a creative writing program and a powerhouse football team.
I'm not kidding.
For four years, I'd been doing more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day and I was looking forward to reading some novels, writing some short stories and watching an SEC football team actually win.
We chose the University of Georgia.
A good school to be sure. Not as rigorous as Vanderbilt, even for graduate school, but they had a great Southern literature professor named Hubert McAlexander and two accomplished creative non-fiction authors named James Kilgo and Judith Cofer.
Oh, and a promising young head coach named Ray Goff.
Coach Goff was coming off a bad season, but he'd won 10 games the season before that and had a team loaded with talent, including quarterback Eric Zeier and two future Super Bowl MVPs named Terrell Davis and Hines Ward.
My wife and I loved living in Athens, which for us meant eating at Rocky's and Last Resort, admiring bungalows in the old neighborhoods near married student housing, jogging through the woods near the intramural fields, checking out the double-barreled cannon downtown, and getting ice cream cones for a quarter at Hodgson's Pharmacy.
Oh yeah, and going to football games at Sanford Stadium. What a big place! What a big band! What big football players! What big numbers they'd ring up on that big scoreboard!
Then it was homecoming. And the Dogs’ opponent?
You got it. Vanderbilt.
Just before kickoff, we sat high in the stadium and listened to one half of the stadium shout, “Zeier!” and the other half shout, “Heisman!”
Not everybody was there. In fact, most ticket holders were still enjoying all those homecoming parties and all that tailgating. But no rush. They were playing Vanderbilt.
Except Vanderbilt had a bunch of players from the Peach State who'd grown up wanting to be Bulldogs, but the Bulldogs didn't want them. So they went up to Nashville to play for a laughingstock team and now they were back home getting a shot at the Red and Black.
And they made the most of it.
By halftime, as most of the fans found the stadium and climbed to their seats, the Commodores were winning handily.
So the fans headed back through the portals and returned to the party.
When it was over, Vanderbilt had rolled up 415 yards rushing and a 43-30 victory. Outside, vendors were selling T-shirts that said “Fire Ray Gump.”
That Vanderbilt victory sealed Ray Goff's fate. Just like a Vanderbilt victory a couple of weeks ago sealed the fate of a certain coordinator from Auburn. I think he specialized in the spread offense. Invented it, I heard.
Today, I'm headed back to Athens to see the Commodores play the Bulldogs. Yes, for homecoming.
I still haven't given up on my undergraduate alma mater. In fact, we need only one victory to become bowl-eligible for the first time in 26 years.
Could we do it today, winning like we did two years ago during homecoming in Athens? Not likely, but maybe.
Could we play hard and chalk up a moral victory like we did last year in Nashville?
Now that's more like it.
But if you're a Dog fan, don't worry about us gaining 415 yards rushing or scoring 43 points like we did in 1994.
Ray Goff's not your coach anymore.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Here's how these guys' projections have changed over the weeks:
• Preseason: No bowl (Schlabach); no bowl (Feldman)
• After we beat Miami (Ohio) 38-13: No bowl; no bowl
• After we beat South Carolina 24-17: Music City Bowl (Boston College); no bowl
• After we beat Rice 38-21: Music City Bowl (Maryland); no bowl
• After we beat Ole Miss 23-17: Liberty Bowl (Tulsa); Independence Bowl (Kansas State)
• After our bye week: Liberty Bowl (Tulsa); Independence Bowl (Kansas State)
• After we beat Auburn 14-13: Outback Bowl (Illinois); Liberty Bowl (Marshall)
• After we lost to Miss State 17-14: Outback Bowl (Minnesota); Liberty Bowl (Marshall)
• After we lost to Georgia 24-14: Chick-Fil-A Bowl (Georgia Tech); Liberty Bowl (Tulsa)
But the real thing that damaged the Dores: Last week's loss to Mississippi State. This week's loss to Georgia was actually a quality loss, but it gave them two losses for the season, actually forcing pollsters to look at who they lost to and who the other two-loss teams lost to. Two-loss teams that survived the cut were:
• Missouri, who lost in the past two weeks to No. 7 Oklahoma State and No. 1 Texas.
• Kansas, with losses to No. 14 South Florida and No. 4 Oklahoma.
In the Associated Press poll, Vanderbilt finished 28th in the poll, behind only one other two-loss team, Virginia Tech, which has losses to East Carolina and Boston College.
