Thursday, August 28, 2008


Commodores win 34-13 because they had better athletes, and those athletes made big plays. Chris Nickson took over with a long strike to Sean Walker and then a short TD strike to Walker. He had a bunch of dazzling runs, finishing with 166 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.

DJ Moore took over in the first half, too, with an interception then a sack and then on the next play a 91-yard punt return that fell inches short of paydirt.

Final yardage was close (360 VU to 340 Mia) but Commodores had 269 yards on the ground and held the Redhawk QB to 19-42-3 and 250 yards. Also converted 8 of 15 third downs compared to 4 of 15 for the Hawks.

A nice win. We needed this one to have a winning season and we'll see what happens next.

Next up: South Carolina next Thursday on ESPN.


Time: End of game
Score: 34-13 Vandy
Play of the second half: Hawkins' run put this one away.
Player of the second half: We'll go with Hawkins.
Surprise: We win this one going away.
Disappointment: Are you kidding?

• Nice sack by Marve, the redshirt frosh linebacker. Dude's good.
• Redhawks are dinking us for little gains here and there but they need to strike quick and they can't do it against our secondary. Fail to convert on fourth down.
• MacKenzie Adams in the game for mop-up duty. We needed Nickson to win this game.
• Gaston picks up another first down.
• Hey, let's throw the ball into the end zone and break 40 points! Just kidding.
• Minute left. Raudabach still in the game. Still throwing five yard passes.
• True freshmen Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson in the secondary while Redhawks drive down to the one. Hayward almost gets a pick in the end zone.
• Josh Allen snags an interception in the end zone. How deep is our secondary? Our scrubs were starters three years ago.


Time: 5:40 in fourth quarter
Score: 34-13 Vandy
Play of the second half: Jared Hawkins 4-yard touchdown late in the game.
Player of the second half: Jared Hawkins and the offensive line.
Surprise: Hawkins, whom I've been busting on, breaks off 37 yards in three carries to move Dores near the end zone, then punches it in for the TD.
Disappointment: Trouble moving the ball consistently on these guys. Fortunately, we had lots of big plays in the first half and then we reeled off a string of runs late in the game.

• Nickson slips and falls trying to pick up a first down on 3rd and 14 early in the fourth. Another punt.
• Meriwether is back. But Hawks need to pass.
• Big play: Myron Lewis knocks Woods out of bounds after Hawk wideout catches ball but his feet don't touch the ground. This ain't the NFL. So it doesn't count.
• Reshard Langford diving around almost intercepting passes it looks like he doesn't have a chance to get.
• Nickson runs for another first down.
• Man, those Hawks make our receivers pay when they get the ball.
• Hawkins has a nice run between the tackles. We're in Hawk territory.
• We've got some tight ends. Austin Monahan picks up a first down. He's 6-7. He and Barden are tough — and young.
• With about 7 minutes left, Nickson fakes the pitch and has about a 15-yard run for a first down.
• We're eating up the clock.
• Nice TD drive. 11 plays in 6 minutes.


Time: End of third quarter
Score: 27-13 Vandy
Play of the second half so far: Redhawk QB Raudabach hits some big passes and sets his team up for third quarter field goal to narrow margin to two TDs.
Player of the second half so far: Raudabach
Surprise: Double reverse late in third quarter with 14-point lead. Nice to see we're not trying to grind it out. We need to put this away. We're faster than they are, but can't smash the ball through their D-line. Meriwether's loss has really hurt the Hawk offense.
Disappointment: Only two drives (both stalled) in the third quarter. Moving the ball a bit better as fourth quarter begins.

• Nickson shakes and bakes for a first down. Just keep it and run on every play.
• Nice run by Gaston Miller. He's definitely our best running back in this game. All 5-foot-7 of him.
• We're close to putting this one away but need a TD here.
• Little Chris Reinart snags a pass. Had only one catch last year. Think he's the first wideout besides Walker and Wheeler to get a reception.
• Nickson needs to throw the ball out of bounds instead of running out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage.
• Hoopster Jamie Graham grabs the first pass of his football, loses his helmet and still tries to get some more yards in traffic. Kid's a football player who plays some basketball, not the other way around.
• That Myron Lewis is one tall cornerback (6-3). That John Stokes is one tall inside linebacker (6-5).
• Redhawks can't throw long but doing a nice job of nickle and diming us. Still a long way from end zone. A score would get them back in this one.


Time: 6:42 third quarter
Score: 27-13 Vandy
Play of the second half so far: Redhawk QB Raudabach hits some big passes and gets his team into field goal range.
Player of the second half so far: Raudabach
Surprise: Nothing really. Only one offensive drive so far for the Commodores and that one three and out backed up to their own end zone.
Disappointment: Hawkins and Jennings can't pick up anything deep in our own end zone. Maybe it's our line, but those guys just don't seem to be hitting the holes quickly.

