Sunday, November 30, 2008

Weekly rankings and bowl projections from around the SEC: Vanderbilt still being given Liberty

Now there's a clear pecking order among the bowl-eligible teams from the SEC:
1. Alabama-Florida winner
2. Alabama-Florida loser
3. Georgia
4. Ole Miss
5. South Carolina (tie)
5. LSU (tie)
7. Vanderbilt
8. Kentucky

Later this week, I'll have a breakdown of Larry Smith's performance and tell you why I'm optimistic about this Vanderbilt team next season. And between now and the bowl game, check us out for lots of interesting analysis and insight, including top Commodore plays from this season, some individual awards, possible starting lineups for next season and much more.

In the meantime, here's our weekly update on rankings and bowl projections in the SEC:

ALABAMA (12-0, 8-0)
BCS ranking: 1
AP/USA Today: 1/1
Remaining game: Florida (Georgia Dome) on Nov. 6
Best Bowl: National Championship Game
Worst Bowl: Sugar Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Sugar Bowl vs. Utah
ESPN's Schlabach: National Championship Game vs. Texas
ESPN's Feldman: Sugar Bowl vs. Utah
ESPN's Chris Low: Sugar Bowl
SI's Stewart Mandel: Sugar vs. Utah

FLORIDA (11-1, 7-1)
BCS ranking: 4
AP/USA Today: 2/4
Remaining game: Alabama (Georgia Dome) on Nov. 6
Best Bowl: National Championship Game
Worst Bowl: Sugar Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: National Championship Game vs. Oklahoma
ESPN's Schlabach: Sugar Bowl vs. Utah
ESPN's Feldman: National Championship vs. Oklahoma
ESPN's Chris Low: National Championship Game
SI's Stewart Mandel: National Championship vs. Oklahoma

GEORGIA (9-3, 6-2)
BCS ranking: 16
AP/USA Today: 17/19
Best Bowl: Capital One Bowl
Worst Bowl: Cotton Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Capital One Bowl vs. Michigan State
ESPN's Schlabach: Capital One vs. Michigan State
ESPN's Feldman: Capital One vs. Michigan State
ESPN's Chris Low: Capital One Bowl
SI's Stewart Mandel: Capital One vs. Michigan State

OLE MISS (8-4, 5-3)
BCS ranking: Not ranked
AP/USA Today: 22/25
Best Bowl: Capital One Bowl
Worst Bowl: Cotton Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Cotton Bowl vs. Texas Tech
ESPN's Schlabach: Cotton Bowl vs. Texas Tech
ESPN's Feldman: Cotton Bowl vs. Texas Tech
ESPN's Chris Low: Cotton Bowl
SI's Stewart Mandel: Cotton vs. Texas Tech

LSU (7-5, 3-5)
BCS ranking: NR
Best Bowl: Outback Bowl
Worst Bowl: Chick-Fil-A Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Chick-Fil-A vs. Florida State
ESPN's Schlabach: Chick-Fil-A vs. Virginia Tech
ESPN's Feldman: Outback vs. Iowa
ESPN's Chris Low: Chick-Fil-A Bowl
SI's Stewart Mandel: Chick-Fil-A vs. Georgia Tech

BCS ranking: NR
Best Bowl: Outback Bowl
Worst Bowl: Chick-Fil-A Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Outback Bowl vs. Northwestern
ESPN's Schlabach: Outback vs. Iowa
ESPN's Feldman: Chick-Fil-A vs. Virginia Tech
ESPN's Chris Low: Outback Bowl
SI's Stewart Mandel: Outback vs. Iowa

VANDERBILT (6-6, 4-4)
BCS ranking: NR
Best Bowl: Chick-Fil-A Bowl
Worst Bowl: Liberty Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Music City vs. North Carolina
ESPN's Schlabach: Music City vs. Clemson
ESPN's Feldman: Music City vs. North Carolina
ESPN's Chris Low: Liberty Bowl
SI's Stewart Mandel: Music City vs. Va. Tech

KENTUCKY (6-6, 2-6)
BCS ranking: NR
AP/USA Today: NR
Best Bowl: Music City Bowl
Worst Bowl: Liberty Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Liberty vs. East Carolina
ESPN's Schlabach: Liberty vs. Tulsa
ESPN's Feldman: Liberty vs. Tulsa
ESPN's Chris Low: Music City Bowl
SI's Stewart Mandel: Liberty vs. Tulsa

• TENNESSEE (5-7, 3-5)
• ARKANSAS (5-7, 2-6)
• AUBURN (5-7, 2-6)
• MISS STATE (4-8, 2-6)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

LIVE! UPDATE: Larry Smith finishes out the game for Vanderbilt

Now Larry's back in with 3 minutes left.

Oh, and the ball's on the 3 yard line thanks to a stupid penalty on Gaston on the kickoff.

• Larry to DJ, a short gain.
• Larry to Barden, who drops it.
• Larry almost throws another pick.
• Going for it on 4th & 4 on our own 9. Larry fires a pass to Wheeler who dives and gets it.
• Larry to Sean Walker who actually catches the ball.
• 1st & 10 on the VU25 with 2:10 left. Larry to Wheeler again, for 3. Timeout Vanderbilt.
• 2nd & 7. Larry fires an incomplete pass.
• 3rd & 7 on the 28. Larry sacked.
• 4th & 12. Larry under pressure and throws incomplete.

So we're gonna lose. But I'm glad Larry Smith got some playing time and I'm glad we're going to a bowl. We can take our pick between the Liberty and Music City bowls.

LIVE! UPDATE: Larry Smith back on the attack for Vanderbilt

Third and 5 on the 17 and Larry throws a swing pass to Kennard. Now we're punting.

There's still time, 9:35. Upson just had a punt partially blocked. I'll be back when Larry's back.

OK, Larry's back.

• 1st & 10 on our own 3 yard line. Yikes.
• Walker gets 7.
• Now it's 3rd & 2 on the 11. Graham hands off to Walker who picks up the first down.
• Kennard Reeves gets a first down but Jake Bradford was called for holding.
• 1st & 17 on the VU7.
• Smith gets 2 on the keeper.
• 2nd & 15. Larry needs to throw. Long throw to Sean Walker. Who drops it. It was a beautiful throw. Smith can throw it downfield, unlike anybody else we have. He needs to throw to DJ, the only decent deep threat we have. Time out, Vanderbilt.

There's nobody in the stands. People put down Vanderbilt's fan support, but I think it's a private school thing: smaller student body, fewer alumni living in the state.

• 3rd & 15. False start. Smith intercepted. That's OK. We needed Larry to get some experience and we did. We should have gotten Larry experience when we were getting plastered by Florida or last week against Tennessee.

LIVE! UPDATE: Larry Smith throws a touchdown for Vanderbilt

God bless you, Bobby Johnson. He decides to go for it on fourth down, and Larry Smith fires a touchdown pass to Brandon Barden.

A great, great call. And Larry's got the entire month of December to practice with the first team offense.

LIVE! UPDATE: Larry Smith throws his first bomb for Vanderbilt

Larry just threw his first long ball. He's got a cannon. Incomplete to Walker who sort of stopped in the end zone and let it go over his head.

Now Larry gets 8 on the keeper.

• 3rd & 2. Larry throws a nice pass to Brandon Barden who gets the first down. 3:05.
• 1st & 10 on the WF35. Kennard Reeves rips off 9 yards. He hasn't run in a long, long time.
• 2nd & 1 on the WF26. Kennard picks up 14 yards. Wow.
• 1st & 10 on the WF12. Reeves spinning and driving for about 5.
• 2nd & 5 on the WF7. Larry gets a couple.
• 3rd & 4. Reeves clobbered. Don't be afraid to let Larry pass.
• End of the quarter. We're on the 5, and we're gonna kick a field goal.

How about we play to win. I'll be back when Larry's on the field.

LIVE! UPDATE: The future is now: Larry Smith is running the show for Vanderbilt

Glad to see Bobby Johnson has put Larry Smith in the game. I don't really expect to win this game with a freshman quarterback playing his first game on the road in this kind of lousy weather, but I love it that we're playing him. I mean, what are we going to do next season? We've got our bowl, so let's get Larry some experience and do even better next season.

Here are some facts about Larry:

No. 10
Redshirt freshman
6-foot-2, 215 pounds
Prattville, Ala.

• The coaches have been talking about this guy for two years.
• Has a good arm and can really run.
• Started for three years at quarterback for Alabama powerhouse Prattville High, and led the Lions to the 6A state championship as a senior.
• Never lost a regular season game in three years as a starter.
• His dad Larry Sr. is an aerospace science instructor and his mom Pamela's a computer technician.
• Like Chris Nickson, he was Alabama's Mr. Football.

The score's now 17-3 Wake Forest. I'd be mad if we were doing the same old thing with the same old guys. But Larry Smith's in the game.

LIVE! UPDATE: Larry Smith's in the game for Vanderbilt!

Good news and bad news:

• Wake fumbles on the first play of the second half. That's the good news.
• Then he hands off to Jennings, nice handoff, and Wake punches the ball out and gets the fumble.
• Now our defense is generally stopping their offense. Steven Stone looks good. Our D looks fast and good. It's 3rd & 7 on the VU 42. Stone sacks Skinner who loses the ball but Wake gets it. Wake punting. Washington fair catches.


• Larry shakes and bakes and picks up 4. 2nd & 6.
• Larry wrapped up for a loss.
• 3rd & 8. Larry throws to Sean. Short of the first down, but Larry's got the first completion of his career.
• Upson punting.

We've still got a chance here. I'm going to take a break, have a cold beverage, and be back to track Larry's progress.

LIVE! UPDATE: Vanderbilt at Wake Forest: Halftime: WF 10-3

So instead of leading 10-3, we throw a pick on the two yard line, let Wake march down for a TD and now we're losing 10-3.

• Nickson back in, pitches to Graham who gets a first down on the spread option.
• 1st & 10 on the VU43. Nickson throws to Justin Wheeler, who drops it. Put in DJ. Smith and Wheeler are not SEC caliber receivers, though the throw could have been better.
• 2nd & 10. Nickson running for his life on a broken play, gets a first down on a brilliant darting run.
• 1st & 10 on the WF45. Graham at quarterback, Nickson at wide receiver, DJ takes the handoff. Gain of 7. I like it. Let's get on the backs of our best athletes.
• 2nd & 3. Graham crushed for a 2-yard loss. This is a good Wake defense.
• 3rd & 6. We're going backwards. Nickson diving for the first down and fumbles but he's being called down. They better run another play quick because he fumbled just like he did last week against Tennessee. Now it's under review. That was a fumble, I do believe. But the play stands. Wow.
• 4th & 2 on the 36. And we're punting. I wish we'd play to win. If we give up another score this game is over.

• Pendergrass picks up a yard or so. DJ Boldin has the first down. If we don't stop Wake on this drive, this game is over. But I've already said that.
• 1st & 10. Fullback gets a couple.
• 2nd & 7 on the WF33. Skinner on the run. A yard short of a first down.
• 3rd & 1 on the WF39. Tim Fugger stops Adams a yard short. That was a huge play, or could be.
• 4th & 1. Punting.