In the USA Today poll, Vanderbilt slipped to 32nd, finishing behind these two-loss teams:
• Michigan State, which lost to Cal and on Saturday 45-7 to No. 12 Ohio State. So how are the Spartans ahead of Vanderbilt, which lost 24-14 to No. 10 Georgia?
• North Carolina, which lost to unranked Virginia Tech and Virginia.
• Oregon, which lost to Boise State and USC.
It certainly didn't help Vanderbilt that Mississippi State lost 34-3 to Tennessee.
Anyway, here's how the conference fared (AP listed first, USA Today listed second:
1. Alabama 2/2
2. Florida 6/4
3. Georgia 9/9
4. LSU 11/11
5. Vanderbilt 28/32
6. Kentucky 31/33
12. Auburn NR/NR
12. Arkansas NR/NR
12. Ole Miss NR/NR
12. Miss State NR/NR
12. South Carolina NR/NR
12. Tennessee NR/NR
Oct. 25: Duke (3-3): Lost to Miami (Fla.) 49-31 at home. Led at halftime but gave up five straight TDs in the second half. Have beaten James Madison, Navy and Virginia. Other losses came to Northwestern, Georgia Tech.
Nov. 8: Florida (5-1): Bye week. Lost to Ole Miss 31-30 the week after the Rebels lost to Vanderbilt. Have beaten Hawaii, Miami (Fla.), Tennessee, Arkansas and LSU.
Nov. 15: Kentucky (4-2): Beat Arkansas 21-20 in a miracle finish in Lexington. Other victories over Louisville, Norfolk State, MTSU and Western Kentucky. Narrow losses to Alabama and South Carolina.
Nov. 22: Tennessee (3-4): Beat Mississippi State 34-3 in Knoxville. Repeat: Beat Mississippi State 34-3. Other victories over UAB and Northern Illinois at home. Losses to UCLA in overtime, Florida, Auburn and Georgia.
Nov. 29: Wake Forest (4-2): Upset at home by Maryland 26-0. Other loss to Navy at home. Beat Ole Miss on a last-second field goal. Also beat Baylor, Florida State and Clemson.
Early in the game, it became clear the Commodores were outmatched. The ridiculously talented Matthew Stafford was throwing darts to the ridiculously talented A.J. Green and handing off to the ridiculously talented Knowshon Moreno and then sitting on the bench and watching his team's ridiculously talented defense fly around the field.
I'm a realist, as most Vanderbilt fans are. So I told a friend then that my goal for the game was that at some point the Georgia fans would be restless and scared they might lose to Vanderbilt. It's really funny to hear cocky, barking fans suddenly whining about Vanderbilt.
And that's what happened in the second quarter when Graham caught his first TD to cut it to 14-7 and then it continued through halftime until Moreno scored to make it 21-7. But then the whining started again after Graham's second TD made it 21-14 and the whining hit a peak when the Dawg kicker hit an upright and Vanderbilt got the ball back with a couple minutes remaining.
And on the post-game radio show, Dawg fans were calling to complain about their team's poor showing and make suggestions about everything from offensive formations to player substitutions.
Finally, Eric Zeier, a broadcaster and Georgia star quarterback of the 1990s, pointed out that Vanderbilt had been the No. 1 team in the SEC East.
But the whining continued.
The Georgia game was very much like the South Carolina game. We struggled against a tough defense but kept it close and had a chance in the end. The difference: Georgia has the top quarterback and the top running back in college football, and pretty soon the top wide receiver too.
We had no business staying in the game with these guys, but we did. I was in Athens on Saturday, and seeing the whole field at once gives you a sense of how fast the other team is. We think our linebackers are pretty fast, but fast is when your quarterback is trying to throw away a ball and their linebacker streaks across the field 30 yards in the secondary and intercepts it while he's diving out of bounds.
Yes, we're deeper and stronger and faster than we've ever been before. But we'll never be as deep and strong and fast as teams like Georgia. You know how everybody was talking about Mackenzi Adams' strong arm after the Auburn game? He didn't look so strong-armed after Matthew Stafford's first pass, a rocket to A.J. Green.
I'm not putting us down. I'm just saying we should put things into perspective. Several Commodore fans have been talking BCS for next season. Um, let's try to go to a bowl this season, and then let's try to go to a bowl next season.