• Redhawks go on fourth and 1 on the VU40 and convert by lining up and sneaking in before the Commodores are ready. A stop and a drive could have iced this game.
• Meriwether, the Redhawk running back, leaves the game with an injury. Good player; could start for us. They'll miss him if he's out for the game.
• Early in second half, looked like Miami was going to fake the punt but were offsides.
• Vandy backed up on its own 5 yard line. Handoffs to Jennings and Hawkins and Hawkins. Stuffed. Big surprise.
• Big throw by Raudabach on third down to get Redhawks down to VU 30. Dores need a stop.
• Don't get one. Jamal Rogers gets a first down. He's a player. And one of those guys with the long hair that sticks out of his helmet like a skunk's tail.
• We're sluggish in places, but we're avoiding penalties, an area of excellence for us last season.
• Big stop on 3rd and 5 on the VU10.


Boy, did Bobby Johnson pick the right quarterback or what? Nickson is unstoppable. A bomb and then a TD to Walker and then 122 yards rushing and two more touchdowns.

And DJ Moore is unstoppable, too.

Nickson, Moore, Myron Lewis, Sean Walker, Chris Marve and Broderick Stewart are fast and tough and in a different league than the Redhawks.

Our running backs, Jennings and Hawkins, don't look sharp. Little Gaston Miller was much better.

Nickson isn't getting much time to pass from the new O-line, and maybe that's why he's been off to the races for so many yards.

This one appears to be in the books, but the Commodores need to keep on pressing down on the Redhawks. Coach Johnson likes to grind it out and play ball control, but I'd like to see us strike quick, put the Redhawks in a deeper hole, and then make Radenbacher play catch-up against our deep and talented secondary.


Time: Halftime
Score: 27-10 Vandy
Play of the game so far: Chris Nickson answers Redhawk touchdown in the second quarter by slicing through the Redhawk D for a 59-yard run.
Other big plays:
48-yard pass from Nickson to Sean Walker. DJ Moore's interception, sack and 91-yard punt return.
Player of the game so far: Chris Nickson. He's got 122 yards rushing at halftime.
Surprise: Miami very sloppy late in the half with multiple penalties and a key dropped pass. Redhawks' vaunted linebackers no match for Nickson.
Disappointment: Vandy forces Redhawks to punt but have 12 men on the field and Miami gets a first down after the penalty. Ryan Hamilton drops an interception late in the half. Too much room in front of him. Jared Hawkins doesn't look like an SEC running back.

• Broderick Stewart looks quick and gets a big sack. Redhawks can't contain him.
• Two straight holding penalties on the Redhawks. 2nd and 26 with 2:49 left in half.
• John Cole sees action with a punt return. First true freshman I've noticed in the game.
• Nickson rips off a 34-yard run on third down. He's unstoppable.
• A bad spot keeps Nickson from a first down with seconds left and deep in Miami territory.
• Hahnfeldt nails his second field goal.


Time: 5:33 second quarter
Score: 24-10 Vandy
Play of the game so far: Chris Nickson answers Redhawk touchdown with by slicing through the Redhawk D for a 59-yard run.
Other big plays:
48-yard pass from Nickson to Sean Walker. DJ Moore's interception, sack and 91-yard punt return.
Player of the game so far: Chris Nickson
Surprise: The vaunted Redhawk D can't stop Nickson.
Disappointment: Jennings looks slow. We look confused when we get in the red zone.

• Nickson off to the races on 59-yard run. He's looking good.
• Nickson fakes to Jennings (good call) and dives in end zone to finish a 13-yard run.


Time: 6:58 first quarter
Score: 17-10 Vandy
Play of the game so far: 48-yard pass from Nickson to Sean Walker. Nice throw, nice catch.
Other big plays: DJ Moore's interception, sack and 91-yard punt return.

Player of the game so far: DJ Moore and Chris Nickson
Surprise: Raudenbach looked really shaky but is now in a rhythm. Our secondary looked all-world and is now getting picked apart.
Disappointment: We had a chance to put this one away, now it's a one-touchdown margin. Nickson has no time to pass. Linebackers are penetrating our line with apparent ease.

• Beautiful interception by Myron Lewis. Our secondary looks great.
• Nice running by Gaston Miller. Five straight carries.
• You know, Vandy was second in the SEC last year in time of possession. And that's what we're trying to do right now, control the ball.
• Nickson really on the run when he drops back. Run blocking looks fine, pass blocking needs work.
• Lewis' interception on long pass works like a punt for the Redhawks.
• Raudabach is rolling now, mixing up his passes, and Meriwether is hitting the holes.
• Touchdown pass for Redhawks.


Time: 0:11 first quarter
Score: 17-3 Vandy
Play of the game so far: 48-yard pass from Nickson to Sean Walker. Nice throw, nice catch.
Other big plays: DJ Moore's interception, sack and 91-yard punt return.

Player of the game so far: DJ Moore and Chris Nickson
Surprise: Redhawk offensive line pretty solid.
Disappointment: DJ can't take punt to the house after 91 yards, and it takes us three plays to score from a yard out.

