But a closer look reveals that what the Commodores may lack in age, they will make up for, at least somewhat, in experience. A great many of those sophomore starters are actually entering their third year in school, and most gained valuable experience while going through the SEC wars as freshmen last season.
Two of those sophomores-- quarterback Jay Cutler and defensive end Jovan Haye-- serve as 2003 team captains. The pair, attired spiffily in suits, served as Vanderbilt's player representatives before the media entourage Tuesday.
"Our entire team is a close-knit group and we are working hard-- we want to get to a bowl game," said Cutler, a 6-4, 218-pounder who started 11 games last year and set a freshman record for total offense. "We're young, we're fired up, we have goals and we want to obtain those goals this year. Our older guys were a bit jaded. Our youthfulness will be an advantage."
"It was very frustrating last year," added Haye, a stalwart as a rookie defensive end last season. "A play or two and a first down and we'd have won a few more games last year.
"In the next two or three years, we hope to be a lot better. It will take a lot of work, but that's something we're willing to do. We look at Wake Forest and they have showed us that a school with high academic standards can turn their football program around."
Johnson, entering his second season at Vanderbilt, said it helps his coaching staff to have gone through the cycle one time, and the experience should be invaluable for his many sophomores as well.
"We have an extremely young team, but a lot of these guys played last year," said Johnson. "They took their lumps. Hopefully it paid off for them. We have to build on those guys. They're good players but it's tough to compete in this league with redshirt freshmen starting for you.
"I feel better because I've seen our guys progress a little bit. We were playing so many young guys last year. It was tough to ask them to do some things we were asking them to do. We went through the spring, and saw them get better, saw them grasp what we were trying to do offensively and defensively."
Besides Cutler and Haye, a number of other sophomores look to take on team leadership roles this year, including tailback Kwane Doster, fullback Matthew Tant, receiver Erik Davis, linebackers Moses Osemwegie and Herdley Harrison, and defensive back Dominique Morris.
The Commodores have endured 20 straight losing seasons, and have not played in a bowl game since 1982.
"We expect it to end this year," said Johnson of the 17-game SEC losing streak the Commodores will carry into 2003. "We try to take them one game at a time. I know that sounds like bull, but we just try to win anything we can win. Some people think our guys don't want to win. They want to win as much as anybody in this league. We'll get it done sooner or later."
Johnson had high praise for Cutler, who has firmly entrenched himself as the starting quarterback and dramatically increased his size and strength since last season.
"This spring he did a great job watching film," Johnson said. "He basically organized our 7-on-7 drills this summer, and has almost been coaching those guys himself. It will be a big step for Jay, and I expect him to have a really big year."
Cutler said a winning team at Vanderbilt would solve any attendance problems the Commodores might have.
"We just have to win, just like any other program," said Cutler. "Other programs win ball games and fans come out and watch them. If we can start off well and win some big games, I think we'll get bigger and better crowds for our games."
Over the course of a 30-minute question-and-answer session with the print media, Johnson answered questions on anything and everything-- from conference realignment to a BCS playoff-- from his notorious no-cursing policy, to recruiting.
Asked whether Vanderbilt would think of leaving the SEC, as had been speculated in a number of newspaper columns over the summer, Johnson said, "It would not make sense for us to join any other league. I don't put a whole lot of stock in any of that. I think we have a lot to offer the league. I can't think of any other league we'd even think about going to."
Though saying he enjoyed playing in the Division I-AA playoffs during his time as Furman's head coach, Johnson said he would be against a playoff for Division I-A. "It's tough to play four extra games," said Johnson, whose Furman team reached the I-AA championship game in 2001.
When asked about the off-the-field behavior of coaches (an obvious reference to the shenanigans that led to the firing of Alabama's Mike Price), Johnson waxed humorous.
"I put on a wig and glasses when I go out to clubs, and nobody has caught me yet," he joked.
Asked if redshirt freshman quarterback Steven Bright had won the backup quarterback position in spring practice, Johnson replied, "He's right in the mix. He's big, and he can make some things happen. If he doesn't quit getting bigger, he might be a defensive end.
"Unfortunately for him, we've got a good quarterback [Cutler] in front of him."
VandyMania will bring you complete reports and interviews from SEC Media Days 2003 over the course of the next few days.