PREVIEW: LSU vs. Vanderbilt

When LSU looked at its SEC East opponents this year, it figured Tennessee and Florida would be at or near the top of the division.

But the Vanderbilt Commodores too?

Believe it.

Vanderbilt stands 2-0 in SEC play to date and 4-1 overall after a devastating 17-15 loss to MTSU last weekend.

Certainly few analysts saw this coming from the perennial doormats of the Southeastern Conference, who posted a 2-9 record in 2004, its third straight two-win season under coach Bobby Johnson.

Five of the losses last year, however, came by five points or less, and when quarterback Jay Cutler announced he would return for his senior season rather than declare for the NFL Draft, hope began brewing … inside the Vanderbilt locker room.

The Commodores have done it on the right arm of Cutler, who leads the Southeastern Conference in total yards per game. Cutler has had a brilliant senior season and has erased the biggest knock on his college resume – his lack of fourth-quarter victories.

Cutler led the Dores to two come-from-behind victories in the first two weeks of the season as Vanderbilt won at Wake Forest and Arkansas. The Santa Claus, Ind., native followed that up with a 31-23 home win over Ole Miss in which he again drove his team for a key fourth quarter touchdown, and voila, Mr. Cutler became Mr. Clutch.

Cutler nearly had another fourth quarter comeback last Saturday, but after driving the Dores 81 yards in the final 2:47 against MTSU, Vanderbilt had its potential 36-yard game-winning field goal blocked on the game's final play.

NFL scouts are going to love the prospect's confidence, ability to read defenses and mobility. Now, they are also going to like his ability to lead his team to victory in the fourth quarter.

But Cutler has not done it alone. The Dores' offense has plenty of complementary parts, starting with the wide receiver corps. Senior Erik Davis is the go-to guy, but physical Marlon White and true freshman Earl Bennett are just as likely to be targets on third-and-long. The LSU secondary will have its hands full with this group, which can match up with the best the SEC has to offer.

Along the offensive line, Johnson says this unit is the best he's had since he's been in Nashville, especially in terms of depth. Seniors Trey Holloway and Ryan King are the mainstays, but Johnson says he's got eight or nine players he feels comfortable putting in game situations.

"The first year I was here, we had five linemen we were comfortable with," Johnson said. "We just held our breath."

Sophomore running backs Jeff Jennings and Cassen Jackson-Garrison are powerful inside runners, but Jackson-Garrison has shown big play ability with two 60-plus yard runs this season. In goal line situations, Jennings is the Commodores go-to guy, with seven touchdowns on the year.

Defensively, Vanderbilt is vulnerable. Only linebacker Moses Osemwegie would be a candidate for all-league honors, but somehow the defense has been good enough to win games. It has been a bend-but-don't-break unit that has given up plenty of yardage but relatively few touchdowns.

And it has come through in the clutch, stopping opposing offenses on the game's final drive three times this season.

Vanderbilt Stadium, usually a safe haven for visiting squads, will be hopping on Saturday night. The Commodores drew a near sell-out with 38,446 for the Richmond game, the largest crowd in four years. Vanderbilt fans yearning for their first bowl bid in 22 years are coming out in droves, and the atmosphere should be electric.

The Commodores are going to have to regroup, however, after a heart-wrenching loss to the Blue Raiders. Vanderbilt outgained MTSU 347-209 but one turnover and a blocked field goal prevented the Commodores from moving to 5-0 for the first time since 1943.

"This is one game," Cutlers said. "We play 11 in a year. We will bounce back. This is a tough loss, but we don't have time to dwell on it. I think this team is going to bounce back."

Vanderbilt had a rare opportunity to scout the Tigers a little early with their Monday night game against Tennessee televised nationally.

"They are athletic. They have some big boys up front," Cutler said. "They have great linebackers and great defensive backs. They are going to be a fired up team. It is going to be a night game, a lot of people here. It is going to be a great atmosphere. We have to prepare even harder than we have in the past five games. It is an SEC opponent and they are going to come in here ready to go."

Vanderbilt stands two victories from its first bowl game since 1982, and Johnson feels like his players will be able to rebound from their first loss of the season.

"I expect them to be resilient and practice hard," Johnson said. "We still have a great opportunity. I don't think our players will let this chance pass without putting in the effort that you need."

LSU and Vanderbilt have provided some memorable games despite playing just five times in the last 15 years. In fact, the Tigers' last two trips to Nashville were nail-biters, with each team winning one.

In 1990, Vanderbilt won 24-21 when a completed Tiger Hail Mary pass on the game's final play was disallowed because of offensive pass interference. In 1997, LSU survived 7-6 when Vanderbilt attempted to go for two after a late fourth-quarter touchdown, suffered two delay of game penalties trying to get the two-point play off, then had the extra point blocked.

In 1991 at Tiger Stadium, LSU survived another scare when Vanderbilt running back Corey Harris fumbled the ball at the LSU two-yard line with 1:18 to play and the Tigers leading 16-14. Wayne Williams recovered and preserved the narrow LSU win.

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