• 1st & 10 on the VU20. Jennings picks up 2. He's just not as good a runner as Graham.
• 2nd & 8 on the VU22. Nickson keeps for 2. Now he's coming out for Adams. It's 3rd & 6. Adams is sacked. Now he's clutching his arm and now his shoulder. The announcers are second-guessing Johnson for putting Adams in the game but these guys are clueless. Adams isn't the answer and Nickson isn't the answer so maybe both of them can take turns. But now Adams is hurt. Hey, let's put in Larry Smith.
• Now we're punting. Upson got roughed. That's the advantage of having weak punt coverage is that other teams think they can get a block on us and then they rough the punter just like Kentucky did.
• 1st & 10 on the VU25. Nickson is back. He jukes and jives for about 4. Can DJ or Jamie throw the ball?
• 2nd & 6 on the VU29. Nickson throws to Sean Walker for a first down with 1:35 left in the half.
• 1st & 10 on the VU39. Incomplete screen to Graham.
• 2nd & 10. Another screen to Graham, but this one good for 8 yards. 1:20 left.
• 3rd & 2 on the VU47. We're 1 for 6 on 3rd down conversions. Make that 1 for 7. Almost intercepted.
• We're punting. This time they do block it. Hello! We've kind of got a problem here!

• Skinner throws it away instead of being sacked by Stone.
• 2nd & 10. Skinner in trouble and throws it away again.
• 3rd & 10 on the VU36. Skinner hit as he throws and its incomplete.
• This would be a heck of a long field goal. 47 seconds left. Wake time out.
• Swank's trying a 53-yarder. It's short.

• 1st & 10 on the VU. Nickson runs about 20 yards and gets 1.
• 2nd & 9 on the 37. Nickson throws incomplete to Wheeler.
• 3rd & 9. So we run. Now we're punting. Or trying to punt. Sweet punt to the one yard line. It was a 60 yarder. It hooked at the end zone.

• Wake falls on the ball and the half's over.

That was ugly.

Player of the game: The entire Commodore defense

Play of the game: Swank short on a 53-yard FG attempt for Wake

LIVE! UPDATE: Vanderbilt at Wake Forest: Second quarter: WF 10-3

So we've been in the red zone twice and come away with three points. We used to lead the nation in red zone offense. We also used to be 5-0.

Well, the Commodores are in Winston-Salem and it's tied up 3-3.

• 3rd & 5 on the WF8. Complete to DJ Boldin.
• 1st & 10 on the WF 19. Halfback pass and Ryan Hamilton should have had the pick. That ball's slippery.
• 2nd & 10. Boldin dropped after a yard.
• 3rd & 9 on the WF 20. The rain's really coming down. Pass complete for 26 yards.
• 1st & 10 on the WF47. Pendergrass gets 3.
• 2nd & 7 on the 50. Fullback gets a first down.
• 1st & 10 on the VU40. Boldin gets 5 on the reverse.
• 2nd & 5 on the VU35. First down by Pendergrass. They're really moving the ball on us. And we can't move the ball on them.
• 1st & 10 on the VU28. First down pass. Wake is toying with us. I wish we had a quarterback like Skinner. I wish we had a quarterback.
• 1st & 10 on the VU6. Touchdown Pendergrass. That's as bad as our defense has looked all year. Wake's not a great team — on par with Rice — but we can't answer them.

LIVE! UPDATE: Vanderbilt at Wake Forest: First quarter: Still 3-3

Tied 3-3. Here we go:

• DJ Moore takes a swing pass and goes 52 yards. 1st & 10 on the WF25. Another false start, the third of the game. What the heck is going on? I didn't think we made penalties.
• 1st & 15 on the WF30. Mac throws an interception on the goal line. Going for George Smith but the throw was weak.

• Marve makes a nice stop. That's the first quarter, and we're tied 3-3. DJ's gonna have to play the whole game.

LIVE! UPDATE: Vanderbilt at Wake Forest: First quarter: Tied 3-3

We're leading. Hey, we're underdogs and it's a night game, right?

Here we go:

• 1st & 10 on 20. First down on a nice run by Anquan Boldin's little brother DJ.
• 1st & 10 on the WF32. Short run. 2nd & 9. Pass to Boldin. 3rd & 5. Boldin gets 9 on the screen. That dog can hunt. But he did drop that punt that led to our score.
• 1st & 10. Now 2nd & 7 at the 50. Gain of 1. 3rd & 6. Skinner has lots of time and throws to Josh Adams who gets 30. Wake has a good offensive line, and our rush looks non-existent.
• 1st & 10. Adams gets 4. 2nd & 6 on the VU15. Adams tripped up. 3rd down again. 3rd & 5 on the VU14.
• Nice pressure. Flag in the end zone. Good coverage by Myron Lewis and it was offensive interference. 3rd & 20. Nice stop on a screen by Hamilton. This ESPNU announcing crew is terrible; Myron was clearly interfered with, they showed it four times, and the announcers don't understand what happened. I think they're drunk. Just thought you'd like to know.
• Wake's Sam Swank hits a long field goal. Tied 3-3.

LIVE! UPDATE: Vanderbilt at Wake Forest: First quarter: VU 3-0

Here we go:

• Nice kick return by Gaston Miller.
• Short run.
• Nickson short-hops a pass to Sean Walker.
• 3rd & 8 on the 45. Another horrible looking pass by Nickson. OK, put in Adams.
• Punt. Ryan Hamilton is down on the field. That's not good. 13:53.

• Hamilton's walking off the field.
• Wake running back off to the races for 15 yards. Could we be signing off at halftime this week too?
• 1st & 10 on the WF45. Teddy Pendergrass picks up a couple. Actually I made up his first name. It's Brandon but I like Teddy better.
• 2nd & 8. Short run. 3rd & 8. Thrown out of bounds.
• Punt. Alex Washington takes a fair catch.

• Graham lines up at running back and drops the ball but falls on it. Nickson is hurt on the field. Now he's jogging off and Mac's in the game.
• 2nd & 12 on the VU9. Mac throws over George Smith's head. We look like the 116th ranked offense in the nation.
• 3rd & 12. Pass out of the backfield to Graham who's close to a first down. And now the Demon Deacs are flagged for a personal foul.
• 1st & 10... make that 1st & 15. Brandon Barden called for a false start. On the VU32. Adams fumbles the snap then throws it to nobody. He's a pinpoint passer but doesn't have a strong arm.
• 2nd & 15. Jamie Graham takes the pitch and gets a first down. I'm loving Jamie at tailback.
• 1st & 10 at the VU47. Barden bobbles a pass and it's almost intercepted. Barden's had shaky hands as of late.
• 2nd & 10. Jennings takes the pitch but there's a penalty. Barden called for a false start again. He didn't come to play.
• 2nd & 15 on the VU42. Bad pass to Jennings out of the flat. You know Wake Forest leads the nation in takeaways?
• 3rd & 15. Adams throws it to George Smith who steps out of bounds... about 11 yards short of a first down. Can Mackenzi throw the ball farther than 5 yards downfield.
• Wake returner calls fair catch and drops the punt. And Sean Richardson the freshman has it.
• 1st & 10 on the 20. Jamie breaks tackles and gets about 4.
• 2nd & 6. Adams can't hit Jamie Graham.
• 3rd & 6 on the WF16. Adams hits Walker but his foots on the back line of the end zone. Nice try.
• Field goal's good. That's only the second time all season we've scored first — and that was when we beat Kentucky.

Player of the game so far: Jamie Graham
Play of the game: The fumble recovery by Sean Richardson, who'll fill Reshard Langford's shoes nicely next season.

LIVE! UPDATE: Vanderbilt at Wake Forest: Kickoff

Mike Gottfried in the ESPNU studio just said he expects Nickson to play well tonight. So Chris Nickson's playing instead of Mackenzi Adams? I thought Mac was starting but maybe I've eaten too much turkey.

I haven't done much analysis of this game because there's no way to know if the Commodores offense is going to show up or not.

Here's what I hope to see:

• Nickson running the ball a lot. Could he line up at running back?
• DJ Moore playing wide receiver and going deep.
• Adams and Nickson rotating.

Vanderbilt comfortable in the underdog role

So the Commodores are a 3 1/2 point underdog to Wake Forest. This will be the ninth time this year that the Commodores are the dogs.

Not to worry. Vanderbilt is 6-2 as the underdog, and the two losses came to Georgia and Florida.

But when the Commodores are favored to win, they're 0-3.

So I'm glad we're the underdogs. And I'm glad the game's played at night, when we're 6-1.

Today's games going Vanderbilt's way

Alabama's just about to finish bouncing Auburn out of the bowl picture, and locking up a BCS berth for themselves.

Florida's rolling over Florida State and locking up a BCS berth for themselves too.

South Carolina got handled pretty good by Clemson.

If Vanderbilt can beat Wake Forest tonight, the Commodores will be 7-5, as will the Gamecocks and the LSU Tigers. So Vanderbilt's competing against South Carolina and LSU for a bid in the Outback and the Chick-Fil-A bowls, and the loser will drop to the Liberty or Music City bowls.

The choice will be up to the bowls.

But if Vanderbilt loses to Wake tonight, there won't be any guessing to do: the Commodores will be going to a bowl in Tennessee.

Who Vanderbilt fans should root for today — Part Deux

Alabama's gotta beat Auburn today, or Vanderbilt fans could be headed to lesser bowls in Shreveport or Birmingham instead of Memphis, Nashville or Atlanta. So root for the Crimson Tide today, as hard as that may be for you.

Here's the highest and lowest the Commodores could fall in the bowl picture:

BEST SCENARIO: This could happen if Vanderbilt and Alabama win; South Carolina doesn't have to lose, but it might help. You may be wondering why I didn't just go ahead and put us in the Outback, which has an SEC East tie-in. That's because South Carolina fans will be more likely to make the trip down to Tampa, and there's a pretty good Vanderbilt contingent in Atlanta.

1. BCS Bowl: Florida (12-1)
2. BCS Bowl: Alabama (12-1)
3. Capital One Bowl: Georgia (10-2)
4. Cotton Bowl: Ole Miss (8-4)
4. Outback Bowl: South Carolina (7-5)
6. Chick-Fil-A Bowl: Vanderbilt (7-5)
7. Music City Bowl: LSU (7-5)
7. Liberty Bowl: Kentucky (6-6)
9. Independence Bowl: Unocccupied
10. Bowl: Unoccupied

WORST SCENARIO: This could happen if Alabama loses its next two games and Vanderbilt loses tonight. A Kentucky win over Tennessee wouldn't help matters.

1. BCS Bowl: Florida (12-1)
2. BCS Bowl: Unoccupied
3. Capital One Bowl: Alabama (10-2)
4. Cotton Bowl: Ole Miss (8-4)
4. Outback Bowl: Georgia (9-3)
6. Chick-Fil-A Bowl: South Carolina (8-4)
7. Music City Bowl: LSU (7-4)
7. Liberty Bowl: Kentucky (7-4)
9. Independence Bowl: Auburn (6-6)
10. Bowl: Vanderbilt (6-6)

Friday, November 28, 2008

Who Vanderbilt fans should root for this weekend (besides Vanderbilt)

This is the time of year when teams depend on the kindness of others. For example, if Virginia beats Virginia Tech tomorrow, then Georgia Tech goes to the ACC Championship Game. And if Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma, then Texas Tech goes to the Big 12 Championship Game, regardless of how badly they got thrashed by the Sooners.

The Commodores have smaller potatoes at stake — or in the spirit of the holidays, smaller sweet potatoes — but for Vanderbilt fans it's a big deal. Everybody's saying the Commodores are headed for the Liberty Bowl, but the results of college football games today and tomorrow could change that. By late Saturday, the Commodores could be rising toward the Chick-Fil-A Bowl or — gasp! — descending toward the depths of the Bowl.