What was good:
• We've got our quarterback. We're clearly better off with Adams in the game: It was only one play, but Nickson's third-down fumble pretty much ended that conversation.
• Jamie Graham is a playmaker: I sat down near Graham's Corner during the game and saw both of his sensational catches. Looked like he was jumping up for a loose ball or a rebound.
• Is there a better punter in the nation than Brett Upson? He single-handedly kept the Commodores in the game by pinning the Bulldogs deep in their own territory.
• We actually established the running game, gaining 114 yards against a team that holds opponents to 52 a game, and held Tennessee to a single yard. It must have been a combination of changes made on the offensive line (Kyle Fischer and Eric Hensley started over Reilly Lauer and Joey Bailey/Nick Forte) and the hard running of Jared Hawkins, who was hobbled with an ankle in the Miss State game.
• We had very few three-and-outs.
• We held Georgia to 1 for 8 on third-down conversions.
What needs work:
• Brandon Barden is a talented tight end and a great addition to our team, but he bobbled and dropped a couple of big passes in traffic.
• Can we score more than 14 points in a game?
• Bobby Johnson says the Commodores need to tackle better, so I'll list it here. But can anybody tackle Knowshon Moreno?
• We put some minimal pressure on Stafford but never came close to sacking him, and he had three freshmen and a sophomore protecting him.
All in all, I was pleased with the performance from the Commodores. The goal for Vanderbilt, I think, was for the Commodores to play to win but not be psychologically devastated if they didn't.
This was as close to a moral victory as you can get. But the question isn't whether we can scare the daylights out of teams we're not supposed to beat. For the rest of the season, the question is can we beat the teams we have a chance to beat. We didn't do that against Miss State, but we've got a great chance next week against Duke, and then after the Florida game we've got tough but winnable dates with Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
"We've got a great respect for the Eastern Division-leading Commodores," Georgia Coach Mark Richt is saying.Actually, Georgia is tied with Vanderbilt for the Eastern Division lead. Both have records of 5-1 and 3-1 in the conference.
Let's face it: Richt wouldn't be saying Florida leads the division when he's tied with them. When he plays Florida, he wants his boys to believe they're as good as the Gators. When he plays Vanderbilt, he wants his boys to believe that the Commodores are as good as they are.
What happened last season when Georgia pulled out a last-second victory over the Commodores in Nashville after losing to them the year before? They danced on the star at midfield. It was surely the first time that a college football powerhouse gloated over a three-point victory over Vanderbilt.
Richt was livid. Was he livid because the Bulldogs were disrespecting somebody? No, he was livid because they were acting like beating Vanderbilt was a big deal. Their next game was against Florida, and that's what he was worried about.
So what happened when Georgia played Florida? Richt commanded his Bulldogs to draw a celebration penalty when they scored against the Gators. It was a brilliant move and certainly got under the skin of a certain Urban Meyer.
So today, with LSU and Florida next on the schedule, Richt is urging his team to focus on the "Eastern Division-leading Commodores."
If they do, this probably won't be much of a game.
If they don't, well, then the same thing might happen that happened last week when Vanderbilt faced the Western Division trailing Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Of course, that's wishful thinking.
Friday, October 17, 2008
But strange things happened:
• We couldn't stop Tyson Lee from dodging third-down sacks and sprinting for first downs.
• We couldn't get a turnover. Reshard Langford got out-hopped for the ball in the end zone and couldn't quite get the handle on another one at the end of the game.
• We had tons of penalties.
• We acted like we'd spent the whole week reading about our victory over Auburn.
• We got punched in the mouth and seemed surprised by it.
• The coaching staff failed to make adjustments, most notably on offense and at quarterback, but also on defense.
I don't expect those things to happen this week. That's the good news. The bad news: We're playing Georgia.
I won't dwell on stats because we know where that got me last week (24-10, anyone?), but a few things jump out at me:
• Georgia throws for more than 270 yards a game.
• Georgia holds its opponents to about 50 yards rushing per game.
• Georgia converts almost half the time on third down, while we convert about a third of the time.
• Georgia averages more than twice as many penalties and penalty yards per game as we do.
Oh yeah, and Georgia is loaded with talent.
Here's one more stat: We average 90.3/yards passing per game.