• VU special teams fine so far. Nice tackle by Joel Caldwell on kickoff coverage.
• Redhawks QB Raudabach looks shaky, but has hit a couple of first-down passes.
• Marve and Stokes stuffing the run.
• D.J. sacks quarterback and forces a fumble (not recovered) and now back to return punt, then goes about 91 yards to the Redhawk 1.
• DJ has a mohawk, for what it's worth.


Time: 6:23 first quarter
Score: 10-3 Vandy
Play of the game so far: 48-yard pass from Nickson to Sean Walker. Nice throw, nice catch.
Player of the game so far: Sean Walker/Chris Nickson
Surprise: Redhawks test DJ early and pay for it.
Disappointment: Nickson running for his life on every play. Working so far, but not good sign for offensive line. Also, Vandy offense breaks down after interception.

• DJ Moore has his first pick of the season, then stays in the game to play offense. Ball on the 19.
• Walker, Moore and Nickson clearly faster than anybody on the field. Our running backs look pedestrian.
• Redhawk defense doesn't look particularly fast, but they're penetrating our line.
• Hahnfeldt nails 34-yard FG.


Time: 8:00 first quarter
Score: 7-3 Vandy
Play of the game so far: 48-yard pass from Nickson to Sean Walker. Nice throw, nice catch.
Player of the game so far: Sean Walker/Chris Nickson
Surprise: We roar down the field and score. It looked easy, and Nickson made it so.
Disappointment: None at the moment.

• Redhawks hitting hard.
• Nice catch by Justin Wheeler for a first down.
• Brandon Barden, the Va. Tech transfer, looks good at tight end and moves ball to midfield.
• Nickson's speed is a huge asset against these linebackers; narrowly avoided drive-killing sack deep in Redhawk territory. Hit Walker for TD on next play.


Time: 11:08
Score: 3-0 Miami
Play of the game so far: Jennings fumble in Commodore territory.
Player of the game so far: Redhawk linebackers
Surprise: Commodores don't protect ball and are losing the game in the first four minutes. (But is that really a surprise?)
Disappointment: See above.
Notes: Vandy defense looked fine.


Time: 12:11
Score: 0-0
Play of the game so far: Jeff Jennings fumbles around VU 40.
Player of the game so far: Redhawk linebackers.
Disappointments: Turnover in first 3 minutes

• No names on the backs of the Vanderbilt players. Just a star. They're all stars, get it?


Time: 15:00 first quarter
Score: 0-0

Did Robert Frost really call Miami-Ohio the most beautiful campus there is? Are the Redhawks really the first team ever to have three Butkus watch list linebackers? What's so great about a whiteout (having all your fans wear white) and does it really help you win?


Stay tuned for MORAL VICTORY commentary as the Commodores take it to the Redhawks. Kickoff in six minutes.


Here are my predictions for the SEC. The game of the year will be Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville. I think the winner of that game will beat Auburn in Atlanta and go to the national championship game.

1. Auburn: 10-2 (7-1). Tigers go to Atlanta. Big victory at home over Georgia, losses on road to West Virginia and Bama.
2. Alabama: 9-3 (6-2). Big year. Saban poised for national championship run in ’09. Huge wins over LSU and Auburn.
3. LSU: 7-5 (3-5). A tough schedule and a new QB get the best of the defending national champs.
4. Ole Miss: 5-7 (2-6). Nutt and the Rebels will scare plenty of teams. Remember his first year at Arkansas? And yes, he beats the Razorbacks in Fayetteville.
5. Arkansas: 4-8 (1-7). Razorbacks invest in the future and play a ton of true freshmen.
6. Miss State: 4-8 (1-7). The ball doesn't bounce the Bulldogs' way this year.

1. Florida: 12-0 (8-0). Look out. This team is loaded with burners and knows what it takes to be champs.
2. Georgia: 10-2 (6-2). This team is loaded, too. The schedule though is brutal. This will be a better team that last year's LSU 2-loss champs, but Dawgs won't get the same opportunities.
3. S Carolina: 9-3 (6-2). Gamecocks play their toughest opponents at home. But no, they don't beat Georgia in Columbia.
4. Tennessee: 8-4 (4-4). The toughest 8-4 team in America. And with some breaks, the Vols could end up in the BCS.
5. Vanderbilt: 6-6 (3-5). OK, OK. I've gotta go with my team.
6. Kentucky: 4-8 (1-7). Cats lose a ton of weapons. I say they drop past the Dores.


Well, here's my season preview. Gotta do it before the Commodores play tonight.

We're going 6-6. Here's a breakdown:
Tonight: Beat Mia-O in a close one.
Sept. 6: Lose to South Carolina at home in a defensive struggle.
Sept. 13: Beat Rice at home in a close one.
Sept. 20: Beat Ole Miss in Oxford on the last play of the game. We're 3-1.
Oct. 4: Lose big at home to Auburn.
Oct. 11: Beat Miss State in a slugfest in Starkville.
Oct. 18: Lose to Georgia in Athens in a game that's not as close as the score indicates.
Oct. 25: Beat Duke in a close one in Nashville.
Nov. 8: Lose to Florida but give ’em a fight.
Nov. 15: Beat Kentucky pretty good in Lexington. We're 6-4 and feeling good.
Nov. 22: Lose to a powerful Tennessee team that could easily win any other conference in America.
Nov. 29: Lose to a machine-like Wake Forest team in Winston-Salem.