Sure, they help themselves with a win over Wake Forest tomorrow night, but they need other teams to help them too.

Right now, here's the bowl pecking order:
• Nos. 1-2: Alabama (11-0) and Florida (10-1). One's apparently headed to the National Championship Game, the other to the Sugar Bowl.
• No. 3: Georgia (9-2). Written in ink for the Capital One Bowl.
• Nos. 4-6: Ole Miss (7-4), South Carolina (7-4), LSU (7-4). One's headed to the Cotton Bowl, one to the Outback Bowl, the other to Chick-Fil-A.
• Nos. 7-8: Vanderbilt (6-5) and Kentucky (6-5). One's headed to the Liberty Bowl, the other to Music City.
• No. 9: Unoccupied. Would go to the Independence Bowl.
• No. 10: Unoccupied. Would go to the Bowl.

Here's how Vanderbilt could rise in the pecking order, but it would also take a bowl committee that loves an underdog and somehow believes Commodore fans of the world would unite and actually attend their game:

• Clemson whips South Carolina on Saturday.
• OR Miss State whips Ole Miss today.
• OR Arkansas whips LSU today.
• AND Alabama beats Auburn on Saturday.
• AND Florida State beats Florida on Saturday.
• AND Vanderbilt whips Wake Forest on Saturday.

In other words, Alabama and Florida remain on course to occupy two BCS berths, Auburn fails to become bowl eligible, and Vanderbilt finishes 7-5, same as Ole Miss, South Carolina and LSU. And then a bowl, probably the Chick-Fil-A, opts for the Commodores, which beat the Rebels and the Gamecocks head to head.

Here's how Vanderbilt could fall in the pecking order:
• Auburn beats Alabama on Saturday.
• AND/OR Florida State beats Florida.
• AND Oregon State beats Oregon on Saturday (if Alabama or Florida lose).
• AND Kentucky beats Tennessee on Saturday.
• AND Vanderbilt loses to Wake Forest.
• AND Rice beats Houston and then wins the C-USA Championship.

The most important game is the one being played in Tuscaloosa. If Alabama wins on Saturday, then Auburn finishes with seven losses and the Commodores are probably headed to the Liberty or Music City bowls whether they win or lose on Saturday at Wake Forest; and the Independence and bowls will be forced to take teams from other conferences. If Bama loses, then Auburn, which has a better fan following than Vanderbilt, could bump the Commodores down to the Independence Bowl, and then if Bama lost to Florida on Dec. 6, the Commodores could fall to the Bowl in Birmingham, which has a payout of only $300,000 compared to about a million for the Tennessee bowls.

Or if Bama won and Florida lost to Florida State and then to Bama, then the Gators would likely fall out of the BCS and bump everybody down a notch.

If Oregon State loses to Oregon on Saturday, then the BCS will only take USC. But if the Beavers win, they get an automatic Rose Bowl bid and — if Alabama or Florida have two losses — the BCS bowls would be forced to decide between the No. 2 SEC team and darlings USC and Ohio State. And if the SEC team didn't get the nod, then Vanderbilt could be bumped down a notch — or two notches if Auburn's bowl eligible.

If Vanderbilt wins and Kentucky beats Tennessee, then the Commodores and Wildcats would have identical 7-4 records and it would be crapshoot who would go where — and actually it would depend on fan base, in which the Cats have a leg up. Right now, both teams are pegged for the Liberty and Music City bowls, which are pretty equal. But if everybody dropped down a notch or two, Vanderbilt and Kentucky would be fighting for a berth in one of the Tennessee bowls, with the loser going to Shreveport or Birmingham.

As for Rice-Houston, if Rice won and then won the C-USA championship, the Owls would get an automatic bid to the Liberty Bowl, which would shy away from a Rice-Vanderbilt matchup. So if another team was available for the Liberty, say Kentucky or Auburn, then one of those teams could get the nod and the Commodores could be headed to Shreveport.

Here's a summary of who you should root for today:
• Miss State over Ole Miss
• Arkansas over LSU

Here's a summary of who you should root for on Saturday:
• Clemson over South Carolina.
• Alabama over Auburn. (Very important)
• Florida over Florida State.
• Houston over Rice.
• Tennessee over Kentucky
• Oregon over Oregon State.
• Oh yeah, and Vanderbilt over Wake Forest.

Got it? Thought so. Have a good weekend.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Prediction: Vanderbilt at Wake Forest

7 p.m. EST Saturday, Nov. 29
BB&T Field, Winston-Salem, N.C.

I'm finished doing statistical analysis before a game. It just doesn't matter.

Here's the only stats that seems to matter: Vanderbilt is 0-4 in day games and 6-1 in night games (and the loss was to Florida).

Last week, I analyzed the heck out of both Vanderbilt and Tennessee: offense, defense, special teams, intangibles, you name it. But the game was played in the day. Vanderbilt averages 11 points in day games and surrenders 21. And the final score of the Tennessee game was Commodores 10, Volunteers 20. No kidding.

But Vanderbilt scores 28 points at night and surrenders 21.

The Wake Forest game is at night, so I'm picking the Commodores to win 28-21.

I know, Jared Hawkins is out for the season. Bobby Johnson's talking about playing Ryan van Rensburg, the redshirt freshman who's played in zero games this season, at tailback. Hey, maybe we'll put Nickson at tailback.

Broderick Stewart's out for the season.

Oh yeah, and who's playing quarterback? Will it be Auburn Adams or Duke Adams? Will it be Kentucky Nickson or Tennessee Nickson? Easy — the game's at night, so it will be Auburn Adams and Kentucky Nickson. But whoever's slinging the ball had better be slinging it to D.J. Moore.

As far as Wake's performance at night, the Demon Deacons have played exactly two games under the lights. They won both, but scored one touchdown in eight quarters, beating Florida State 12-3 and Clemson 12-7.

I'm not kidding about this night business. I like us when we play at night. I believe we're gonna win. Don't know how, but I believe it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Some final thoughts on Vanderbilt's "flat" performance against Tennessee

So the Commodores were flat against Tennessee, just like they were flat against Miss State and Duke.

I don't buy it. When the Commodores lose a game they have a legitimate chance of winning, everybody says they were flat. Heck, even they say they were flat.

But do you ever read a story about a team that was flat but won the game? No.

Do you ever read a story about a team that was fired up and ready to play and then lost decisively? No.

So did the Commodores lose because they were flat, or did everybody say they were flat because they lost?

In the Tennessee, Miss State and Duke games, they got punched in the mouth early and they didn't get the breaks and turnovers and freakish good luck they'd come to expect in their first five games.

And then there's the offensive line. I don't know much about the offensive line, except that nobody but Bobby Johnson talks about it. We went into this season with five brand new starters and by all accounts they've had trouble gelling. But when Chris Nickson gets tackled for a loss or Jared Hawkins gets stuffed at the line, the average fan — and especially the average sportswriter — concludes that those two guys aren't on top of their games. After the Tennessee game, everybody was talking about Chris Nickson's meltdown. Bobby was talking about the poor play of the offensive line.

Think about this: Against Tennessee, our offense was flat but our defense was not. That's what everybody is saying. Hmmm. So our offense, which is among the four worst in the nation, was flat against one of the best defenses in the nation. But our defense, the strength of our team, was not flat against one of the five worst offenses in the nation.

Again, was our offense ineffective because it was flat, or was it flat because it is ineffective and the Tennessee defense is highly effective? Was our defense so effective because it wasn't flat, or was our defense not flat because it's a good defense facing an ineffective offense?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Vanderbilt fans should stop and count their blessings

So Tennessee fans have gleefully returned to the chat boards, Vanderbilt fans are hollering about the offensive coordinator, and journalists have twisted quotes from 20-year-olds to mean they didn’t take a team seriously that has beaten their school 24 out of the past 25 years.

Hang on a minute. It’s almost Thanksgiving, and on behalf of Commodore fans I’m going to count our blessings.

Let’s don’t think back to Oct. 4, the day we beat Auburn to go 5-0. That’s the problem. Let’s think back to Aug. 28, as we were taking the field against Miami-Ohio. Remember?

We didn’t know who our starting quarterback was. We had a brand-new offensive line. We had unproven running backs and wide receivers. Our field goal kicker’s confidence was shaken. We had a brand-new defensive line and linebackers, but a secondary that was solid and deep.

We were supposed to lose to the Redhawks and then to talented South Carolina and Ole Miss teams and then to Auburn, Miss State, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest, all of whom went to bowls last season. The only teams we had a chance to beat were Rice and Duke.

That’s two wins. Or three wins if we got lucky and upset Miami-Ohio.

What happened?

It’s late November and we still don’t know who our starting quarterback is. Our offensive line still hasn’t gelled. We have few skill players on offense who could play for another SEC team. All told, we have one of the four worst offenses in college football. And the kicker is still shaky.

On defense, only three down linemen have played all season. Two young linebackers have had to step up. The secondary is still solid and deep. With smoke and mirrors, these guys have been among the national leaders in sacks and red zone defense.

Auburn started the season in the Top 10 and was supposed to end up at the Georgia Dome. Tennessee started in the Top 20 and was a dark horse to get there too. These teams’ defenses were among the best in the country. They had questions at quarterback too, but they had big veteran offensive lines and stud running backs and a stable of blue chip receivers.

So here we are, at the end of the regular season, at Thanksgiving.

Not with two wins, or three wins. Not with moral victories.

Auburn and Tennessee have losing records.

And we have six wins. And a bowl bid on the way.

So go ahead and second-guess our team, which wasn’t supposed to be here anyway.

I’m planning to go to a bowl, and for that I’m thankful.

Monday, November 24, 2008

DAY TRIPPER: Why Vanderbilt can't win daytime games

OK, OK, I know this isn't a particularly sophisticated line of thinking, and I've been following it all year. But I think there's something to the fact that the Commodores can't win a ballgame played in the daylight.

In fact, I started talking about this phenomenon before it even started, when the Commodores were 5-0 (all night games) and about to play Miss State in the afternoon. In my preview of the Starkville game, I wrote:

"Could Vanderbilt lose this one? Absolutely. For one thing, Vanderbilt has played all of its games at night. I don't know what that means."

In that same post, I expressed fear that we were going to run out of gas in October and November just like we do every year.

And here we are, winners of one of our last six ballgames — including losses to non-bowl eligible teams Miss State, Duke and Tennessee. That's bad.

But here's some good news: Our next game, against Wake Forest, is at night. And if we go to the Liberty Bowl, as I believe we will, that game will be in the evening too.

Here's a breakdown:


• Miss State, lost 17-14
• Georgia, lost 24-14
• Duke, lost 10-7
• Tennessee, lost 20-10

Day record: 0-4 (0-3 SEC)
Day offense: 11 ppg vs. defenses that allow 22 points ppg
Day defense: 18 ppg vs. offenses that score 21 ppg
Summary: Our daytime defense is stout, holding teams below their average, while our daytime offense is atrocious, scoring half the points that our opponents ordinarily allow.


• Miami-Ohio, won 34-13
• South Carolina, won 24-17
• Rice, won 38-21
• Ole Miss, won 23-17
• Auburn, won 14-13
• Florida, lost 42-14
• Kentucky, won 31-24

Night record: 6-1 (4-1 SEC)
Night offense: 25 ppg vs. defenses that allow 22 points ppg
Night defense: 21 ppg vs. offenses that score 28 ppg
Summary: Our night-time defense is as stout as ever, holding teams to a touchdown below their average, but the difference at night is our offense, which scores a field goal more than their opponents are used to allowing — and more than twice as many points as we score in the day.