I predict Mackenzi Adams will get three times that against Georgia. At least. We can't run the ball on these guys, but they don't know what we can do through the air. (We don't either.)
Anyway, the key will be our receiving. Brandon Barden is a beast, and Adams got him involved against Auburn in a way Chris Nickson couldn't do. He could play a big role in the Georgia game. Everybody knows about Sean Walker, especially Georgia, and he's due a big game. Adams and Wheeler have a kind of mind-meld going on, and Jamie Graham is a solid possession receiver and a nice all-purpose athlete.
But George Smith worries me. He looked terrible against Mississippi State, dropping a couple of tough but catchable balls, including a touchdown, and picking up stupid penalties. The game ended with him arguing with his quarterback after Adams used hand gestures to let the whole stadium know he thought Smith had blown his route.
There was way too much George Smith in that game and not enough Graham or Walker or Wheeler. I love George Smith, but that's what I saw last Saturday.
Last week, we didn't make adjustments (at quarterback, at wide receiver, on defense) because we didn't think we had to, because we thought we were a better team than those Bulldogs and we'd win in the end.
But against these Bulldogs, you'd better believe we're going to make adjustments and we're going to make them fast, because we could get blown out of Sanford Stadium if we don't. It's not gonna matter if a player is a senior or overcame hardship or whatever. We'll be playing to win, just like we did against South Carolina and Auburn.
This Saturday is a new day. It sounds weird, but the Commodores play better in big hostile stadiums against high-ranked teams than they do against teams they're supposed to beat in rinky-dink stadiums where everybody's shaking a cowbell.
They won't be flat for this one. With LSU and Florida on the horizon, Georgia just might be. It sounds funny to say, but I think Vanderbilt has a better shot to beat the Dawgs after losing to Miss State last week than they would have if they'd won.
No, I'm not picking the upset. I picked the Dores to win last week and they lost, so I'm hoping the opposite will happen this week.
Call it... Georgia 27, Vanderbilt 19
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Nobody, but nobody in the national media picked us to win three conference games either, and here we are after six games with three SEC and five total wins.
After the offensive debacle in Starkville, it's hard not to feel like we've run out of gas a little bit, especially with mighty Georgia next on the schedule. But even if we get overpowered in Athens like everybody thinks we will, we still have a great shot at a winning season and a bowl berth.
Here are some scenarios for the rest of the season:
Best bet: SEVEN WINS. We beat Duke in Nashville (is that game huge now or what?), beat either Kentucky in Lexington or Tennessee in Nashville and lose to Georgia in Athens, Florida in Nashville, and Wake Forest in Winston-Salem.
Also not a bad bet: EIGHT WINS. We beat Duke and win two out of three against Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake.
Not out of the realm of possibility, but pushing it: NINE WINS. We take care of business against Duke, Kentucky and Tennessee and steal one from either Georgia, Florida or Wake.
OK, this is unlikely: TEN WINS. We beat Duke, Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake and shock either Georgia or Florida.
Possible but not something we want to think about right now: SIX WINS. We beat only Duke or, worse yet, keep everybody on pins and needles deep into November before beating Tennessee or Wake Forest to become bowl eligible.
The nightmare: FIVE WINS. That's right, we don't win another game. Probably won't happen but if you've been a Commodore fan for more than a year you're not taking anything for granted.
Don't forget, we can't take anything for granted. If we stun Georgia and win between the hedges, then we've won six games and that's all. Remember how we weren't so worried about Mississippi State after beating Auburn? The same State team that held Auburn to one field goal?
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Well, here we are in the third week of October with not a single moral victory. Games with Top 25 teams South Carolina and Auburn could have easily been moral victories — but instead they were huge upsets and now Vanderbilt has five real wins and a Top 25 berth of its own.
The Mississippi State game was a bitter disappointment, especially for those of us who braved the trip to Starkville with plans of celebrating a 6-0 record. And though nobody's panicking, it did force Vanderbilt fans to pull out the schedule and wonder how many games we could win before the season's over.
I did have this thought: What if this season is not a collection of moral victories resulting in a losing season for Vanderbilt, but instead one long moral victory in which the Commodores take a big lead against a more powerful opponent (the SEC), give up a couple of big plays (Georgia and Florida), have plenty of chances to win in the end (Miss State, Duke, Kentucky, Tennessee and even Wake Forest) , and then finish in heartbreak?
