Many will recall that Vanderbilt played here in 1998 and lost 19-16 in a double-overtime thriller. The thing most Vandy fans remember about that game is that Vandy had a first-down field goal attempt blocked that would have won the game in the first overtime. But what fans may have forgotten is that Vandy had made a great fourth-quarter comeback from a 10-0 halftime deficit, and would have won the game 13-10 in regulation if not for a 50-yard TCU field goal with 0:04 left.
Neither head coach Dennis Franchione nor running back LaDainian Tomlinson was a household name at the time, but both have gone on to national fame since that 1998 game-- Franchione with Alabama and Texas A&M, and Tomlinson with the San Diego Chargers.
Gary Patterson, defensive coordinator under Franchione back in 1998, took the head coaching job in 2000 after Franchione went to Alabama. His first season was an up-and-down one, but the Horned Frogs made it to the GalleryFurniture.com Bowl and finished 6-7. Patterson's second season brought a 10-2 record, a share of the Conference USA title, and a Liberty Bowl victory. TCU finished 2002 ranked 22nd in the coaches' poll, 23rd by AP.
Vandy fans who expect an easy game because TCU doesn't have that much name recognition had better think again... the Dores catch TCU ranked No. 19 by the coaches, No. 20 by AP. Their recent success (five straight bowl games) is a great example of what a private school can accomplish over time with stability and great coaching.
Though Conference USA doesn't hold a candle to the SEC, TCU has many of the same advantages that Vandy enjoys, most notably a homey, private-school feel in a major metropolitan city. (The disadvantage-- with all the pro teams in the Metroplex, the Horned Frogs struggle for media attention, much like Vanderbilt. Their 2003 slogan, "TCU, Your Home Team," even sounds Vanderbilt-esque.)
TCU enters the game missing two key offensive starters. Starting QB Tye Gunn is out with a separated shoulder, and RB Ricky Madison is sidelined with a torn ligament in his right knee. The loss of Gunn is an especially difficult blow, as the Frogs looked to him as a leader much the way Vandy looks to Jay Cutler.
Much like his predecessor Franchione, Patterson is a fan of the option-- but much like Bobby Johnson, his offense is truly multiple, and the Frogs aren't afraid to throw it. Brandon Hassell (6-1, 199) should be under center in Gunn's place. Though Hassell quarterbacked the team through most of spring practice, this will be his first college start. Vanderbilt's defense could possibly gain an advantage here if it can "hassle Hassell."
Bobby Johnson downplayed the loss of Gunn earlier in his press conference earlier this week. "I'm sure it's a situation where they have confidence in both [quarterbacks] and won't hesitate to run their offense like they have been running," said Johnson. "I wouldn't expect many changes."
The Frogs won't miss Madison nearly as much-- his absence merely means more carries for sophomore Lonta Hobbs (5-10, 218). The Clarksville, Tex. native has All-Conference written all over him, and many think Hobbs has the potential to be as good as Tomlinson before he leaves TCU. Hobbs rushed for over 100 yards five times as a freshman last year, including a 287-yard outburst vs. Memphis.
The Frogs' best receiver is Reggie Harrell (6-3, 209), who's also a world-class high hurdler. The offensive line is led by center Brandon Johnson (6-3, 305) and center Anthony Alabi (6-6, 325). TCU will likely start the game by trying to pound Vanderbilt's defense on the ground, much as Auburn did last week with great success.
TCU's team strength is its defense-- the Horned Frogs boast a front six that would probably do just fine in the SEC, thank you. Linemen Bo Schobel (6-5, 268) and Chad Pugh (6-3, 314) have All-America and NFL potential. (Schobel is the cousin of Aaron Schobel, who blocked John Markham's kick in 1998.)
"Their front four is as good as anybody we saw last year or will see this year," says Johnson. That may just be Coachspeak, but if Vanderbilt had trouble running on Auburn's outstanding defensive front, it may have similar troubles against this mobile front, unless the offensive game plan gets very creative.
Safety Marvin Godbolt (6-0, 195) is the star of the defensive secondary. Linebacker Martin Patterson and cornerbacks Mark Walker and Tyrone Sanders round out a solid defense with great overall speed and pursuit.
TCU is outstanding on special teams as well. Nick Browne is an all-conference kicker, and dangerous punt returner Cory Rodgers is just itching to break one all the way. Kickoff and punt return teams have been a glaring weakness thus far for the Commodores.
Coach Patterson has had two full weeks to prepare for Vandy, as TCU enjoyed an off-day last Saturday. The Horned Frogs are 2-0 after victories over Tulane (38-35) and Navy (17-3), but neither win was especially convincing.
This is Vandy's first road trip in 2003, and Vandy is still looking for its first road win under Johnson. TCU will bring a good crowd for this night game... but compared to the hostile crowds Vandy is used to seeing in the SEC, the Commodores aren't likely to notice the crowd noise.
With both offenses struggling, I'm expecting a low-scoring game. What must Vandy do to gig the Frogs? (1) Stop the Horned Frogs' running game, and force them to test Hassell's arm; (2) find a way to score some points on a stout defense, and take advantage once inside the red zone; (3) don't give up points on punt and kick returns.
And of course, (4) don't turn the ball over, but you could say that about every game this season.