We finish fifth in the East and eighth overall in the SEC. One of eight conference teams with six wins and we sneak into a bowl game.

Of course, we gotta win tonight, and it'll be a close one. Really close.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


7:30 p.m. ET Thursday, Aug. 28
Yager Stadium (cap. 24,286)
Oxford, Ohio

We've got a lot of questions. Can Chris Nickson return to sophomore form? Can the brand-new O-line gel in the first game? Can Thomas Welch replace C-Williams at left tackle? Can the young wide receivers step up? What about the brand-new linebackers? Can Bryant Hahnfeldt make clutch kicks?

You know, we're a 4.5-point underdog. And that's fine with me. We don't look good on paper. Two returning starters on offense and six on defense (seven if you count the nickel back).

But we've looked good on paper before and we didn't do so hot. I'm thinking about our season opener against this Miami (O) team in 2000, when we gave up two touchdowns in a couple of minutes and lost a heartbreaker.

For this one game, I'm just gonna trust that all those redshirt freshmen and sophomores are as good as advertised. I'm talking about:
• Wide receivers Jamie Graham (R-Fr.) and Udom Umoh (R-Fr.)
• Tight ends Brandon Barden (R-Fr.), Austin Monahan (So.) and Justin Green (R-So.)
• Offensive linemen Joey Bailey (R-So.), Reilly Lauer (R-So.), Kyle Fischer (R-Fr.) and Rob Ashabranner (R-Fr.)
• Defensive linemen Adam Smotherman (R-So.) and T.J. Greenstone (R-Fr.)
• Defensive ends Theron Kadri (So.) and Teriall Brannon (R-So.)
• Linebackers Chris Marve (R-Fr.), John Stokes (So.), Austin Newton (R-So.) and Nate Campbell (R-So.)
• Defensive back Alan Strong (R-So.)

These probably won't be the stars of the game — more than half of them won't even start — but they'll be the ones flying around making a difference.

I think the star will be D.J. Moore. He'll be playing cornerback, of course, but also wide receiver and running back and kick returner and punt returner — and I hope he'll line up behind center some too.

It'll be fun to see all the new guys out there. Especially if we win.

And I think we do.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Just saw on the Tennessean site that Chris Nickson's starting against Miami of Ohio in the Commodores' season opener on Thursday.

Not much of a surprise.

And gotta say I like the decision. Nickson's more athletic, more of a game-breaker, all that. I can't forget his drive two years ago to set up the winning field goal against Georgia in Athens. It was gutsy and great, and came after he'd thrown a couple of picks and could have been down on himself.

Here's the article:

But speaking of being down on himself, last season was one to forget. Looked like the preseason third-team all-SEC that he was (over Tim Tebow and Matthew Stafford!) in the opener against Richmond and then fell apart against Bama in the second game. He couldn't hit the side of a barn. The announcers said he'd hurt his hamstring but he was riding the exercise bike on the sidelines like he was Lance Armstrong. Then it was supposedly his shoulder. I haven't seen anything to explain what really happened to the guy last season.

Bobby Johnson said this today: "Chris is healthy and ready to go, confident."

So maybe it was his confidence.

Whatever it was, I hope he's back. And I'm glad he's starting. With that brand-new line and all those Butkus-nominated RedHawk linebackers, we're gonna need somebody quick on his feet. Adams, evidently not too excited about being No. 2 because he gave no comment through a team spokesperson, seems pretty solid but has struck me as more of a fullback kind of runner.

Anyway, let's put the best ath-o-letes on the field and see what happens.

Actually, I want to see Larry Smith out there, but when the freshman's replacing the senior, that means we're either way ahead, way behind, or we've given up on the season.


The Commodores used to open their seasons with Alabama.

And play hard. And courageously. And lose, of course, but be able to hold their heads high and feel good about their prospects for the season.

Remember Notre Dame in ’96? And Michigan in ’06? Same thing. Moral victories.

Last year, we played Richmond, a I-AA team. Won big. Felt a little bit too good about ourselves. And then something happened to Chris Nickson in the Alabama game and he wasn't the same for the rest of the season. And the Commodores weren't the same.

This opener is different. There will be no blowout. We're going on the road to face a team that played in the MAC championship game and sports a tough-nosed defense. Oh, and maybe you've heard that Vandy has a brand new offensive line.

A loss in this one wouldn't be a moral victory, that's for sure. The Commodores will either win and feel good about their season or lose and feel bad. Remember the Miami (O) season opener in Nashville in 2000? Jamie Winborn and Jimmy Williams were suspended, but were on the field taunting Mike Bath before the game. Bath had planned to play quarterback at Vanderbilt but didn't get a scholarship. So he had a big chip on his shoulder. Pudgy fellow. Didn't look much like a quarterback. Burned us for two touchdowns in three minutes and the RedHawks won 33-30.