OK, I won't think about it anymore. Go Commodores! By the way, I'll be there in Athens on Saturday and I hope you will be too — so you don't have to watch the three Daves on Raycom.
Growing up, I was a skinny kid and not particularly strong or tough. My brother, two grades below me, outweighed me in high school by 50 pounds, started four years on the varsity and went on to play college football.
My brother could take everybody, I could hardly take anybody, but I could take my brother — or at least give him the fight of his life.
That's because we grew up together and I wasn't afraid of him. I knew his strengths and weaknesses. I knew what trash to talk and what buttons to push.
What does this have to do with the Vanderbilt-Georgia game? Glad you asked.
Vanderbilt has 22 players from Georgia, as many as it has from Tennessee. On offense:
• Lincolnton's Branden Barden, a freshman starter at tight end, will be grabbing tough passes and throwing blocks.
• Louisville's Sean Walker, a senior starter at wide receiver, will try to top his spectacular showing against the Dawgs last year, in which he scored on a reverse and an eye-popping catch.
• Fort Valley's Udom Umoh, a regular at wide receiver and a freshman, will get opportunities to snag passes from Mackenzi Adams.
• Jake Bradford, a senior from St. Simons Island, will be throwing blocks from the tight end position.
• Another wide receiver, Stone Mountain junior Alex Washington, is returning from injury and could be a factor.
• Duluth sophomore Kennard Reeves could get some snaps at running back.
• Newnan junior Broderick Stewart, a sack specialist and starter at defensive end, will try to expose Georgia's brand new left tackle and get to superstar quarterback Matthew Stafford.
• Lilburn junior Greg Billinger, a starter at defensive tackle, will also be chipping away at the Dawgs' injury-plagued offensive line.
• Lawrenceville freshman T.J. Greenstone has also been a force in the defensive tackle rotation.
• Roswell senior Josh Allen has started in two games this season and will see plenty of action in the Commodore secondary.
• Alan Strong, a sophomore cornerback from Atlanta, has played in every game this season.
• McDonough's Austin Newton, a sophomore linebacker, has also played in every game.
• Elko's Casey Hayward, one of only two true freshman to reach the field this season, is a force on special teams and also sees time at cornerback.
• Kingsland junior nickel back Darlron Spead has been hurt since the South Carolina game, in which he made a spectacular interception and long return.
On special teams, Griffin junior Brett Upson has been a huge factor in Vanderbilt's success this season and is one of nation's best punters.
Atlanta's Derrius Dowell, a junior, would have been a factor at defensive tackle but has been injured all season. Other players who have not received playing time include Forsyth senior Bo Baggerley, Columbus junior Thomas Carroll, Cummings freshman Chris Crooks, Chamblee true freshman Taylor Loftley, Kingsland true freshman Ryan Seymour and Loganville true freshman Tristan Strong.
So these guys from Georgia are going home this weekend to knock heads with the same guys they grew up with.
Their brothers. Of whom they have no fear. Of whom they know their strengths and weaknesses, which trash to talk and what buttons to push.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
''We're not letting Bobby Johnson go over to Clemson,'' Zeppos told the Tennessean's Maurice Patton on Monday, after Tommy Bowden's firing. ''We want Bobby to spend his entire career at Vanderbilt.''
The university plans to open its pocket book. Good for them.
If Joe B. Wyatt was still chancellor, he'd be driving Johnson to the bus station right now. Of course, Johnson wouldn't be in this situation because he wouldn't have the players he does now. Wyatt thought signing players who met the minimum requirements for Vanderbilt — but perhaps wouldn't have been accepted if they weren't athletes — sent a signal that academics weren't important (see Ron Mercer). Bad football team must equal scholarly institution, right?
While we're on the topic of former chancellors, God bless Gordon Gee. Wyatt's successor — and Zeppos' predecessor — hired Johnson and paved the way for the success the football team is having now, making smart decisions about whom to admit to the university. But you can't say the university stopped stressing academics — Gee did, after all, abolish the athletic department. (Though he didn't do the same thing this year when he returned to Ohio State.) That little experiment seems to be working like a charm.