Here's the perplexing thing: We play tougher teams at night. All but one of our four daytime losses have been to teams not going to bowls. Five of our seven night opponents are bowl eligible (six of seven if Auburn upsets Alabama on Saturday) and we've beaten four of those five bowl eligible teams (and five of six if Auburn wins). While we've faced higher scoring teams at night, we've scored more than twice as many points as we have during the day while facing the same caliber of defenses. So the problem isn't the team we're facing. The problem is us. We can't figure out a way to score against teams we should beat.

Here's a thought: Maybe we lose in the day because those generally are games we're favored to win, and any game we're favored to win either draws interest from Raycom or nobody, and so those games are scheduled during the day. And because we feel we can win those games, we come out and run the ball three times and punt, thinking we'll rely on our superior turnover margin and tough defense to bail us out in the end.

But at night, we're not favored. (Even against Miami-Ohio and Rice we weren't favored.) We're on ESPN because we're playing a superior team with national appeal and we're in the role of the lovable underdogs who are capable of pulling the big upset. So we're not expected to win and we come out and do things like throw the ball long to D.J. Moore in the end zone twice in a row like we did against Kentucky. But in the same position against Miss State and Duke and Tennessee, D.J. is on the sidelines and it's Justin Wheeler or George Smith getting covered like a blanket. And maybe Chris Nickson is just not a morning person. He's been electric under the lights — even against Florida — and he's been nothing short of awful in the sunshine.

This Saturday, we're playing Wake Forest. It's at night. It's on the ESPN family of networks. And the Demon Deacs are favored to win. So expect to see the coaches open up the offense and play to win.

Which, in my humble opinion, we should be doing regardless of whom we play.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Weekly rankings and bowl projections from around the SEC: Vanderbilt still being given Liberty

From the I-told-you-so department: While the experts have been projecting a Florida-Texas Tech national championship game, we've been sticking with Florida-Oklahoma. With the Raiders' upset of the Sooners last year in Lubbock, there was just no way it was going to happen this year in Norman. That doesn't mean the Sooners are a lock, though. There's a lot of football to be played: The Sooners would have to beat Oklahoma State in Stillwater and then, if they were ahead of Texas in the BCS standings, they'd have to beat Missouri in Kansas City. Meanwhile, Southern Cal is waiting in the wings. I'd love to see a Florida-USC championship, wouldn't you? Or, for old times sake, how about Alabama-USC?

Oh yeah, this is a Vanderbilt blog. If Bama and Florida can get to the Georgia Dome without incurring a loss, then the worse the Commodores can do is the Music City or Liberty bowl. (It'll probably be Vanderbilt's choice, and I think they'd choose Memphis so they could take a trip, see something new and maybe try to sway some recruits in Mississippi, currently home of zero Commodores.) But if Vanderbilt beats Wake Forest on Saturday — and Ole Miss, South Carolina and/or LSU lose — the Commodores could sneak into the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Don't hold your breath. And if Auburn upsets Alabama, then we could be headed to Shreveport. Hey, I like Cajun food.

A word about this week's bowl projections: We're proceeding as if Oregon will upset Oregon State this week, sending USC to the Rose Bowl to face Penn State and Ohio State to the Fiesta Bowl to face Texas. But you never know.

Anyway, here's your weekly update:

ALABAMA (11-0, 7-0)
Ranking: 1 (AP)/1 (USA Today)
Remaining games: Auburn (home) on Nov. 29, Florida (Georgia Dome) on Nov. 6
Best Bowl: National Championship Game
Worst Bowl: Cotton Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Sugar Bowl vs. Utah
ESPN's Schlabach: Sugar Bowl vs. Utah
ESPN's Feldman: Sugar Bowl vs. Utah
ESPN's Low: Sugar
SI's Mandel: Sugar vs. Utah

FLORIDA (10-1, 7-1)
Ranking: 2/3
Remaining games: Florida State (away) on Nov. 29, Alabama (Georgia Dome) on Nov. 6
Best Bowl: National Championship Game
Worst Bowl: Capital One Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: National Championship Game vs. Oklahoma
ESPN's Schlabach: National Championship vs. Oklahoma
ESPN's Feldman: National Championship vs. Oklahoma
ESPN's Low: National Championship Game
SI's Mandel: National Championship vs. Oklahoma

GEORGIA (9-2, 6-2)
Ranking: 13/13
Remaining game: Georgia Tech (home) on Nov. 29
Best Bowl: Sugar Bowl
Worst Bowl: Cotton Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Capital One Bowl vs. Michigan State
ESPN's Schlabach: Capital One vs. Ohio State
ESPN's Feldman: Capital One vs. Ohio State
ESPN's Low: Capital One
SI's Mandel: Capital One vs. Ohio State

OLE MISS (7-4, 4-3)
Ranking: 25/26
Remaining game: Miss State (home) on Nov. 28
Best Bowl: Cotton Bowl
Worst Bowl: Music City or Liberty Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Cotton Bowl vs. Texas Tech
ESPN's Schlabach: Cotton Bowl vs. Texas Tech
ESPN's Feldman: Cotton Bowl vs. Texas Tech
ESPN's Low: Cotton
SI's Mandel: Cotton vs. Texas Tech

LSU (7-4, 3-4)
Ranking: 29/28
Remaining game: Arkansas (Little Rock) on Nov. 28
Best Bowl: Cotton Bowl
Worst Bowl: Music City or Liberty Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Chick-Fil-A vs. Florida State
ESPN's Schlabach: Chick-Fil-A vs. Boston College
ESPN's Feldman: Chick-Fil-A vs. Boston College
ESPN's Low: Chick-Fil-A
SI's Mandel: Outback vs. Michigan State

Ranking: 33/36
Remaining game: Clemson (away) on Nov. 29
Best Bowl: Cotton Bowl
Worst Bowl: Music City or Liberty Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Outback Bowl vs. Northwestern
ESPN's Schlabach: Outback vs. Michigan State
ESPN's Feldman: Outback vs. Michigan State
ESPN's Low: Outback
SI's Mandel: Chick-Fil-A vs. Florida State

VANDERBILT (6-5, 4-4)
Ranking: NR/NR
Remaining game: Wake Forest (away) on Nov. 29
Best Bowl: Chick-Fil-A Bowl
Worst Bowl: Independence Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Liberty Bowl vs. Houston
ESPN's Schlabach: Liberty vs Tulsa
ESPN's Feldman: Liberty vs. Tulsa
ESPN's Low: Liberty
SI's Mandel: Music City vs. Virginia Tech

KENTUCKY (6-5, 2-5)
Ranking: NR/NR
Remaining game: Tennessee (home) on Nov. 29
Best Bowl: Chick-Fil-A Bowl
Worst Bowl: Independence Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Music City Bowl vs. North Carolina
ESPN's Schlabach: Music City Bowl vs. Maryland
ESPN's Feldman: Music City vs. Miami
ESPN's Low: Music City
SI's Mandel: Liberty vs. Houston

AUBURN (5-6, 2-5)
Ranking: NR/NR
Remaining game: Alabama (away) on Nov. 29
Best Bowl: Liberty Bowl or Music City Bowl
Worst Bowl: Independence Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: None
ESPN's Schlabach: None (Last Week)
ESPN's Feldman: None (Last Week)
ESPN's Low: None
SI's Mandel: None

• TENNESSEE (4-7, 2-5)
• MISS STATE (4-7, 2-5)
• ARKANSAS (4-7, 1-6)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

LIVE! UPDATES SUSPENDED: Some thoughts before signing off

It's halftime in Nashville and we're losing 20-0 to the Vols. We'll be going to either the Liberty or Music City bowl. My vote is Liberty because I think we're more the speed of a C-USA team and would rather not play, say, Georgia Tech or Florida State.

Some other thoughts:

• Well, I was right about Senior Day. We stink on Senior Day.
• Well, I was right about day games. We stink in day games.
• Some bowl games at night: Chick-Fil-A, Liberty, Independence.
• Nickson looked terrible, and we have 25 yards of total offense at halftime. "We were terrible on offense," Johnson just said. You are correct, sir.
• Hey! Might we see Larry Smith?
• Mackenzi looked sharp, but Jamie Graham shows why you have to pay attention all the time when you're facing a tough defense.
• Phil Fulmer deserved to be fired. How could this team have only won three games?

Have a nice Saturday afternoon. See ya.

LIVE! Vanderbilt-Tennessee: Halftime: Vols 20-0

Nickson is back in the game. He drops the snap and loses 10. Then throws a bad pass. The boo birds are out. The Raycom guys are playing psychologist with Nickson now. 3rd & 20. Nickson keeps the ball for a couple (are you kidding?).

Another poor punt by Upson. We couldn't be playing worse. And Nickson didn't come to play.

• 1st & 10: Coleman throws to fullback for 6.
• 2nd & 4: Jerald Jones lines up at quarterback, gets the first down. Vols are gonna put this one away.
• 1st & 10: We play ring around the rosy with Arian Foster, who loses a yard.
• 2nd & 11: Let's get a stop here, guys. Babysteps. Coleman gets rocked by Marve.
• 3rd & 17 on the VU44.
• 4th & 7 on the VU34. Vols call timeout. Now they're attempting a 51-yard field goal.

Is Mackenzi coming in. Yes.
• 1st & 10. Completion to Barden.
• 2nd & 3 on the 42. Adams to George Smith.
• 1st & 10 on the VU48. Can't quite hit Jennings.
• 2nd & 10. Barden into UT territory. We lose last timeout.
• 3rd & 7 on the UT48. First down to George Smith.
• 1st & 10. Penalty on the Vols. 1st & 5 on the UT34.
• Beautiful pass to Graham who tips the ball into the hands of Vinson who runs deep into Commodore territory.
• Now UT's kicking a field goal.


What a disappointing first half performance.

But hey, you don't have to travel to Tampa to see the Commodores play in a bowl. In fact, you'll be staying in the state of Tennessee.

LIVE! Vanderbilt-Tennessee: Second quarter: 17-0 Vols. Game over.

• Josh Allen in his last game on Dudley field takes the kickoff up to the VU47.
• 1st & 10. DJ stuffed. We really, really need to throw the ball. Maybe Mackenzi should come in for a series.
• 2nd & 10: Nickson throws for Walker; almost intercepted.
• 3rd & 10: We take a timeout because we're not up on the line fast enough. The Raycom guys are blaming this on Nickson's lack of confidence. Nickson hits Barden for a first down, but somebody was holding. It was Eric Hensley.
• 3rd & 20. Nickson throws a horrible pass, picked off by Eric Berry who returns it for a touchdown.


It could have been 17-0 Commodores with the game over. But it's not. Nickson's killed us with two turnovers. This one is going to get ugly.

LIVE! Vanderbilt-Tennessee second quarter: Vols 10-0

We're losing. Nickson's getting stuffed. Hawkins is in the locker room. And Tennessee is a different team when they have the lead. Here we go:

• D.J. takes the kickoff up to about the 27.
• 1st & 10 on the VU27: Nickson almost sacked but throws the ball out of bounds.
• 2nd & 10: Jennings stuffed. CAN WE THROW A FREAKING PASS?
• 3rd & 10: Jennings knocked for a loss on a screen pass. He looks shaken up.
• 4th & 10: Now we go offsides. Upson shanks the punt. We're going to go ahead and lose this thing right here. This is a nightmare beyond Duke proportions.

