On paper at least, it's a game between the two weakest teams in the SEC. But outside observers can laugh all they want-- when Vanderbilt (1-4, 0-2) takes on Mississippi State (0-4, 0-1) Saturday at 1:30 CT in an SEC showdown at Davis Wade Stadium, for the two teams involved, the game takes on great significance. It would be hard to find a team that needs a win any worse than these two.
For the second time this season, the Commodores face a team whose head coach is hanging by a thread. (Vandy flunked that test the first time around, vs. Auburn and Tommy Tuberville Sept. 13.) As viewed by the national pundits, this game is about whether Sherrill can buy a little more time for himself.
Speculation is strong that Sherrill may be fired, or resign with games still left on Mississippi State's schedule. A loss to Vandy would be a dagger blow for Sherrill, the dean of SEC coaches.
But for a Vanderbilt team that has not tasted victory in its last 19 conference contests, and is coming off a confidence-sapping loss to Georgia Tech, this game is about beating somebody, anybody.
"We're not necessarily looking at it as an SEC win," running back Norval McKenzie said earlier this week. "We're just trying to get any kind of win."
The Commodores' last SEC win was in 2000 over Kentucky, and their last win over a Division I-A opponent was ten games ago, vs. Connecticut in 2002. Second-year head Coach Bobby Johnson is still looking for his first SEC win.
This game will mark my third time to visit Starkville, and somehow I have an eerie fear and trepidation about coming back. And it's not that we weren't treated graciously by the home fans-- despite its remoteness, Starkville is really a pleasant place to visit and tailgate.
But the two Vanderbilt-Mississippi State football games I've witnessed here, in 1989 and 1998, were positively nightmarish. If the last two games are any indication, spooky things seem to happen to Vanderbilt teams that play here.
Vanderbilt came here for the 1989 season opener brimming with hope. Watson Brown's Commodores entered the season with great enthusiasm, and with great hopes for a turnaround. John Gromos was the quarterback; DeMond Winston anchored the defense; and shifty Derrick Payne was going to be one of the best running backs Commodore fans had ever seen.
But before that horrendous night was over, Vanderbilt had lost five players to season-ending injuries, including its star running back, Payne. Mississippi State demolished Vandy 42-7, and Vandy's high hopes for a turnaround season received a crushing blow.
Vanderbilt would not return to Starkville until nine years later. In many ways the situation in 1998 was similar: a season opener under the lights. Commodore fans were anxiously awaiting the debut of "Woodyball II: On the Offensive."
Second-year coach Woody Widenhofer had lost the nucleus of his outstanding defense from the year before, as well as quarterback Damian Allen, but was pledging a renewed emphasis on offense. It was the first game at Vandy for new offensive coordinator Steve Crosby.
It was also one of the youngest teams Vanderbilt had ever fielded. Vandy had no quarterback who had ever taken a snap, but thought it had found one in the off-season in little-used fifth-year senior Hi Lewis. The game was to be televised by ESPN2.
Most people remember what happened... Lewis' first college pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. His second pass was also intercepted, and MSU soon turned that into a second TD. After three series, Steve Crosby yanked Lewis for redshirt freshman Greg Zolman, who made his debut as a Commodore that night. Lewis' brief college career was over.
Meanwhile the famed cowbells rang early and often, as James Johnson picked up 111 yards against a wearying Vandy defense. State won 42-0, and another season of hope went up in flames in Starkville.
The following year in Nashville wasn't much fun either. Vandy was flying high at 3-1, but the Bulldogs came to Nashville 4-0 and livid about an article written about them in the Commodore Report. MSU spanked Vandy pretty good, 42-14.
Those 1998 and 1999 State teams both turned out to be pretty good teams. The '98 team won the SEC West and lost to eventual national champion Tennessee in the Championship Game, and the '99 team finished 10-2 and 12th-ranked. For fans of this year's 0-4 Bulldogs, those years seem like ages ago.
But here's a much more pleasant Starkville memory: in 1971, Bill Pace's Commodores came here to face Charley Shira's Bulldogs in the third game of the season. Behind quarterback Steve Burger and tailback Jamie O'Rourke, the Commodores kept the ball on the ground and battered the Bullies, 49-19. Doug Nettles had a 28-yard interception return for a touchdown, and Walter Overton had a 57-yard punt return for a score.
Vandy and State have played only eight times in the ensuing 31 seasons, with State winning seven. Vandy's lone win came in 1988 in Nashville, 24-20.
Mississippi State's stadium has expanded significantly since Vanderbilt last visited in 1998. Over 50 skyboxes have been added, as well as about 9,000 upper-level seats. Thanks primarily to a generous gift from AFLAC Corporation founder Davis Wade, the stadium now seats over 55,000 fans.
Which, I suppose, is why it's now called Davis Wade Stadium.