That took the wind out of our sails. We'd done everything but send ourselves bowl invitations before the season, and we finished with three victories.

So this game is big.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


So you're Vanderbilt. Everybody's picking you to win two or three games this year. Heck, you're the underdog in Thursday's game at Miami of Ohio.

But you think you're better than that. Fine. So why not just go out and show everybody that you're better than that. I mean, why not sneak up on people?

But no. Broderick Stewart, a junior defensive end for Vanderbilt, told ESPN's Chris Low this week that the Commodore defense is — are you sitting down for this? — the fastest in the nation.

Read Low's entire blog entry at

"Hands down, I think we're the fastest," Stewart told Low. "You'll see. We're going to play really fast."

I don't get it. Tell yourself you're the fastest. Power of positive thinking and all that. But here's a thought: Why not tell other teams you're the slowest? And then you get on the field and they say, "Man, these guys are faster than we thought! I wish I'd prepared better for this game."

But no. You say you're the fastest. Expect to see that quote on bulletin boards in Columbia and Oxford and Auburn and Starkville and Athens and Gainesville and Lexington and — especially — Knoxville.

And congratulations on having the fastest defense in the nation.

Enjoy it while you can.


Know how we said Vanderbilt's capable of pulling off big upsets? Coach Bobby Johnson has four in the past three seasons, and all of them were on the road:

2005: Vanderbilt 28, Arkansas 24 (Fayetteville)
This one had all the makings of a moral victory, with the Commodores playing hard and staying close, then running out of gas in the third quarter and falling behind 24-13. But in the fourth quarter, QB Jay Cutler tossed a pair of TDs to Marlon White and Vandy got out of Fayetteville with a huge upset. Oh, and those two freshmen running backs sitting on the Razorbacks bench were Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.

2005: Vanderbilt 28, Tennessee 24 (Knoxville)
Vanderbilt hadn't beaten Tennessee since, you got it, the magical Hall of Fame Bowl season of 1982. Plenty of moral victories, but no win on the scoreboard, and this one appeared to be no different. The Commodores led at halftime 21-14, then trailed 24-21 with minutes remaining in the game. Jay Cutler's TD pass to Earl Bennett gave Vandy the lead, but the Vols went tearing down the field. We've seen this before. But then we saw something we haven't seen before: A Commodore freshman intercepting a Volunteer pass in the end zone to seal the victory.

2006: Vanderbilt 24, No. 16 Georgia 22 (Athens)
It looked like a classic moral victory. Vanderbilt scored two touchdowns in the third quarter to lead Georgia 21-13 in Athens. But in the fourth quarter, the Dawgs booted a field goal, their third of the game from inside the Commodore 10-yard line, then intercepted a Vandy pass and returned it for a touchdown. Suddenly, the Commodores trailed 22-21. But with the clock ticking, Chris Nickson led Vandy on a 15-play, 65-yard drive that ended with Bryan Hahnfeld's game-winning field goal.

2007: Vanderbilt 17, No. 6 South Carolina 6 (Columbia)
With QB MacKenzie Adams starting his first college game, the Commodores jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter. Then cornerback D.J. Moore, a South Carolina native snubbed by the Gamecocks, picked off a pair of passes and Coach Steve Spurrier cranked up his quarterback carousel. After the game, Spurrier was asked about his offensive line, which had struggled to protect the quarterback. "Well, we can't trade em," he said.

Sure, Vanderbilt has upset teams before. George McIntyre's Commodores beat Alabama in 1984 and tied Georgia in 1985 before getting fired. Watson Brown beat Florida in 1988, but that was a Galen Hall team suffering under the weight of probation. Brown beat LSU in 1990, but that was a Mike Archer team that had a losing record, and Brown was gone at the end of the season. Gerry DiNardo was a vast improvement, beating Georgia in Nashville in 1991 and then three years later humiliating the Eric Zeier/Terrell Davis/Hines Ward-led Bulldogs in Athens on homecoming. Then he put those wins on his resume and got the heck out of dodge.

Friday, August 22, 2008


To post a winning record and go to its first bowl since the magical Hall of Fame Bowl season of 1982, Vanderbilt has got to pull off a couple of upsets.

The Commodores should beat Miami of Ohio on the road Thursday, and Rice and Duke at home later in the season. I didn't say they would, but they should.

That's three wins.

The Commodores could beat Ole Miss and Kentucky on the road. It won't be easy. Ole Miss is loaded thanks to master recruiter/lousy game coach Ed Orgeron, who's trapping gators (with a little "g") in the Bayou right now, and remember what Houston Nutt did in his first season at Arkansas? And Kentucky's been to two or three straight bowl games.

But if it happens, that's five wins.

Which means Vanderbilt has to win one of the following games: South Carolina, Auburn, Miss State, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Wake Forest.


The South Carolina, Auburn, Florida and Tennessee games are at home, but lately the Commodores actually play better on the road.

Anyway, it can be done. We'll run down big victories in Vanderbilt history for you soon.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


...You're gonna work for us someday!