• 1st & 10: Hardesty goes 29 yards.
• 1st & goal on the 8 yard line. This is gonna be a blowout. Hardesty stuffed.
• 2nd & goal on the 11. Hardesty back to the 8. Neither team has thrown a pass beyond the line of scrimmage. Now Broderick Stewart is down. Looks like an ankle. Stewart's being taken off the field on the John Deere. He's trying to pump up the crowd. They need pumping up. Of course, they need a reason. Stewart's gone off the field and surely for the season.
• 3rd & goal on the 8. Coleman hit by Benoist, gets the ball off and Reshard almost gets a pick.
• 4th & goal. 25-yard field goal is good. Ten points is a huge hole against the Vols defense.

LIVE! Vanderbilt-Tennessee second quarter: Vols 7-0

If we could have scored early, the Vols would have been in a hole. Now they've gotten a turnover of their own, evened up the field position and now are grinding it out. No passing yards for either team. Vols have 52 rushing, we have 9.

• 1st & 10: Creer gets 3.
• 2nd & 7 on the VU 30. Coleman tripped up by Billinger after getting 3.
• 3rd & 4 on the 27. This is big. Coleman keeps and picks up the first down.
• 1st & 10 on the 18. Can't the Vols put Crompton back in? Creer gets 6.
• 2nd & 4 on 12. Coleman keeps and gets another first down. Jared Hawkins is limping into the locker room.
• 3rd & 1 on the VU7. We need a turnover, but then again, we don't need the ball deep in our own territory. This is exactly the game Fulmer wanted and it's all courtesy of Nickson's fumble while he was stretching for a first down.
• Hardesty for a touchdown. This could get ugly. This could be like the Vols' 35-3 victory over Miss State.

We need a sense of urgency.

PLAY OF THE GAME SO FAR: Nickson's fumble.

LIVE! Vanderbilt-Tennessee first quarter

The stadium looks surprisingly black and gold, with a tinge of orange here and there. Here we go:

• Kickoff: we stuff Rogan.
• 1st & 10: We stuff Hardesty.
• 2nd & 10. INTERCEPTION, MYRON LEWIS! (14:11)

• Vanderbilt 1st & 10 on the 35. We call a timeout. Huh? My son Robert just pointed out to me that when his sister had Mr. Golden, who is a Vols fan, for fifth grade math and science, Vanderbilt beat the Vols. Now Robert has Mr. Golden for fifth grade homeroom. A good sign? I would say yes.
• Here we go again. 1st & 10. Chris Nickson keeps for six (yards not points).
• 2nd & 6. DJ gets about three yards but Brandon Barden called for block in the back. Good to see DJ playing offense.
• 2nd & 14. Incomplete to George Smith (of course) but UT's Rogan called for interference, and Vols were offsides too.
• 1st & 10 on the UT30. Nickson dropped for a loss. Barden looked open.
• 2nd & 15 on the 35. Jennings gets a couple. Come on, let's try to get a score here!
• 3rd & 13: Nickson corralled again. Now we're punting.
• Upson punts down to the UT4.

So Tennessee's offense looks awful and its defense looks great. That's about right. The key will be if we can move the ball on the Vols. Right now we're winning the battle of field position.

• Vols 1st & 10 on the 4. Crompton still in the game. We stuff the fullback.
• 2nd & 8. We hold Hardesty to 3 yards.
• 3rd & 4 on the 10. Crompton keeps but looks like he's just shy of the first down.
• 4th & 1 on the UT 13. Vols going for it... just kidding. Colquitt booms it and Jamie gets about five on a tight return. Nice to see him on the field (though we could have used him on the court on Thursday night).

• 1st & 10 on the VU46. Nice run by Jared Hawkins up to the 50.
• 2nd & 6. Nickson gets about 2 on the keeper.
• 3rd & 4. Nickson fumbles reaching for more yards. They'll review it. Didn't look like his knee was down. The Vols are eating Nickson up. That's a fast, strong defense.

• 1st & 10 on the UT 46. BJ Coleman in the game at quarterback. Foster picks up a couple.
• 2nd & 7. Eric Berry takes the snap and picks up a first down. The Vol fans love it.
• 1st & 10 on the VU45 . Berry back in the shotgun. Tackled by DJ Moore.
• 2nd & 8. Coleman in trouble and loses about a yard courtesy of Broderick Stewart.
• 3rd & 9: Coleman in the shotgun. Nice completion to Lucas Taylor but there's a flag on the play. The dorks at Raycom say Stone was offsides, but actually it was a procedure call on the Vols.
• 3rd & 14 around the 50. We got ’em where we want ’em. (Though we need a turnover or we'll have bad field position if we force a punt.) Vols call a timeout.
• Here we go: Dropped pass but he wouldn't have gotten the first. 4th & 14. Washington back to return.

• 1st & 10 on the VU17. That fumble by Chris ruined the good field position we were having. We're really having trouble moving the ball. Nickson on the keeper. He gets maybe a yard. (3:30).
• 2nd & 9. Hawkins picks up about 5. We still haven't thrown a pass. Hawkins is hobbling off the field. Great.
• 3rd & 4 on the 26. Nickson sacked. We're really hurting on offense, probably because the Vol secondary has us covered like a blanket.
• Upson's punt nearly blocked but goes for about 50 yards.

• 1st & 10 on the UT35. Creer off to the races, picks up 11.
• 1st & 10 on the UT46. Creer gets about 7 or 8. Again, our inability to strike fast after the turnover and then Nickson's fumble could come back to haunt us. Creer gets another first down.
• 1st & 10 on the VU33. END OF QUARTER. If the Vols take the lead here, we could be in trouble.

PLAYER OF THE GAME SO FAR: Myron Lewis, who tried to get us an early lead. Then our offense took over.

15 minutes till kickoff — come back and get your live commentary here

For Vanderbilt, losing 21 seniors not as bad as it sounds

Today in Nashville, a whopping 21 Vanderbilt seniors will be recognized before the Tennessee game.

Sure, it sounds like a lot. But don't let the number fool you. Half of those are redshirt juniors who wouldn't see much playing time next year — and want to go ahead and graduate and go to medical school or whatever.

Here's a breakdown:

Only two of those players have started in each of the Commodores' 45 games over the last four seasons:
• Safety Reshard Langford, who's started every game of his career (45-45)
• Kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt, who's started every game of his career (45-45)

Another three have started the majority of those 45 games:
• Wide receiver Sean Walker, who's played in 41 games and started 31
• Wide receiver George Smith, who's also played in 41 games and started 31
• Quarterback Chris Nickson, who's played in 36 games and started 25

Another four have been major role players and spot starters:
• Cornerback Jared Fagan, who's played in all 45 games and started three
• Cornerback Josh Allen, who's played in 44 games and started 11
• Running back Jeff Jennings, who's played in 38 games and started 14
• Tight end Jake Bradford (R-Jr.), who's played in 34 games and started two

Another four have seen significant playing time, mostly on special teams:
• Linebacker Chris Johnson (R-Jr.), who's played in 33 games
• Lineman Drew Gardner (R-Jr.), who's played in 26 games
• Fullback Matt Bubis (R-Jr.), who's played in 22 games
• Holder Nick Miller (R-Jr.), who's played in 16 games

Another three seniors have seen limited playing time:
• Receiver Larry Simmons (R-Jr.), who's played in eight games
• Lineman Nick Forte (R-Jr.), who's played in seven games this season and started one
• Lineman Ryan Vance (R-Jr.), who's played in three games
• Holder/kicker Thomas Carroll (R-Jr.), who's played in two games
• Defensive end David Leinweber (R-Jr.), who's played in one game

Another three of those haven't seen playing time while at Vanderbilt:
• Linebacker Bo Baggerley
• Receiver Andrew Diomande, a transfer from Clemson who's been injured
• Defensive back Alex Schultz (R-Jr.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Who Vanderbilt fans should root for today (besides Vanderbilt)

So you're a Commodore fan? Who should you root for today?

• LSU to beat Ole Miss. If the Ole Miss pulls the upset in Baton Rouge, Houston Nutt and the Rebels could be headed for the Cotton Bowl, bumping LSU and South Carolina — and Vanderbilt — down a notch.

• Miss State to beat Arkansas. This game is pick ’em, and the Razorbacks aren't sure which Dick brother to start at quarterback in Starkville. At any rate, it's in the Commodores' best interest for there to be fewer SEC teams for the bowl committees to choose from. The Bulldogs are long gone from the bowl picture, but a win would eliminate the Razorbacks too.

• Florida to beat The Citadel. Like this is even in question. This would easily be the biggest upset in NCAA history, even greater than Appalachian State's victory in Ann Arbor last season. A Gator defeat this week or next week might result in one instead of two SEC teams getting BCS bids, and that would knock all the other conference teams, including Vanderbilt, down a notch. The difference could mean the Independence Bowl and Shreveport instead of the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and Atlanta.

Play-by-play commentary of Vanderbilt-Tennessee right here at 12:30 p.m. Saturday

Join us right here on for live play-by-play commentary of the Vanderbilt-Tennessee game at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22.

Here's a sample of some live Moral Victory! posts from earlier this season:

• Halftime, Miami of Ohio, Aug. 28: 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.

Seems like a long time ago, huh?

One reason for Vanderbilt fans to fear the Tennessee game

So I was watching Georgia Tech thrash Miami last night and thinking what a tough time the Commodores would have if they faced the Yellow Jackets, a possible opponent in either the Chick-Fil-A or Music City bowls.

After all, Georgia Tech beat Mississippi State 38-7, and we lost to Miss State.

Wait a minute. Tennessee beat Miss State 34-3.

Moral Victory Prediction: Tennessee at Vanderbilt

12:30 EST Saturday, Nov. 22, 2008
Dudley Field, Nashville, Tennessee
Televised by Raycom (check local listings)

At the beginning of the season, the experts believed Tennessee could be the most underrated team in America, capable of a high national ranking and a BCS bowl if the ball bounced the right way against, say, Florida and Georgia. But the Vols couldn't even beat Wyoming at home.

At the beginning of the season, the experts picked Vanderbilt dead last in the SEC and gave them an outside chance to win four games. But with two games remaining in the season, the Commodores are already bowl eligible.

The Commodores have a better offense than the Vols, despite the fact that Vanderbilt is ranked 116th in total offense and Tennessee is ranked 115th. Vanderbilt gains about 50 more yards a game on the ground, hasn't had the desperation passing yardage that the Vols have amassed in their seven losses, scores six points a game more than the Vols and are much better in the Red Zone (90 percent to 73 percent). Hawkins and Nickson are solid rushing threats and the line looked much improved against the tough Kentucky defense. And Nickson, when in a rhythm, can put the ball on the money, as evidenced by long scoring strikes to Brandon Barden against South Carolina and twice to D.J. Moore against Kentucky. Speaking of D.J. Moore, his presence only helps the offense and it was great to see him on the field in Lexington.

The problem: Tennessee has one of the best defenses in college football, ranked seventh in passing yards (164 per game), seventh in total yards (276) and 15th in points allowed (18.1). Imagine how even better the Vol D would be if the offense wouldn't go three and out so much? But one bright note: for such a tough defense, the Vols allow an almost 40 percent conversion rate on 3rd down.

