State Of The Hogs: Vandy

FAYETTEVILLE -- This is a warning to the Arkansas faithful: Take Vanderbilt serious. If you don't, you will be shocked Saturday night.

I'm not saying Vandy is going to beat the Hogs. But if you expect to see anything but an all-out war, you will be surprised.

Expect to see a solid SEC football team with an outstanding quarterback in Jay Cutler, perhaps the league's best.

Vandy is infamous for compiling losing won-loss marks. You can check out its records against SEC foes and understand that Vandy football has been down for almost forever.

If you look at the records, they suggest that none of the SEC's big boys have had much trouble with Vandy, at least in modern times.

Alabama is 57-19-4 against Vandy. Florida is 37-9-2. Georgia is 46-17-2. Tennessee's mark against the 'Dores is 67-27-5.

Kentucky is the only SEC team Vandy owns the series lead against. The Commodores are 37-36-4 against the Wildcats. Auburn and Vandy are dead even at 19-19-1, but that is deceiving. The last Vandy victory came in 1955 in the Gator Bowl.

However, it's not like the games are runaways. Many are extremely competitve games, although usually Vandy losses. For evidence, look at the Alabama series.

Vandy hasn't beaten Alabama on the field since 1984 (although the Commodores were awarded a forfeit victory in 1993).

But it's not like Bama has had an easy time with Vandy. Only twice since 1991 has Alabama scored more than 30 on the 'Dores, and both of those were nailbiters. Bama won 33-25 in '95 and by 36-26 in '96. Four years ago, a good Bama team struggled past Vandy, 12-9, in a game that was nothing more than a field goal contest. Bama booted four, Vandy three.

The Bama series is the right spot to focus, too, when it comes to Vandy. Those two usually play in week two, the same spot Arkansas has drawn Vandy.

"That is when Vanderbilt is at its most dangerous," an old-time SEC observer said. "Vandy's problem has always been depth. As the season progresses and injuries mount, Vandy isn't the same.

"But when Bama got them on the schedule, Vandy was always double tough. You don't want to play them then. You want to play them in November."

Ole Miss replaced Vanderbilt in that week two spot the last two years. Ole Miss beat Vandy as bad as it could. Eli Manning led the Rebels to a 24-21 whipping two years ago. Ole Miss needed overtime to nip Vandy last year, 26-23.

The trend here is obvious. The guy was right when he said you don't want them early.

To make it worse, there is Cutler. Reggie Herring, Arkansas' defensive coordinator, should know an NFL quarterback when he sees one. He coached in that league for a couple of years with the Houston Texans.

Herring compares Cutler to what he saw under center on Sundays. He said Cutler has a better arm than Southern Cal's Matt Leinart, last year's Heisman Trophy winner and the quarterback the Hogs will see in eight days.

This is the game I worried most about when I was trying to pick a record this past summer. I told one of our staff members to write a column about Vandy being the season's key game in our June football preview. When approached for that piece in May, Houston Nutt seconded the motion. He knew the Commordores would be overlooked by fans. He is trying to make sure his team doesn't fall into that trap, too.

"No one in the SEC takes Vandy serious," a friend at Alabama told me. "Every time we played them -- every time -- the games were tough and difficult."

Bama's '92 national champs beat Vandy, 25-8. Five times since the Hogs entered the SEC in '92 the Tide has failed to score more than 20 points on the Commodores. Yes, 'Bama has won all of those games, but it's easy to tell they weren't easy victories.

I expect more of the same Saturday night. My pick in the magazine is Arkansas, 27-14. Only one of our eight pickers thought the Hogs would score more than that total and most thought the margin of victory would be between three and 10 points. But, only Mike Irwin of KFSM-TV picked Vandy to win.

Irwin's thoughts were clear. He said the Arkansas defense will have to get a lot better to stop an SEC team and he didn't think the offense would find the same running room it had againt Missouri State. Fair enough.

I told someone about Irwin's thoughts on Monday and the response was predictable.

"Come on, it's Vanderbilt!" he said. "Nobody in the SEC loses to Vanderbilt."

After hearing those comments I outlined some of the same points you've already read in this space today. It did no good. The guy just laughed it off as meaningless stats. He had his opinion and he was sticking to it.

OK, I tried. Just remember what the folks in Alabama told me. Take Vandy serious.


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