Vanderbilt is the top university in the SEC, according to the annual rankings from U.S. News & World Report. That's university — you know, classrooms and laboratories and debate teams. Not a surprise, really, but it's something to remember in October when the Commodores are playing Auburn and Georgia. Or in November, when the Commodores are playing Florida and Tennessee. (At right, Earl Bennett and Tray Holloway celebrate Vandy's ranking as a top national university in 2005 during their 49-42 moral victory in Gainesville.)

Anyway, here are the SEC rankings, according to USN&WR:

1. Vanderbilt (No. 19 nationally; tied with Notre Dame)
2. Florida (No. 49)
3. Georgia (No. 59; tied with Pittsburgh and Rutgers)
4. Alabama (No. 91; tied with Missouri and Nebraska)
5. Auburn (No. 96; tied with Tennessee and Arizona)
5. Tennessee (No. 96; tied with Auburn and Arizona)
7. South Carolina (No. 112; tied with Florida State and Oregon)
8. Kentucky (No. 122)
9. Arkansas (No. 124)
12. LSU (a Tier 3 university; Vandy is Tier 1 and Nos. 2-9 are Tier 2)
12. Miss State (also Tier 3)
12. Ole Miss (also Tier 3)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


As we head into another college football season, seemingly every expert and fan in America is assuming that every SEC team on Vanderbilt's schedule will get an automatic victory against the Commodores. And I can see why. Consider that Vanderbilt has:

- No starting quarterback six days before its season opener.

- A pedestrian bunch of running backs led by a guy who looks like Harry Potter.

- An untested group of wide receivers... and no Earl Bennett, who now plays for Da Bears.

- No returning starters on the offensive line.

- Only one returning starter on defense who isn't a defensive back.

- A talented, deep, experienced defensive backfield. Which means teams will run the ball.

- An inexperienced defensive line with little depth.

- Some talented linebackers who've never played a college game.

- Oh, and a starting kicker who missed the game-winner against Tennessee and is looking over his shoulder at a freshman.

Not exactly awe-inspiring. But there are an awful lot of redshirt freshmen and third-year sophomores who can play football. Unquestionably, Bobby Johnson has dramatically improved the Commodores' talent and depth and discipline over the past six seasons. That doesn't mean they'll beat Auburn or Tennessee or Georgia or Florida -- or even Ole Miss or Wake Forest -- this season, but it does mean those other teams shouldn't assume a victory just yet.


With the magical Hall of Fame Bowl season a distant memory, Coach Woody Widenhofer goes down in a blaze of glory with three moral victories to start the new millenium. Then new coach Bobby Johnson rips off nine in his first six seasons — including six moral victories in the last two years. Here it is:

2000 — Vanderbilt 26, No. 25 Tennessee 28 (Nashville)

So the Commodores are hosting the Volunteers, and as usual the crowd is about 85 percent Tennessee fans. Sad but true. And the Vanderbilt chancellor appears on the giant screen in his bow tie and spectacles and welcomes the fans from Knoxville. And then he pokes a finger in the air and says, "This... is... our... house!" And everybody wearing orange laughs and laughs.

2001 — Vanderbilt 9, Alabama 10 (Nashville)
So the Commodores are leading 9-3 late in the game. And they have the ball deep in Crimson Tide territory. And quarterback Greg Zolman pitches the ball and goes out for a pass and he's wide open and he... drops the ball. Alabama roars down the field and scores.

2001 — Vanderbilt 21, Auburn 24 (Nashville)
Vandy's got the ball on fourth and short in Auburn territory. After much debate, the Commodore kicker trots out on the field to try to tie the game. But it's a fake and the holder is running the option and he pitches... to the kicker. Who gets killed. Game over.

2002 — Vanderbilt 17, No. 23 Florida 23 (Nashville)
If any Gator coach besides Galen Hall was capable of losing to the Commodores, it was Ron Zook. Almost.

2004 — Vanderbilt 33, No. 15 Tennessee 38 (Nashville)
At the end of his third straight two-win season, Coach Bobby Johnson continued the Commodore tradition of almost beating the Volunteers.

2005 — Vanderbilt 42, No. 13 Florida 49 (2OT) (Gainesville)
Future NFL quarterback Jay Cutler got hot in Gainesville and tossed a TD pass to future NFL wideout Earl Bennett at the end of the game. While Coach Johnson was drawing up a two-point play to win in regulation, Bennett drew a hotly debated penalty for giving the six-shooter symbol. So Vanderbilt kicked and tied the game. And lost in double overtime.

2006 — Vanderbilt 10, Alabama 13 (Tuscaloosa)
Great game. Commodores look great. Well, except for that long Crimson Tide field goal at the end of the game.

2006 — Vanderbilt 19, Arkansas 21 (Nashville)
In yet another legendary moral victory game, the Vandy kicker boots what looks like the game winning field goal as time expires. But the wind blows the ball back. I'm not kidding. The wind blows the ball back. Arkansas wins.