The Tennessee offense is bad, bad, bad. But why? They've got stud running backs operating behind a veteran offensive line. And some talented receivers. Oh yeah, quarterback. Jonathan Crompton has been bad, and so has Nick Stephens, and now freshman B.J. Coleman's getting thrown into the fire. And these guys are all drop-back passers.

The Commodore defense is capable of shutting down the Vols. While maybe not as impressive as their East Tennessee counterparts, they're among the SEC leaders in quarterback sacks and scoring defense and they're fifth in the nation in red zone defense. Their veteran secondary is a big play waiting to happen. In other words, if the Commodores can grab the lead early and force Tennessee to the air, the game is over.

Vanderbilt has the edge in punt returns (Tennessee's punt defense is 108th in the nation) and Tennessee has the edge in kickoff returns. Both teams are decent in net punting and have hot-and-cold field goal kickers.

Coming off an encouraging performance in Lexington, the Commodores are hot and the Volunteers are not. But Tennessee has had two weeks to ponder a nightmare loss at home to Wyoming and a nightmare season in general. Surely, the players want to send Fulmer out a winner. On the other hand, the Commodores have had a huge burden lifted and are now bowl eligible, and with each win from here on out the bowls could get better and better. Talking stats, Vanderbilt has a better turnover margin and are less penalized than Tennessee.

If the Commodores jump on the Volunteers early, scoring a couple of times and forcing the Big Orange to go to the air, they could win big, say 28-10. But if they stumble out of the gate and allow the Vols to get some early points and some early hope, then Fulmer will turn things over to his defense and we could be on our way to a 10-7 type of game. We haven't been favored over Tennessee in a long, long time. I hope we've got more black and gold than orange in the stands, but with all those students heading home early for fall break, it might not happen.

Vanderbilt 17-14

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Vanderbilt football players should take a lesson from hoops and hug their mamas after the senior day game

I've got a theory: Senior Day is bad for players, especially Vanderbilt football players.

As you know Senior Day is that time when a university and its fans honor each senior, which means before the game his name is called over the public address system whether he played a snap or not and he walks out to midfield to greet Daddy and Mama and Granny and siblings and sometimes even a favorite professor or administrator and everybody hugs and the fans applaud warmly.

And then these guys are supposed to go out and kick some butt? After they've just had Granny crying on their jersey and telling them they're the greatest?


In 2005, I took my family to Nashville to see the 4-5 Commodores play 2-6 Kentucky. I'd bought the tickets earlier in the season, back when we were 4-0. As a matter of fact, it was on the eve of our game with MTSU, and I'd figured we'd beat the Blue Raiders, lose to LSU, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, and then beat Kentucky for our sixth win and bowl eligibility.

Of course, we lost to MTSU the next day and then as expected we lost those next four games. But hopes were still high on that day in Nashville with my family.

It was a beautiful fall day — cool breezes and leaves of red and gold and all that stuff. The week before, we'd lost to Florida 49-42 in double overtime, a moral victory if there ever was one, and the SEC was abuzz with talk of Jay Cutler, Earl Bennett and the scrappy Commodores. We'd beat the Wildcats for sure, and then we had a chance to get win No. 6 against Tennessee in Knoxville.

And it was Senior Day. One by one, Jay Cutler, Moses Osemwegie and all the other seniors hugged their mamas and we all applauded warmly.

And then the game started. Vanderbilt was losing by four touchdowns before you could say, "Thanks for the memories."

We mounted a furious comeback but lost 48-43. The next week, we beat Tennessee for win No. 5.

And I blame it all on Senior Day. In his six Senior Days, Bobby Johnson is 1-5. Woody Widenhofer was 0-5. Rod Dowhower actually went 1-1, because somebody had the foresight to schedule Louisiana Tech instead of a team from the SEC.

Here's Bobby Johnson's record on senior day:
• 2002: Lost to Tennessee 24-0
• 2003: Beat Kentucky 28-17
• 2004: Lost to Tennessee 38-33
• 2005: Lost to Kentucky 48-43
• 2006: Lost to Tennessee 39-20
• 2007: Lost to Wake Forest 31-17

And Bobby's defenses have been particularly ineffective on senior days, giving up about 33 points a game.

At any rate, I think the football Commodores should do what the basketball Commodores do. Celebrate the seniors... after the game. Remember what happened on Shan Foster's senior day? The kid scored 42 points, tied the game with a three-pointer in regulation and then won the game with a three-pointer in overtime.

And then he hugged his Mama. And the fans didn't just applaud warmly. They blew the roof off that place.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Vanderbilt-Wake Forest game to be televised... at night

Good news. The Commodores' Nov. 29 game at Wake Forest will be televised on ESPNU at 7 p.m. EST.

The Commodores are 1-0 this season on ESPNU and 4-1 on the ESPN family of networks (but should a loss to Florida really count against anybody?).

Also, the Commodores are 6-1 at night (and again, should a loss to Florida really count against anybody?).

Holy underdog! Vanderbilt actually favored to beat Tennessee

Right now the Commodores are a 3-point favorite over the Volunteers. The line opened at 2 1/2.

Why am I even mentioning this? I mean, Vanderbilt is 6-4 and 4-3 in the SEC and Tennessee is 3-7 and 1-5 in the SEC. And the game's at Vanderbilt. Of course they should be favored, right?

Well, wrong. This is the only the second time all season that Vanderbilt has been a favorite when the line opened.

Nobody including bookies can seem to get over the fact that the Commodores are capable of beating anybody.

Case in point:

• UNDERDOG AT MIAMI (OH): Vanderbilt, a member of the strongest conference on earth, opens against Miami of Ohio, a member of, well, one of the many conferences on earth. Vanderbilt is a 4-point underdog.

• UNDERDOG VS. SOUTH CAROLINA: Vanderbilt beats the Redhawks and is a huge underdog at home against Top-25 South Carolina. Fair enough.

• UNDERDOG VS. RICE: In a brilliant performance, Vanderbilt shocks the Gamecocks to go 2-0. Next up are the Rice Owls, which struggled to beat Memphis a week earlier. The game is at Vanderbilt. And the Owls are favored to win. Huh?

• UNDERDOG AT OLE MISS: Vanderbilt beats Rice handily to go 3-0, then travels to Oxford to face 2-1 Ole Miss, whom the Commodores beat last season. Of course, Ole Miss is favored.

• UNDERDOG VS. AUBURN: Auburn travels to Vanderbilt, which is 4-0 after a stunning victory over Ole Miss. On GameDay, even Vol-fan Kenny Chesney likes the Commodores (though Lee Corso does not). Auburn, 4-1 and coming off a narrow defeat to LSU and a narrow victory over Tennessee, is a strong favorite.

• PICK ’EM AT MISS STATE: Vanderbilt stuns Auburn to go 5-0, and Vanderbilt's previous victim, Ole Miss, upsets Florida in Gainesville. Next up: Mississippi State, which is 1-4. The opening line is pick ’em. Huh? But by game time, the Commodores are favored.

• UNDERDOG AT GEORGIA: Vanderbilt stinks up the joint in Starkville and is a sizable underdog on the road against Georgia. Makes sense.

• FAVORITE VS. DUKE: Now 5-2, the Commodores are actually favored to beat Duke. Let's don't talk about it.

• UNDERDOG VS. FLORIDA: Now 5-3, the Commodores are a huge underdog against Florida. Let's don't talk about it.

• UNDERDOG AT KENTUCKY: Now 5-4, the Commodores are a 4-point underdog against Kentucky in Lexington. They win by seven.

• FAVORITE VS. TENNESSEE: Now 6-4 and bowl eligible, the Commodores are favored to beat Tennessee.

By the way, Vanderbilt is now 0-2 when favored to win. By the way, Vanderbilt is now 0-3 in day games. Against Tennessee, the Commodores are favored to win and the game is at 12:30 EST.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Vanderbilt nominates 11 players for all-SEC team

Vanderbilt has submitted these names to the SEC for post-season honors:

• Jared Hawkins, Jr., running back
• Thomas Welch, Jr., offensive tackle
• Greg Billinger, Jr., defensive tackle
• Broderick Stewart, Jr., defensive end
• Patrick Benoist, Jr., outside linebacker
• Ryan Hamilton, Jr., free safety
• Reshard Langford, Sr., strong safety
• Myron Lewis, Jr., cornerback
• D.J. Moore, Jr., cornerback and return specialist (2 positions)
• Bryant Hahnfeldt, Sr., placekicker
• Brett Upson, Jr., punter

Nine of the Vanderbilt 11 are juniors and two are seniors. And if you look at the roster, these really have been our best and most consistent players, outside of freshman linebacker Chris Marve, who could have earned a nod as well.

Bobby Johnson is about as self-aware and self-effacing as a coach can get, and I applaud him for only nominating two players from his struggling offense. Meanwhile, Tennessee and Auburn each nominated five players from their woeful offenses.

More fittingly, Florida, Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss each nominated seven offensive players. Those are among the top five teams in total yards and points. Mark Richt's Georgia team leads the SEC in total yards, but he held his offensive nominations to five. Craziest pick: LSU QB Jarrett Lee. The kid leads the world in interceptions returned for touchdowns this season with seven and was clearly his team's weak link against Alabama, yet Les Miles puts Lee's name on the ballot.

Miles picked eight players off his defense, which gave up a whopping 31 last week to Troy. Vanderbilt, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama and Auburn each nominated seven. Tennessee went with six. Tough defenses, all. Ole Miss's Houston Nutt knew his team's weakness and limited his defensive nominations to three.

There's a separate all-freshman team, and Vanderbilt submitted five names:
• Brandon Barden, tight end
• Kyle Fischer, offensive lineman
• Jamie Graham, wide receiver
• T.J. Greenstone, defensive tackle
• Chris Marve, linebacker (of course)

Arkansas, which lost a ton of talent to graduation, nominated a whopping 12 freshmen. Kentucky and Alabama each nominated nine. That's just one of the remarkable things about this Crimson Tide team: Saban recruits top freshman and instead of redshirting them he plays nine of them enough to be nominated for post-season honors. (Of course, you'd be a fool not to play Julio Jones, who was also nominated for the big boy team.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Possible bowl destinations for Vanderbilt

Here are all of the SEC's bowl tie-ins, in order of significance, with Vanderbilt's prospects for playing in each one:

1. BCS: NO CHANCE. This likely will be the winner of the Alabama-Florida game playing in the national championship game.

2. BCS: NO CHANCE. This likely will be either Alabama or Florida playing in the Sugar Bowl.

3. Capital One: NO CHANCE. This is probably Georgia's game. If the Dawgs stumble to Georgia Tech, which is not outside the realm of possibility, and LSU finishes strong against Ole Miss and Arkansas, then the Tigers could geaux to this one and Georgia would fall to the Cotton.

4. Cotton: OUTSIDE CHANCE. If Vanderbilt beats Tennessee and Wake Forest to go 8-4 and 5-3 in the conference, and LSU stumbles against Ole Miss and Arkansas, losing at least one of those games, then the Commodores could be going to Dallas, where there are an awful lot of Vanderbilt alumni (the daughters of Roger Staubach and Ross Perot, to name a few). Vanderbilt would have an even better case if South Carolina lost to Clemson and if LSU dropped its last two games. But with a win in Baton Rouge, Ole Miss would be mighty attractive to the Cotton Bowl, especially with its win in Gainesville looking better and better each week, and so if all that happened the Rebels might need to lose to Miss State for the Commodores to go Cotton.

