Commodores Not Only Team Fighting For Respect

FAYETTEVILLE — Not much of the college football world paid attention Oct. 9, 2004 when Rutgers traveled to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt.

Both were moribund programs going through years of losing. That same day, No. 2 Oklahoma shut out No. 5 Texas 12-0, No. 1 Southern California beat No. 7 Cal 23-17 and Tennessee and LSU pulled off SEC upsets over Georgia and Florida.

Rutgers beat Vanderbilt that day, coming back from a 27-3 deficit to win 37-34 in front of less than 28,000 fans.

Two years later, though, both programs, long the punch line in college football, are earning respect. Northwestern and Kansas State already have made the move from laughingstock to solid programs, now it's Rutgers' and Vanderbilt's turns.

The Commodores are 0-2 but went 5-6 a season ago, including a 28-24 win over Arkansas in Fayetteville. Vanderbilt was thought to be headed back to the bottom of the SEC heap without first-round pick Jay Cutler at the helm, but has performed respectably in losses to Michigan and Alabama.

Rutgers is in an even better position.

The Scarlet Knights went to a bowl game for the first time in 27 years with a 7-5 record in 2005. A win this Saturday would put Rutgers at 3-0 for the first time since 1981.

It's hard to call a 5-6 season a success but given Vanderbilt's recent performances, 2005 was a vast improvement. The Commodores won three Southeastern Conference games for the first time since 1991 and only close losses to Middle Tennessee State, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky kept Vandy from a bowl berth.

Had the Commodores won just one of those four games, they would have been bowl eligible for the first time since 1982.

Those losses might tell more about the Commodores' improvement than the five wins.

In 2005, just two of Vanderbilt's losses — 34-6 to LSU and 34-17 to Georgia — came by more than 10 points. The year before, four of the Commodores' nine losses were by ten points or more. In 2003, seven of 10 weren't close. The last time Vanderbilt lost less than four games by 10 or more points was in 1991.

It isn't easy to turn those kind of programs around though.

More than once, Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson has thought he was almost assured of getting a recruit to commit, only to see the young player scared off by playing for a program with such a lack of history.

"We used to go up against people and it would get down to two or three schools and we would be one of them and to be honest, sometimes it was just hard for a recruit to say, ‘I'm going to a program that hasn't had success,'" Johnson said. "He just couldn't make himself pull the trigger even though he probably felt like it was the best situation for him with opportunities to play and educational opportunities.

"But he just couldn't face going back to school and saying, ‘Well, I picked Vanderbilt over State U.'"

It is getting better though, especially with the publicity generated by Cutler.

"More people are interested in Vanderbilt than ever before," Johnson said. "Especially when Jay got drafted, it showed them that you could go to a great academic school, get your degree and play in the NFL.

"It just sort of opened the doors and opened some eyes."

Perceptions may be slow to change, but as the Commodores have crept to respectability, it's also been hard for the perceptions to change for those team's opponents.

When Illinois scheduled a home-and-home series against the Scarlet Knights several years ago, they couldn't have had this in mind.

The Fighting Illini escaped with a 33-30 overtime win in 2005 before Rutgers throttled Illinois 33-0 in Piscataway last week.

Florida needed double overtime and a disputed penalty for excessive celebration to sneak away with a 49-42 double-overtime win over Vanderbilt last season in Gainesville.

Last week, Alabama nearly found itself on the wrong side of an upset, needing to come from behind for a 13-10 win in Tuscaloosa.

"I don't know if any of these other coaches in the SEC have had to prepare them," Shula said. "I think everyone has always thought highly of Vanderbilt and what they can do.

"They're going to have a chance for sure every week and that's all all of us can ask for."

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