2006 — Vanderbilt 19, No. 7 Florida 25 (Nashville)
Florida would stomp Ohio State in the national championship game. But the Gators would nearly lose to Vanderbilt in Nashville.

2007 — Vanderbilt 17, Georgia 20 (Nashville)
A year after actually beating the Dawgs in Athens, Vanderbilt leads 17-14 late in the game and has a running back streaking toward the end zone. Until he gets hit hard. And fumbles the football. The Dawgs tie the game with a field goal. And then win it as time expires with another one. And then the Georgia players actually stomp on the Vanderbilt star at midfield. Are you kidding?

2007 — Vanderbilt 20, No. 17 Kentucky 27 (Nashville)
The Commodores outgain the high-powered Wildcat team that had beaten eventual national champion LSU and for much of the game outscore them too. Losses to Kentucky are rarely moral victories, but maybe this one is.

2007 — Vanderbilt 24, No. 19 Tennessee 25 (Knoxville)
The Commodores lead the Volunteers 24-9 going into the fourth quarter. But a roughing the punter penalty sparks the Vols to a touchdown. And another touchdown. And a field goal and the lead. Vandy battles back and kicks a 49-yard field goal as time expires. No good. Another moral victory.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


As the magical Hall of Fame Bowl season of 1982 faded into the past, the Commodores continued to stack up moral victories like firewood. In the ’90s, ten straight moral victories happened in the state of Tennessee. But in its last moral victory of the millennium, Vandy went down to the Swamp and wiped that smirk off Steve Spurrier's face. For a couple of minutes. Here's the ’ 90s:

1990 — Vanderbilt 13, No. 17 Ole Miss 14 (Nashville)
Few losses to Ole Miss are moral victories. But the Commodores had one of their worst teams (and that's saying something), Coach Watson Brown was being shown the door, and the Rebels were in the Top 20.

1991 — Vanderbilt 14, LSU 16 (Baton Rouge)

In his first trip to Tiger Stadium, Coach Gerry DiNardo dang near pulled off a huge upset. The next time he put on the headphones in Baton Rouge, he was the LSU coach.

1991 — Vanderbilt 22, No. 24 Auburn 24 (Nashville)

In hindsight, winning this one would have put the Commodores in a bowl. The close loss sparked them to four straight wins and a 5-6 record.

1992 — Vanderbilt 25, No. 18 Tennessee 29 (Nashville)

Another close loss to Tennessee, but there would be many more where this one came from.

1993 — Vanderbilt 10, No. 23 Auburn 14 (Nashville)
Again, a home win over Auburn would have put the Commodores in a bowl. Auburn finished with an undefeated season and expectations too high for new coach Terry Bowden to meet.

1995 — Vanderbilt 25, No. 11 Alabama 33 (Nashville, Tenn.)
The Commodores went toe to toe with another powerful Tide team, lead by Shaun Alexander, and fell by a touchdown and a two-point conversion.

1995 — Vanderbilt 7, No. 5 Tennessee 12 (Knoxville, Tenn.)

The Commodores kept sophomore Peyton Manning out of the end zone and actually led 7-6 late in the game.

1996 — Vanderbilt 7, No. 6 Notre Dame 14 (Nashville, Tenn.)

The Commodores switch to a pro-style offense but still have high-school-style offensive players. A Hail Mary gives Vandy a 7-7 tie late in the game, but Notre Dame drives down the field and wins as time expires.

1996 — Vanderbilt 21, No. 1 Florida 28 (Nashville, Tenn.)

No other SEC team would come closer to beating national champion Florida than the Commodore defense, which featured four future NFL players including Jamie Duncan, who returned a fumble for a touchdown.

1996 — Vanderbilt 7, No. 9 Tennessee 14 (Nashville, Tenn.)

Again, the Commodores keep Peyton Manning, now a junior, out of the end zone. The legendary Vols QB would finish with 163 yards passing, sub-50-percent completions and an interception.

1997 — Vanderbilt 6, No. 13 LSU 7 (Nashville, Tenn.)

In a game that would go down in moral victory history, the Commodores score as time expires and boldly decide to go for two and the win. But while drawing up a play, they're called for delay of game. And then another delay of game. So they line up to kick a long extra point and go to overtime. No good.

1997 — Vanderbilt 10, No. 9 Tennessee 17 (Knoxville, Tenn.)

Peyton Manning actually throws a TD pass, but his last game against the Commodores is also one of the worst of his career. He completes 12 of 27 for 159 yards and an interception.

1999 — Vanderbilt 6, No. 5 Florida 13 (Gainesville, Fla.)
Nobody expected Vandy to beat Florida in the Swamp, but they dang near did. The Gators couldn't score through the air, and the Commodores had the ball deep in Florida territory when time expired. Spurrier wasn't smiling, but one of his future quotes would ring true: "Vanderbilt doesn't have a talent problem; they have a winning problem."

Monday, August 18, 2008


Since the magical Hall of Fame Bowl season of 1982, Vanderbilt has lost a whopping 34 times to Top 20 teams or traditional SEC powers by a touchdown or less. Here's the ’80s:

1983 — Vanderbilt 14, No. 17 Maryland 21 (Nashville)
The Commodores hold Boomer Esiason’s Terrapins to three touchdowns. But score two.