5. Outback: A BETTER CHANCE. Again, Vanderbilt would have to win out. If LSU takes care of business and secures a Cotton Bowl then it's possible that the Outback Bowl would take Vanderbilt over South Carolina, which would have a better conference record and even beat the Gamecocks head-to-head, and they might like the idea of, say, a Vanderbilt-Northwestern matchup. Call it the Brain Bowl. The Outback would be an even stronger possibility if South Carolina lost to Clemson. But if LSU loses to Ole Miss, then the Gamecocks could move up to the Cotton and LSU could slide down to the Outback or be replaced by the Rebels.

6. Chick-Fil-A: BEST BET IF VANDERBILT WINS OUT. If Vanderbilt beats Tennessee and Ole Miss, the Chick-Fil-A bowl would be a great possibility if the Commodores aren't jumping South Carolina to go to an even better bowl. The C-F-A bowl folks have said they'd like an 8-4 team from the SEC. If Vanderbilt wins out, South Carolina beats Clemson and Ole Miss beats LSU and wins out, but LSU beats Arkansas — then VU, SC, UM and LSU would all be 8-4 and one of these teams would fall to the Liberty or Music City bowls. Vanderbilt would go to the Georgia Dome with seven wins if Ole Miss lost its two remaining games, and could still go with seven wins if Ole Miss also had seven wins. There are an awful lot of Vanderbilt alumni in Atlanta. But then again, there are an awful lot of everybody's alums in Atlanta.

7. Liberty: BEST BET IF VANDERBILT DOESN'T WIN OUT. If Vanderbilt loses to either Tennessee or Wake Forest, then Ole Miss would likely get the nod from the Chick-Fil-A committee. The Liberty Bowl folks have made no secret about wanting Vanderbilt. Also, the Liberty Bowl has a slightly bigger payout than the Music City Bowl, and Vanderbilt should be more attractive than Kentucky to any bowl committee based on the Commodores' recent win over the Wildcats and their superior conference record (VU's 4-3 to UK's 2-5).

8. Music City: POSSIBLE IF VANDERBILT LOSES OUT OR WOULD RATHER STAY HOME. If Vanderbilt falls to both Tennessee and Wake Forest, and Kentucky beats Tennessee, then the Liberty Bowl might take Kentucky, which would have a better record than the Commodores. Or if Vanderbilt has a bid on the table from both the Liberty and the Music City, the Commodores could decide to stay home in Nashville and face an ACC team like Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech instead of a C-USA team like Tulsa or Houston. Or if Rice ends up winning the conference and a Liberty Bowl berth, then it's unlikely the Owls would face Vanderbilt for a second time.

9. Independence: NOT LIKELY. The Independence Bowl would be an option only if a ninth team, either Arkansas or Auburn, finished with six wins or the SEC failed to get two BCS bowl berths — and Vanderbilt lost its remaining two games and Kentucky beat Tennessee.

10. VERY, VERY UNLIKELY. All the stuff above would have to happen and hell would have to freeze over too. In reality, there won't be enough bowl-eligible teams from the SEC to fill this bowl. Have fun in Birmingham, Troy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Weekly rankings and bowl projections from around the SEC

ALABAMA (11-0, 7-0)
Ranking: 1 (AP)/1 (USA TODAY)
Best Bowl: National Championship Game
Worst Bowl: Sugar Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Sugar Bowl vs. Boise State
ESPN's Schlabach: Sugar Bowl vs. Utah
ESPN's Feldman: Sugar Bowl vs. USC (That'd be cool, huh?)
SI's Mandel: Sugar vs. Utah

FLORIDA (9-1, 7-1)
Ranking: 3/3
Best Bowl: National Championship Game
Worst Bowl: Sugar Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: National Championship Game vs. Oklahoma
ESPN's Schlabach: National Championship vs. Texas Tech
ESPN's Feldman: National Championship vs. Texas Tech
SI's Mandel: National Championship vs. Texas Tech

GEORGIA (9-2, 6-2)
Ranking: 13/13
Best Bowl: Capital One Bowl
Worst Bowl: Cotton Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Capital One Bowl vs. Michigan State
ESPN's Schlabach: Capital One vs. Ohio State
ESPN's Feldman: Cotton vs. Oklahoma
SI's Mandel: Capital One vs. Michigan State

LSU (7-3, 3-3)
Ranking: 18/18
Best Bowl: Capital One Bowl
Worst Bowl: Chick-Fil-A Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Cotton Bowl vs. Texas Tech
ESPN's Schlabach: Cotton vs. Oklahoma
ESPN's Feldman: Capital One vs. Ohio State
SI's Mandel: Cotton vs. Oklahoma

Ranking: 34/35
Best Bowl: Cotton Bowl
Worst Bowl: Music City Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Outback Bowl vs. Northwestern
ESPN's Schlabach: Outback vs. Michigan State
ESPN's Feldman: Outback vs. Michigan State
SI's Mandel: Chick-Fil-A vs. North Carolina

OLE MISS (6-4, 3-3)
Ranking: 35/NR
Best Bowl: Cotton Bowl
Worst Bowl: Music City Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Chick-Fil-A Bowl vs. North Carolina
ESPN's Schlabach: Chick-Fil-A Bowl vs. North Carolina
ESPN's Feldman: Chick-Fil-A Bowl vs. North Carolina
SI's Mandel: Outback vs. Iowa

VANDERBILT (6-4, 4-3)
Ranking: NR/NR
Best Bowl: Cotton Bowl
Worst Bowl: Music City Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Liberty Bowl vs. Houston
ESPN's Schlabach: Liberty vs East Carolina
ESPN's Feldman: Liberty vs. Tulsa
SI's Mandel: Music City vs. Virginia Tech

KENTUCKY (6-5, 2-5)
Ranking: NR/NR
Best Bowl: Chick-Fil-A Bowl
Worst Bowl: Independence Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: Music City Bowl vs. Virginia Tech
ESPN's Schlabach: Music City Bowl vs. Wake Forest
ESPN's Feldman: Music City vs. Florida State
SI's Mandel: Liberty vs. Houston

ARKANSAS (4-6, 1-5)
Ranking: NR/NR
Best Bowl: Liberty Bowl
Worst Bowl: Independence Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: None
ESPN's Schlabach: None
ESPN's Feldman: None
SI's Mandel: None

AUBURN (5-6, 2-5)
Ranking: NR/NR
Best Bowl: Liberty Bowl
Worst Bowl: Independence Bowl
Moral Victory prediction: None
ESPN's Schlabach: None
ESPN's Feldman: None
SI's Mandel: None

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Thank you, Chris Nickson

He did what Kurt Page couldn't do.

Or John Gromos.

Or Mark Wracher.

Or Eric Jones.

Or Mike Healy.

Or Marcus Wilson.

Or Ronnie Gordon.

Or Damian Allen.

Or Greg Zolman.

Or even Jay Cutler.

Chris Nickson led the Vanderbilt Commodores to a sixth win and almost certainly a bowl bid. Certainly many other players and Bobby Johnson and all the coaches helped Vanderbilt get over the hump.

But to beat Kentucky, the Commodores had to have offense, something they haven't had for months. And Nickson gave them 167 yards of pinpoint passing, 118 yards of gutsy, elusive running, and a whopping 31 points.

All on a miserably cold, wet night. And it was just enough to win.

You could have given up on yourself, Chris. The fans certainly did. After the Miss State debacle and after you entered the Georgia game for one play and fumbled, I did.

But you didn't give up on yourself. You didn't give up on your team.

And now you've done something special, something nobody can take away from you.

And something that thousands of fans wearing black and gold will treasure forever.

Thank you, Chris.

Playing to win means playing DJ Moore on defense

During Vanderbilt football games over the past 26 years, I've often yelled these words: "Play to win!" This is after we've done something that in my estimation is (a) going to get the Commodores beat or (b) should have been replaced by something designed specifically to help us win instead of to keep us from losing.

I admire Rich Brooks, the Kentucky coach, because he plays to win. In the middle of the season he takes his leading receiver, a true freshman, and he names him the team's starting quarterback. Meanwhile, he continues to allow the kid to return punts.

That's playing to win. It's taking a risk, sure, but it's also playing to win.

Anyway, Bobby Johnson was playing to win tonight. He took his best athlete, cornerback D.J. Moore, and figured out a way to get him the ball. D.J. caught two touchdown passes in the first half, the last one with the Wildcats' all-star cover man, Trevard Lindley, pushing his facemask. D.J. also caught a third pass and ran the ball for 15 yards and a first down. And on defense, he had a huge interception in the first quarter and another one late to ice the game. The Wildcats considered him to be such a threat that his presence in the offensive lineup enabled the Commodores to spring other players for some big plays.


The Cats were taking control and we scored to take a 14 point lead. Now the Cats have seemingly taken control again. Eight minutes left. Here we go:

• 8:22: Josh Allen on the return. Josh Allen? We need good field position and Josh Allen is returning the kickoff?

• 8:12: 1st & 10. Barden grabs a pass and bulls his way for seven yards. 2nd & 3 on the VU35. Nickson spins and avoids a loss. 3rd & 3. This is huge.

• 7:15: 3rd & 3. Nickson keeps it as he should and gets 5 yards and the first down. He's got 118 yards rushing in this game.

• 6:41: 1st & 10 on the VU40. Hawkins runs and gets nothing.

• 5:54: 2nd & 11. Barden with a shoe-string catch that will surely be reviewed. And overturned. It wouldn't have been for a first down.

• 5:25: The pass was incomplete. Barden should get an Academy Award for that one.

• 3rd & 11. DJ Moore on the field. But Nickson throws to Hawkins who gets up to the VU45.

• Nice punt by Upson. 1st & 10 for the Cats on the UK25. First down pass up to the UK37. Cobb has ice water in his veins.

• 4:33: Another first down for the Cats. They've gotten a second life. OK, maybe a ninth life. 1st & 10 on the UK49. Another 11-yard completion.

• 3:56: 1st & 10 on the VU40. Cobb scrambles for five. Timeout Kentucky.

• 3:23: 2nd & 5 on the VU35. Pass to the end zone. DJ there. Incomplete. Crowd wants a flag. Nope.

• 3:17: 3rd & 5: Another timeout for Kentucky with two seconds left on the play clock after Vanderbilt shows blitz.

• Here we go: Cobb keeps the ball and gets the first down.

• 3:10: 1st & 10 on the VU29. Incomplete in the end zone. Myron Lewis had the receiver covered like a blanket.

• 2:52: 2nd & 10 still on the 29. Receiver drops it, stuck by the true freshman Caey Hayward.

• 2:49: 3rd & 10 still on the 29. Here we go: Pass complete but short of the first down.

• 2:24: 4th & 4 on the VU24. Intercepted by DJ Moore!

• 2:01: Hawkins bulls his way for 8 yards. Kentucky uses its last timeout.

• 2nd & 2 on the VU25. Hawkins gets the first down. He's carried 14 times for 81 yards.

• 1:38: 1st & 10. Nickson takes a knee.

• I'm not gonna believe it until the clock is at 0:00.

• 0:40: 2nd & 10. Another knee.



Can you believe we've actually scored 31 points? It's great to have Chris Nickson back, huh? Now we're up 31-17. But don't forget how Kentucky came back to beat Arkansas in Lexington about a month ago. Here we go with the rest of the game:

• 13:55: Cobb throws for a first down. 1st & 10 on the UK45. Cobb throws a screen pass. 2nd & 5 on the 50.

