Vanderbilt seems to give Ole Miss fits in football. Last year proved to be more than that. The Commodores upset Ole Miss 23-17 in Oxford and moved on to their first winning season and bowl appearance in 26 years.
Vanderbilt defeated Boston College in the Music City Bowl 16-14 in its hometown and is hoping for positive carryover from the 7-6 campaign of last year into the 2009 season.
The Commodores also return a lot of experience with 19 starters back, including nine on both offense and defense. A total of 48 letterwinners return.
"We're an older team now, which is weird for us because we've always been a younger team," said senior center Bradley Vierling. "Last year we were a younger team. We have a lot of seniors in the locker room now. We have a lot of backups coming back, which is huge for us. It's always been Vanderbilt's story that we always start well but falter towards the end and that we never had enough depth. Now we finally have that. We have starters coming back and reserves coming back. We have backups pushing for starting spots. It's more competitive than it's ever been."
Veteran head coach Bobby Johnson, 3-4 against Ole Miss with the four losses by a combined 20 points, assessed that teams had better watch out for Vandy this time around, if the Commodores play well.
"This should be our most talented team, but we still have to do the small things right to win," he said. "We have to force turnovers, play great defense, control the football, and limit mistakes. Our formula for success remains the same."
That was his formula in winning several games last season, including at Ole Miss, when the Rebels had six turnovers to Vandy's two. The Rebels still almost won the game, save for a late fumble deep in Commodore territory.
The win lifted Vanderbilt to a 4-0 start, a national ranking, and ESPN's Gameday showed up the following week in Nashville. The Commodores beat Auburn that night on ESPN 14-13 to move to 5-0 for the first time since 1943.
Although Vandy lost five of its next six, the lone win against Kentucky 31-24, there was the bowl bid that awaited them at 6-6.
The Commodores still ranked last in the SEC in offensive production in 2008. But all five starting offensive linemen return, led by the 6-foot-3, 290-pound Vierling, a three-year letterwinner.
Tight ends Brandon Barden (6-5, 240, soph.) and Austin Monohan (6-7, 255, soph.) are potentially the best TE duo for the Dores in years.
At quarterback, senior Mackenzi Adams (6-3, 220, sr.) and Larry Smith (6-2, 220, soph.) are battling. Adams has the experience with nine starts over two years, while Smith got the start in the bowl game and is definitely in the mix to start this season.
There's uncertainty at receiver as three pass catchers graduated. Alex Washington (5-10, 188, sr.), Udom Umoh (6-0, 172, soph.), and John Cole 5-11, 170, R-fr.) are the top returnees.
In the offensive backfield, senior Jared Hawkins (5-10, 203) returns after starting 10 games as a junior and leading the team in rushing with 506 yards. But he missed the final two games and all of spring with a foot injury. He's expected to be 100 percent.
Just like the offensive line, Vandy returns all its defensive linemen and key contributors from the bowl season. Three strong veterans anchor the front: senior Greg Billinger (6-3, 297), junior Adam Smotherman (6-4, 290), and sophomore T.J. Greenstone (6-3, 280). The trio combined for 100 tackles and 13 tackles for loss in '08.
At defensive end seniors Steven Stone (6-5, 267) and Broderick Stewart (6-5, 230) make for big-play potential. A pair of all-conference linebackers - Patrick Benoist (6-0, 224, sr.) and Chris Marve (6-0, 228, soph.) – make that position one of the team's best.
In the secondary, senior Myron Lewis (6-2, 205) returns after a stellar season with five interceptions, 76 tackles, including five sacks. Senior Ryan Hamilton (6-2, 210) has started 32 consecutive games at free safety and has 104 career tackles and four picks.
The Dores are looking for a new PK after all-time VU leading scorer Bryant Hahnfeldt has departed. Redshirt freshman Ryan Fowler and senior All-SEC candidate punter Brett Upson are also in the mix to placekick.
The Commodores have an interesting schedule this time around, especially when it comes to where and when the games are played. They begin at home with Western Carolina on Sept. 5 and play 12 straight weeks without a break. Every other week Vandy plays at home; there are no back to back home or road games, which is unusual to say the least. The Commodores end the season in Knoxville against Tennessee on Nov. 21.
"I'm really not happy about it," Johnson said of no open date. "I don't think there's anything anybody could do to avoid it. We certainly would have if we could have. In fact, we tried to fix it up a little bit last year when we found out it would work out that way, but we just couldn't get it done."
Vierling compares an Ole Miss victory last season with how to expect the unexpected in the SEC.
"You never know who's going to win," he said. "Like Ole Miss and Florida last year, who would have known Ole Miss would win that game? Everyone thought Florida would go undefeated. Florida was playing great, but Ole Miss beat them. It might be Vanderbilt vs. Florida this year. You never know."
The one thing you can expect, however, is for Vanderbilt to give Ole Miss all it's got, which is often the case.
And also for the Commodores to remain competitive, according to Johnson.
"I think the sky's the limit for Vanderbilt, to tell you the truth," he said. "When we prove that we can win consistently, I think recruiting will pick up, and we're going to have the same quality team that the top tier teams have in our conference. We expect to compete for championships. To tell you the truth, we weren't really that far from it last year. We were third in the SEC East, fifth overall. We think that's great progress for us. If we can continue to make those kind of leaps and bounds, we'll be very pleased."
This one on Oct. 3 looks to be as tough for Ole Miss as any in recent memory, with the returing players Vandy has, the confidence they have having beaten Ole Miss the last two years, and also winning a bowl game.
It will be another battle in this long-standing series, which the Rebels lead 46-35 with two ties, when games could end in a standoff.
Vanderbilt held a 19-0 lead in the series before Ole Miss won a game. Since then, it's been mostly Rebels. Until lately.
Scouting the Opponents: Vanderbilt
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