Hoover, Ala.--Expectations can be a deadly thing for a football team that is trying to make a step up in the way a program is perceived. That is exactly the situation facing the Vanderbilt Commodores this season after a solid season in 2006 that saw them defeat the Georgia Bulldogs and come close to a bowl game for the first time in many years. Coach Bobby Johnson says that the goal for his team this season is improvement and he feels like he's got the right pieces in place to do just that.
"I think we're much more talented than we have been early in my career at Vanderbilt," Johnson says. "I think our coaches have done a good job of identifying good players in high school and going out and convincing them to come to Vanderbilt and play in the SEC. I think we're more talented. We've got 17 or 18 starters returning. We've won some pretty big games the last couple of years. I think that is more important than the talent level, our confidence level. I think our guys feel like they can compete in this league and their work habits reflect that. When you get that working for you then you're going to have a chance."
Making it tough for the Commodores to move up the SEC East ladder is the competition they will face this season. Eight bowl teams dot Vanderbilt's schedule in 2007, including games against Auburn from the Western Division and Eastern Division foes Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky, all of which played in bowl games last season. Johnson says that's the biggest hurdle his team has to overcome is the day in and day out toughness of the SEC.
"When you play in this league you've got to scratch and claw to get victories," Johnson says. "The teams at the top of the SEC East and the SEC West are there for a reason. They've had consistent programs year after year after year. For somebody to come in and work themselves up the latter is tough because of how tough those teams are ahead of us.
"We've had some quality wins the last couple of years and we've won some games on the road. We've also won some close games. It's just not Vanderbilt where you got close at the end of the game and didn't win, we've won some. We feel like we're making progress. It may not be fast to all of you but we're working as hard as we can and our guys are having fun doing it."
Earl Bennett is one of the top receivers in the country.
Leading the charge for Vanderbilt this season will be two players from Alabama, Chris Nickson and Earl Bennett. A first-year starter for the Commodores, Nickson had an outstanding year as he proved to be a solid passer while also leading the team in rushing years. Johnson says both bring something exciting to the table with Nickson's development a key to his team's success.
"We're excited about those Alabama guys playing for us," Johnson says. "There is obviously good high school football in the state of Alabama and we like to recruit down here. Chris Nickson, I think, got better and better as he played last year. For a first year starter he had a rough game to open up with. He had to play Michigan in the big house and that was pretty tough duty but I was very pleased with his progress throughout the year. Chris was playing extremely well at the end of last year and we were expecting him to make that kind of progress. He actually had a better sophomore year statistically and record-wise than Jay Cutler. If he continues that progress we think he's going to be an outstanding quarterback."
Nickson's top target and the top target in the SEC is Bennett. A Birmingham native, Bennett is closing in on becoming the all-time leading receiver in the conference as just as junior. Johnson says that Bennett's play and his leadership both on and off the field have given his team an identity on offense. That is big for a team looking to have a facelift and become a new and improved Vanderbilt in 2007.
"Obviously we couldn't foresee him being that close to the record in his junior year," Johnson says. "We knew Earl was a good player when we recruited him and signed him. He's been pretty special and I just hope he can stay healthy and do all of the things he's capable of doing. He's a pretty special player and an outstanding young man."