1983 — Vanderbilt 13, No. 8 Georgia 20 (Nashville)
At game's end, Vandy has three shots at the end zone. That sound you hear is Larry Munson hollering, “Terry Hoage! Terry Hoage! Terry Hoage!”

1984 — Vanderbilt 23, No. 19 Tulane 27 (Nashville)
OK, so Tulane doesn’t put fear into anybody these days. But back then the Green Waves or whatever they’re called were in the Top 20. Yes, they were.

1984 — Vanderbilt 27, No. 12 LSU 34 (Baton Rouge, La.)
Sure, Tiger Stadium's scary at night and all that. Still, the Commodores get themselves a Moreauxl Victory.

1987 — Vanderbilt 13, No. 17 Alabama 20 (Nashville)
Vandy's Chris Donnelly played so well that the Crimson Tide let him transfer and start for their 1991 national championship team.

1987 — Vanderbilt 36, Tennessee 38 (Knoxville)
With the freewheeling Eric Jones at the helm, the Commodores racked up some points in Knoxville. The defense was pretty freewheeling, too.

1988 — Vanderbilt 7, Tennessee 14 (Nashville)
With the freewheeling Eric Jones at the helm, the Commodores... oh nevermind.

1989 — Vanderbilt 14, No. 13 Alabama 20 (Nashville)
Early in a miserable season, Vandy gets a moral victory. It would not be the last.

1989 — Vanderbilt 10, No. 8 Tennessee 17 (Knoxville)
The one-win Commodores nearly beat the one-loss Volunteers. But symmetry is maintained and nothing changes.


You can’t get moral victories without being a huge underdog.

Rocky Balboa was a huge underdog.

He didn’t even belong in the ring with Apollo Creed. But Rocky went 15 rounds with the champ. He didn’t win — at least not in the first “Rocky” — but he got himself a nice moral victory. And Adrian, too.

Yep, old Rock got to win a moral victory because everybody thought he was a bum.

Think about it. Florida isn’t allowed moral victories. Ever. Neither is Georgia, Auburn, LSU, Tennessee or Alabama. Their fans expect to win every game, even when their team isn’t favored to win. And if those teams don’t win, the fans talk about firing the coach — or at least the offensive coordinator. And revoking everybody’s scholarship and getting better players.

The Vanderbilt Commodores get to win moral victories because everybody thinks they’re bums. Don’t believe it? Consider this:

• You can buy Vanderbilt season tickets for less than $100. You can’t buy a season parking pass at the University of Georgia for less than $200.

• Since 2001, the Commodores have graciously put their neighbors, the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders, on their schedule three times. And lost to them three times.

• The media guides at Alabama and Florida boast of national championships. This year’s Vanderbilt media guide boasts: "The competitive Commodores have captured 14 wins from 2005-2007, the most by Vanderbilt in a three-year period since 1992-1994."

• The Commodores have gone longer than any other BCS-conference team without getting a bowl bid. Last bowl: The 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl. Against Air Force. We lost.

• Tennessee fans want to fire Phil Fulmer because he only won 10 games last season. Vanderbilt’s Bobby Johnson has won 20 games… in six seasons.

• A past Vanderbilt team motto: “Have Fun and Expect to Win.”

• The player with the longest run in Vanderbilt history was ... drumroll, please ... a punter.

Best of all, we don’t even need to win to feel like we won.

Kind of like Rocky.


I know all about moral victories.

And I should, because I’m a Vanderbilt fan.
When I was a Vandy student, I made the pilgrimage to Knoxville for our 1989 game with Tennessee. We were 1-9. The Volunteers were 9-1.

I expected a bit of gracious condescension from our hosts. After all, they were big and powerful and we were small and weak.

It was November in Knoxville. Some of us were wearing Vanderbilt sweatshirts or ballcaps. It wasn't like we had our faces painted or anything.

Still, an orange-clad fan got in our faces and hollered, “We’re gonna kill you!”


I mean, what was there to debate? We were 1-9. They were 9-1. Of course they were going to kill us.

But a funny thing happened. The game started and the Vols didn’t kill us. In fact, we were winning 10-3 going into the fourth quarter. And more than 100,000 fans were groaning. It was a beautiful sound.

It didn’t last, of course. Tennessee’s Carl Pickens caught a touchdown pass and the game was tied and then he intercepted another pass to set up the winning touchdown and then it was over. We lost 17-10.

We’re driving back to Nashville and a guy in an old orange Camaro pulls alongside us and gestures for us to roll down the window. We do. And he smiles as if he’s going to say something graciously condescending.

And then he screams, “We kicked your ass!” And he puts the pedal to the metal and blows away our Honda Accord.

We laughed. Tennessee hadn’t kicked our ass. Instead, we had scared the daylights out of them. We were supposed to get whipped, and we’d almost won.

In fact, we had won. We’d won a moral victory.

And there’d be plenty more where those came from.