One Gee story: In 2000, Vanderbilt was playing Tennessee in the Titans stadium. It was a home date for Vanderbilt, and the Commodores had moved the game to the much larger venue presumably to increase gate receipts. Not surprisingly, though, it looked like a Volunteer home game. It was a cold, wet November day and nearly everybody in the place was wearing an orange raincoat — or hunting jacket.
Before kickoff, Gee appeared on the giant screen, wearing his trademark bowtie and spectacles. He'll never be mistaken for the Marlboro Man. He warmly welcomed the Volunteer fans to the game and said a few kind words about UT. "But remember," he added, jabbing a finger at the camera, "THIS... IS... OUR... HOUSE!"
Then somebody in the sea of orange laughed. And before long the whole vast sea of orange was tossing with laughter.
But Gee believed. He believed that Vanderbilt could be an Associated Press Top 25 football team and a U.S. News & World Report Top 25 university.
And Zeppos seems to believe the same thing, too.
He's even said he wants to be buried on the 50 yard line of Dudley Field. That's my kind of chancellor.
Monday, October 13, 2008
His answer was pretty crafty: He has already coached there.
"Well," Johnson said, "I coached there as the defensive coordinator in ’93 and then went back to Furman as head coach.
"Clemson's a wonderful place but I have my hands completely full and I love it at Vanderbilt."
Oh yeah, and this college has an athletic department.
Oh yeah, and this college is your alma mater, where you played big-time college football.
That's exactly the decision Bobby Johnson is about to face. And it would be remarkable if he didn't take the money and go home.
If you haven't heard, Clemson fired Tommy Bowden today. And the fan base is screaming for Bobby Johnson. This from a Clemson comment board:
‘‘Mackenzi has demonstrated he can sit in the pocket and figure things out and see who’s open and do a good job of hitting them,’’ Johnson told the AP. ‘‘I don’t think there’s a big dropoff when you start running the quarterback draws and the options and things like that. Mackenzi’s a good athlete and can run and actually made some very fine runs. Just another way to see if we can get better.’’
Johnson added: ‘‘We had to make a change. Mackenzi came in and did a good job. Looking to see what he can do with it. He’s a motivated young man, a go-getter, and we think he maybe can provide a spark and hopefully we can get some things going on offense. We weren’t very good against Mississippi State.’’
Johnson and his staff have done a remarkable job this season of making adjustments in the second half. Obviously, Saturday's game in Starkville was the exception.
But if you look at the big picture, Vanderbilt is headed into the second half of the season, and Johnson is making a big adjustment. If the Commodores prove to be a second-half of the season team, it will be an unbelievable year.
And then the university will collect a pile of money and try to keep Johnson from bolting to Clemson.
For now, Johnson's talking like a Vanderbilt coach: ‘‘Right now we just can’t panic. We’re 5-1. If I could start off 5-1 every year, put me down."
How important was the Mississippi State game? If the Commodores had won that game, we wouldn't be talking about getting that all-important sixth win. Has that number been on our minds since 2005 or what?
This season, we almost stumbled on six victories without thinking about it. But then a funny thing happened: One game away, everybody started talking about the Georgia Dome and New Year's Day bowls and — gasp — BCS.
We took the sixth game for granted. It reminded me of the MTSU game in 2005, though Mississippi State was a better team than those Blue Raiders. The Commodores lacked the sense of desperation they had against South Carolina and Auburn this season. Remember those games? The Commodores were in a fight for their lives. If they didn't play their best every down, they were gonna get taken to the woodshed.
They weren't in a fight for their lives on Saturday. They were sloppy and uninspired, and they still expected to win. And at the end of the game, the players were pointing fingers at each other.
So instead of having six wins, Vanderbilt still has five and now the number six is looming large on everybody's mind. And we're doing the math.
OK, we'll lose to Georgia, maybe big. And then we've got to beat Duke, who is pretty good, who is coached by David Cutcliffe, who we've faced 24 times — 18 as a full-time coach at UT and six as head coach at Ole Miss — and have beaten only once, in overtime in Oxford in 1999. (He wasn't on the Tennessee staff when Vanderbilt beat the Vols in 2005.)
And then it will be November.
Here's Vanderbilt's record month by month since 2005, when a winning season first seemed realistic:
August/September: 13-4, including 4-0 this season
October: 5-9, including 1-1 this season
This November, Vanderbilt plays Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest.
It'll be interesting, for sure.