No rest for the weary

It's bad enough that Vanderbilt has the SEC's smallest stadium and its loftiest entrance standards. Now the Commodores have another hurdle: They must play 12 games without an open date this fall.

Whereas the other 11 league schools get to enjoy one off week somewhere between Sept. 5 and Nov. 28, Vandy does not. The Dores open Sept. 5 vs. Western Carolina and close Nov. 21 at Tennessee.

"I'm really not happy about it," head coach Bobby Johnson said at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., "but 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."

Playing 12 games in 12 weeks would be taxing for a program such as Florida that features tremendous depth. For a program such as Vandy that has almost no depth, playing 12 games in 12 weeks is virtually suicidal. Johnson understands that he faces a tough task trying to keep his starters rested and healthy.

"It is a challenge to play 12 straight games," Johnson conceded. "You have to plan for it, you have to be smart in the preseason, not just work them to death."

The primary factor weighing in Vandy's favor is the greater emphasis on offseason conditioning these days. Two decades ago guys played their way into shape during preseason camp. These days most players show up for preseason camp in peak physical condition.

"The great thing nowadays with everybody being able to go to summer school - especially your freshmen now being able to go to summer school - they get in shape during the summer," Johnson said. "Then we teach them the playbook and the game plan in preseason practice. So it's not that emphasis of getting them in shape that happens in the preseason practices any more. They're in shape (already)."

The 2009 Commodores had better be in shape because their September schedule is brutal. After opening with Western Carolina, they play Game 2 at LSU, Game 3 vs. Ole Miss and Game 4 at Rice. LSU and Ole Miss are top-20 programs, while Rice is coming off a bowl season in '08.

If ever a team needed an injury-free preseason it's the Commodores.

"Hopefully, we don't have to hit them a bunch (contact drills) in preseason practice ... we don't have to run them after practice to get them in condition," Johnson said. "And then during the season, you got to be smart about any kind of contact that you have during the week and the length of your practices."

Every coach faces the same dilemma: Do you keep the team healthy by going easy in practice and risk being "soft" or do you make the team more physical by working hard in practice and risk injuries?

"If you try to push that, there's the risk of injury ... just the risk of fatigue even if you don't get injured," Johnson noted. "We'll have to watch that closely."

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