'Dore encore

Coming off a 7-6 season that included a 16-14 defeat of Boston College in the Music City Bowl, Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson no longer has to answer the question "When will the Commodores earn a bowl bid?"

The new question is even tougher, though: Coming off their best season in a quarter-century, what will the Commodores do for an encore?

After garnering seven wins, a bowl bid and some respect in 2008, Johnson is hoping his program can take another step in the years to come by earning more wins, more bowl bids and even more respect.

After conceding at SEC Media Days that the 2008 season was "satisfying," Johnson added: "But it was also necessary, I think, for our program to move forward. Anytime you do better than what you have been doing in the past, I think it's satisfying ... sort of a way to test your program to see if you're making progress."

Despite steady progress under Johnson, Vandy has struggled to rise above mediocrity. Even with first-round NFL Draft pick Jay Cutler at quarterback in 2005, the Commodores stumbled home 5-6. And, despite a 5-3 start in 2007, they blew a bowl bid that fall by going 0-4 in November.

Johnson conceded that his program "had some chances to make that step in previous years, and didn't quite get it done."

History appeared ready to repeat last fall. After a 5-0 start got them within one victory of bowl eligibility, the Dores dropped four games in a row before beating Kentucky to seal a post-season bid. Looking back, those struggles probably made the breakthrough that much sweeter.

"I was really proud of the team last year," Johnson said. "They stepped up when we had a lull in the middle of the season, came back and became bowl eligible. I think they know what it takes."

Now that Vanderbilt has shown itself capable of a winning season and a bowl bid, the Commodores are getting a little more respect than usual from the media. Johnson says that's no big deal, though.

"We weren't seeking respect," he said. "We were seeking to do as good as we could possibly do in our program. That (respect) comes with it. If we continue to get better, I think people will know that we're just not an automatic win any more and we can be considered a contender for a championship if we continue to improve."

Whereas Johnson is low-key regarding 2008, his players continue to celebrate last season's accomplishments. Cornerback Myron Lewis said the bowl victory "put us on Cloud Nine" and center Bradley Vierling added that "Everyone's confidence is really high. Everyone wants to get better. Everyone wants to get to another bowl game."

No one wants to get to another bowl game more so than Johnson. One winning season has merely whetted the head man's appetite.

"Yeah, it is satisfying," he said, "but not satisfying enough."

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