Liberty Bowl Preview: Chesty Ignorance

Two particularly relevant subtexts accompany the arrival of Vanderbilt's second bowl game in the past four seasons. The key insight to make as the 2011 Liberty Bowl approaches is simple: The Commodores can make one of those subtexts entirely irrelevant if they put their minds (and bodies) to the task.


As coach James Franklin's VU crew prepares to play the Cincinnati Bearcats inside the venerable Liberty Bowl stadium on New Year's Eve, two storylines should jump off the printed page and catch your attention. The first is that Cincinnati's normal starting quarterback, Zach Collaros, could very possibly play in this game after making substantial progress with his rehabilitation from a broken ankle suffered on Nov. 12 against West Virginia. Had Collaros not sustained that injury, the Bearcats probably would have beaten West Virginia (they lost by only three points without their trigger man) and made their way to the Orange Bowl to face Clemson. Instead of playing in Miami in early January, they're playing in Memphis in late December. Collaros's absence made all the difference in the world for Cincinnati, a team that rebounded from a horrible 2010 campaign but did not get to enjoy a third BCS bowl in a four-season span. UC head coach Butch Jones quieted a lot of doubters after his discouraging 2010 season, solidifying his hold on the Bearcat program, but for all of Cincinnati's successes, it's impossible to ignore the "what could have been" aspect of the 2011 Big East title chase in the southwestern corner of Ohio.

As the Bearcats gear up for Vanderbilt, Collaros will be the primary focal point regardless of his playing status. If he plays, how effective will he be? If he doesn't play, how will that affect Cincinnati's mindset? Moreover, if Collaros can't take the field, how will backup Munchie Legaux respond, and how will Vandy's defense react to the change-of-pace running quarterback who stepped in for Collaros at the tail-end of the Bearcats' season? Collaros, no matter what he does or doesn't do, will unfurl several variables that will undeniably affect the tone and tactics of this tilt.

Now, here's the second major storyline of the upcoming Liberty Bowl: Vanderbilt is in position to make Collaros's presence a moot point.

In 2008, the last time Vanderbilt played in a bowl game, the Commodores similarly stayed within Tennessee state borders. They similarly played on the afternoon of Dec. 31. They similarly played a team that had just missed winning its conference – Boston College was the runner-up to Virginia Tech in the ACC, much as Cincinnati is this year's runner-up to West Virginia in the Big East. Vanderbilt had the same 6-6 record that it owns right now. Giddiness defined the VU family's reaction to this gridiron gift.

That's where the similarities end.

Beyond a number of surface details, this Liberty Bowl is so substantially different from the 2008 Music City Bowl. This time, Vanderbilt has a quarterback who can sling the pigskin. This time, VU can land haymakers on the offensive side of the ball. This time, VU's punter is not going to be the most valuable player; we're just not going to encounter a scenario in which a Brett Upson-style narrative resurfaces three years after it did against Boston College in Nashville. (This is not to say that Bearcats-Commodores is guaranteed to be a shootout; anything but. However, the safe claim is that these two offenses certainly possess a fair amount of potential, whereas the 2008 Music City Bowl was never going to feature two flourishing offenses. That was never a realistic expectation for the battle against Boston College.) If the '08 Music City Bowl was decided by the style and flow of play – chiefly, Vanderbilt's ability to slow the pace and establish tremendous field position on a regular basis – this showdown against Cincinnati will be determined by the level of execution. Vanderbilt needed to make the Music City Bowl an ugly, shortened game in which it could narrow a 60-minute fight to a handful of key sequences. In the 2011 Liberty Bowl, the calculus has taken a complete 180: Vanderbilt would be happy to lengthen this game and turn it into a playmaking festival. If Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy run wild within an offense that hums the way it did for the first two and a half quarters against Arkansas, the Commodores will put themselves in the catbird's seat.

To a certain undeniable degree, Zach Collaros will affect this game, but the point the Dores need to absorb in the final days before kickoff is that they don't have to allow Collaros to cast a shadow over the Liberty Bowl. This is Vanderbilt's best offense since the Jay Cutler days, led by Vanderbilt's best head coach in decades, fueled by the best locker room attitude a VU football team has acquired in some time. With a month off between games, the Dores have the chance to demonstrate how much they've learned and how fully they've grown in that period of time. A letter-perfect offensive performance, a start-to-finish demonstration of technical excellence against a UC defense that was eviscerated by a healthy Tennessee team back in September, will affirm all the good things James Franklin has done this season. It will also underscore the transformation that began with Franklin's arrival and has only accelerated ever since.

Getting down to brass tacks, the matter isn't complicated: This is a time for the new Vanderbilt to project and then impose its attitude on an opponent. This isn't a matter of simply winning the way the 2008 did against Boston College. In this game, performing well will offer just as much of a statement as the final outcome.

Six years ago, Fox Sports commentator Petros Papadakis, providing analysis for the memorable 2005 football game between Fresno State and USC (the one that cemented Reggie Bush's Heisman Trophy before it was stripped from him…), said that USC needed to score a touchdown from the 1-yard line by running the ball into the end zone, not by passing it. Papadakis explained that when a team can power the ball into the end zone in a power-running situation, it gains an extra measure of confidence. Papadakis likened the situation to "a chest-puffing rooster show," an animalistic theater in which the team which can demonstrate its manliness is the team that can establish residency in the other's mind. This is, in short, "getting in your opponent's head."

It's time for Vanderbilt football to be chesty. That's something you can't often say about the Commodores, but something which could very well become commonplace as long as Franklin sticks around. It's time for Vanderbilt football to ignore Zach Collaros's impact on this game and simply throw down its best performance, which will be better than Cincinnati's best brand of ball.

Chesty ignorance. That is the ingredient the VU football crew must bring to the sombrero-style stadium in Memphis this Saturday. If Vanderbilt's mind is right – not swelled with ugly arrogance but full of competitive cockiness – the last day of 2011 could point the way to a glorious 2012 on the gridiron.

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