• 12:58: Cobb fumbles a handover and falls on the ball. 3rd & 8. Cobb crushed behind the line of scrimmage by Chris Marve. I think Marve's OK. Fourth down.

• 11:15: Punt goes out of end zone. 1st & 10 for the Commodores at the 20. Expect Nickson and Hawkins to take turns carrying the rock.

• Nickson throws it out of bounds. 2nd & 10. Jennings picks up 3. Run, clock, run.

• 10:30: Nickson has about a 40-yard run that will be called back because of a penalty. Ouch.

• 10:18: 3rd & 17 on the VU13. It's 4th down. That run would have sealed the game, and the penalty was a killer.

• Are you feeling the pressure? I am. It's been 26 years since we've been to a bowl and we've squandered 17 chances since then to become bowl eligible. We're in the same position we were in last year in Knoxville.

• 9:43: 1st & 10 on the VU47. Cobb fires a pass down to the VU15. The receiver pushed off and should have been called for interference. Myron Lewis fell down.

• 9:06: Cobb down to the VU10. 2nd & 5. Cobb scores, breaking tackles and diving into the end zone. It's under review but should stand.

• 8:22: The PAT is good. Vanderbilt hanging on, 31-24.


So the fourth quarter's starting and we're clinging to a 24-17 lead with the ball on the UK15. I predict that if we score here we win. And if we don't, we lose.

• 1st & 10 on the UK15. Nickson's corner end zone pass incomplete.

• 2nd & 10. Chris bulls his way to the first down. What a gritty 11-yard run. Moore's made some big plays but we wouldn't be winning without Chris Nickson.

• 14:34: TOUCHDOWN JARED HAWKINS! He's had a great game.

• 14:14: Hahnfeldt boots the PAT. It's good! Barely, but it's good.


The Wildcats have slowly grabbed control of this game and trail by only a touchdown. Here we go:

• 2:37: Kickoff to the Commodores. Gaston Miller takes it up to the 30 yard line.

• 2:29: 1st & 10. Hawkins gets a couple of tough yards. 2nd & 6. Hawkins slammed to the ground. 3rd & 8 on the VU35. Nickson escapes a sack and then throws an interception. But Nickson got roughed and we still have the ball. Rich Brooks doesn't like it. I love it. Watching the replay, the defender definitely went high on Nickson and deserved the flag.

• 0:51: 1st & 10 on the VU49. We call a timeout. Which gives the announcers time to talk about how we last went to a bowl game in 1982. Perhaps, says one announcer, the idea of a sixth win is having a psychological effect on the Commodores. Ya think?

• 0:14: Go Chris! Nickson rips off a 36-yard run. 1st & 10 around the 15. End of the third quarter. We need a touchdown here.

• 0:00: End of the third quarter.


We're dominating the Wildcats except for two plays: the blocked punt/return for the Cats' first touchdown and Moore's fumble of a punt that led to the Cats' second touchdown.

Here we go with more of the third quarter:

• You know we're 106th in the nation on kick returns. Gaston Miller promptly fumbles it and then gets up to the VU18.

• 9:33: Jennings takes the option pitch and gets 2 yards. 2nd & 8. Pass to DJ Moore. Flag on the play. Pass interference even though he caught it. First down.

• 9:05: 1st & 10 on the VU27. Hawkins breaks out of a crowd and picks up six. 2nd & 4 on the VU33. Nickson keeps it but Vanderbilt called for holding. Jeff Jennings the culprit. Bob Davies says this game's going to have a crazy finish. Is he trying to keep people from going to bed?

• 7:56: 2nd & 14. Nickson gets a couple. Now 3rd & 12 on the VU25. Nickson sacked. Fourth down and, as Larry Munson would say, 5,000 miles to go.

• Upson punts but — are you kidding me? — the Cats rough him for the third time in the game. Wow! But Vanderbilt had an illegal formation so the penalties cancel each other out. We have to punt again.

• Cobb on the return. Great punt by Upson. But Cobb gets 11 on the return.

• 1st & 10 on the UK47. Great field position for Cobb and the Cats. Cobb keeps it and gets about 5.

• 5:30: 2nd & 6 on the VU49. Incomplete pass after the running back bobbled the screen. 3rd & 6. Cobb on the run but short of the first. Kentucky hasn't yet converted on third down. Are the Cats going on 4th down? Yes.

• 4:31: Long pass on fourth down. Hamilton fell down. 1st & goal on the nine. Cobb nearly sacked but no cigar.

• 3:45: Broderick Stewart can't stop a receiver in the backfield on a reverse. Four yard gain. Cobb stuffed by Hamilton.

• 3:08: 3rd & goal on the VU8. Cobb lobs a pass out of the back of the end zone. Fourth down.

• 2:41: Field goal attempt. It'll be 25 yards. Sieber hits and it's 24-17 Vanderbilt.


We're up 24-7. Let the second half begin.

• Tim Fugger makes a nice tackle on the kickoff return.

• Wildcats actually get a first down on a swing pass and the crowd goes crazy.

• 13:55: Cobb gets 15 yards. 1st & 10 on the UK45. Cat running back crushed by Broderick Stewart.

• 12:55: 2nd & 13 on the UK43. Short pass. Bob Davie's saying that Vanderbilt isn't dominating even though it's winning by 17 points.

• 11:58: 3rd & 8. Incomplete. Six and out, unless the Cats fake the punt again. Now DJ's back for the return.

• DJ fumbles it away and the Cats have it on the VU12. Cobb up to the 3. I'd be beside myself if, say, Alex Washington had fumbled, but we wouldn't be winning without DJ.

• Cobb just short of the first down at the VU2. Marve is down. Now he's rolled over on his back. We need that guy. Actually, Cobb got the 1st down.

• 10:25: Hamilton stuffs the running back. Now it's 2nd & goal on the 3. Touchdown Dixon. PAT good. It's 24-14.


My friend Chuck, a loyal Troy alum, just asked me if I'd checked the score of the Troy-LSU game lately. So I did and the Trojans are beating mighty LSU 24-3 right before the half. Wow!


We're up 21-7 and have outgained the Cats 261-15. Here we go:

• 1st & 10 on the UK20. Dixon gets about 5 yards. 2nd & 5 on the 25 with the clock ticking. Bad pass by Cobb.

• 3rd & 5 on the UK25. Another three and out? Yes, Dalron Spead breaks up a pass. And no DJ's returning the punt. Good call.

• 1:50: But Kentucky fakes the punt and catches the Commodores off guard. 1st & 10 on the VU 45. Great call by Brooks and the Cats' first first down of the game.

• 1:42: Cobb corralled at about the 43 but there's a flag on the play. Chop block on a Cat lineman. We decline and it's 3rd & 8 on the UK44. Cobb on the run, pressured by Marve, throws a wobbly pass that's broken up by Sean Richardson. Going on fourth down. Incomplete, and we've got the ball, 1st & 10 on our 44 yard line.

• Let's get some more! Nickson goes long to George Smith. Nice pass. Smith drops the pass and then gets rocked. I love that we're going deep here.

• 0:30: Now Hawkins is flying for another first down. 1st & 10 on about the 42. Pass to Barden. 2nd & 5 on the UK35. Chris throws another beauty to Walker who drops it. Nobody was covering him.

• 0:18: 2nd & 10. Nickson to DJ for a first down at the UK27. Now offsides on Kentucky. The Cats have really helped us, but we'll take it.

• 0:07: Hahnfeldt hits a field goal in a month other than September! We're up 24-7.

• 0:02: Now we're kicking off. Squib kick. Halftime. Nice job, Commodores!


That Kentucky touchdown hurt. But if you'd told me we'd be up 14-7 in the first quarter I'd have taken it. Sure, it feels like the a huge momentum shift so now we need to answer. Here we go:

• DJ gets stuffed inside the 20 on the kickoff return. You can feel the Wildcats come to life after that kick block and touchdown.

• 8:40: 1st & 10, Nickson skips a pass to Justin Wheeler. 2nd & 10.

• 8:25: Hawkins darts for the first down. He gets decked like he always does against the Cats, but he's got a first down.

• 8:07: Hawkins takes a screen pass and gets maybe a yard. We're midway through the second quarter and our defense has been on the field for six plays.

• 7:20: Nickson on the keeper and gets about 8. The Cats look tired on defense and Nickson is juking and jiving against them. 3rd & 2 on the VU37.

• 6:34: Jared Hawkins is runnin' wild! He's in Wildcat territory. 1st & 10 on the UK 44. Nickson slips and down for no gain. 2nd & 10.

• 5:25: Hawkins finds a seam and gets about three. He's running well. But it's 3rd & 8 on the UK 42. DJ's in the game.

• 4:48: Ball tipped and incomplete. Lindley on Moore is a good matchup. Upson's punt rolls through the end zone. We might could have caught up with that one.

• 1st & 10 for the Cats on the UK20. Let's get a turnover. Or at the least, let's get to halftime with a seven-point lead and then make some of those adjustments we were famous for in September and early October.

• DJ intercepts a pass from Randall Cobb. He's caught three passes in this game, two touchdowns and one interception.

• 4:19: 1st & 10 on about the 20. Moore still on the field. Nickson takes off for about 20 and is down at the one-yard line. 1st & goal at the one.

• 3:43: Jennings stuffed. Still 2nd & goal. I'm confident in our abilities once we get inside the red zone. Nickson spins and lobs it to Barden, who makes a great one-handed catch and dives for the end zone. TOUCHDOWN! Actually, the play is being reviewed. His knee may have been down. Bob Davie's not sure the evidence is indisputable.

• "After review, the play stands as called." The fans don't like it. I do. Hahnfeldt hits the PAT. We're up 21-7.

Hey, we've scored more than 14 points in a game! Do you believe in miracles!


Do you realize how rare it is for the Commodores to (a) score two touchdowns in less than one full game and (b) have a lead in the first quarter? This has to give a huge boost to our defense.

• Hawkins picks up some tough yardage. 3rd & 4 on the VU38. Now he keeps it and it's 1st and 10 on the VU45. Welcome back, Chris. Man, it's good to have you back.

• 13:53: Nickson running for his life and sacked for a pretty big loss. Now it's 2nd & 16 on the VU 39.

• 12:52: Hawkins takes a pass and gets rocked at the 44. 3rd & 11. Chris throws it way over Sean Walker's head. We're punting.

• 12:02: Cobb's returning the punt again. But Kentucky roughs Upson again. Wow. Thank you, Kentucky. We're back in business. Back to back roughing the punter penalties for the Cats.

• 12:02: 1st & 10 on the VU42. Now Jennings takes a screen up to the VU26. We look great.

• 11:38: DJ takes the handoff and darts up to around the 10. But it looks like a holding penalty. And it is. That was Ryan Custer, and he didn't need to do it. Jennings run and now it's 2nd & 13. Incomplete to Moore.

• 10:13: 3rd & 13 on the VU30. Jennings picks up the first down on a screen but there's a flag on the play. Another holding, this time on George Smith. Can George Smith block? What a wimpy looking penalty.

• 9:58: 3rd & 16 on the VU 34. Now there's another whistle. We called a timeout. Hey, let's throw it to DJ in the end zone again!

• 9:40: 3rd & long: Chris keeps it and gets up to about the 25. We've got the wind at our backs. You know Hahnfeldt hasn't hit a field goal since September? This'll be 42 yards.

• 8:45: It's blocked and Kentucky returns it for a touchdown. Unbelievable. PAT good. Now it's 14-7 instead of 17-0. That could be the turning point in the game. Let's hope not.