You heard it here first, and only here: Vanderbilt football is going to a bowl in 2005.
Yes, I'm dead serious, and no, I'm not talking tenpins. Sometime around the first of December, it says here Bobby Johnson's Commodores will be celebrating the end of a 22-year bowl-less drought. They'll be making plans to travel somewhere over the Christmas break where the weather is nice and warm.
I know what you're thinking right about now. You're thinking either (A) he's gone stark-raving, crazy-in-the-head mad; (B) he's on some kind of pain medication; or (C) more likely, he's once again viewing the world through grossly optimistic, black-and-gold-colored glasses-- something of which I'm frequently accused.
"Why would you even think of writing such a thing?" pleaded one of my fellow Vandy-fanatic friends, fearful of me putting some kind of hex on the team. "Give me one good reason why you think Vandy is capable of a winning season."
I'll do better than that. I'll give you five.
1. Breakout seasons happen when you least expect them.
Last year at this time Vanderbilt was a trendy pick to break out of its 21-year slump and perhaps even win enough games to slip into a minor bowl. There was no way, reasoned pundits and fans, that Vanderbilt could not improve on its previous year's total of two wins.
Predictably, it didn't happen. South Carolina methodically ran Vanderbilt's ship aground in the very first game, and the Dores, their confidence shattered, never fully recovered.
Now think back to 1999, Vanderbilt's last "breakout" season, when Woody Widenhofer's best team came breathtakingly close to landing a bowl bid. How many preseason publications were picking Vandy, which had come close to going winless the year before, to rise up off the mat and pull off five wins? Answer: none.
How about 1982? The newspapers ragged on Whit Taylor all summer, figuring he was too old and slow to take Vandy anywhere. Instead of losing all their close games in Vanderbilt-esque fashion, the '82 Dores won all theirs to finish the season 8-3, capped by a magnificently glorious win over Tennessee.
Remember Vandy's 2003-04 NCAA Tournament season in basketball? It came on the heels of a miserable 11-18 season, courtesy of the same coach and cast of characters that had failed to jell a year before.
After Vandy's third consecutive two-win season, Bobby Johnson's club could hardly enter 2005 with less buzz. No one's even thinking the B-word, much less saying it.
Breakout seasons happen when you least expect them. For a moment today, just keep that thought in mind.
2. I know Vandy fans grow weary of hearing this, but the Commodores were a mere 15 points away from going 7-4 last year.
The 2004 Dores were plucky enough to fight people to the wire, but notoriously impotent to finish the drill. The Commodores fell short against Ole Miss (3 points), Navy (3 points), Rutgers (3 points) and Kentucky (1 point). When last we saw these Commodores, lest we forget, they were taking SEC East champion Tennessee to the wire; Jay Cutler had the ball in his hands in the final minute, 80 yards away from the biggest win in school history.
It didn't happen, of course-- just like the four other close-but-no-cigar games. Consequently, the emphasis this fall has been on closing the door, on cutting the proverbial giant's head off once he's down.
"We've just got to come together and figure it out," says quarterback captain Jay Cutler. "There's nothing anybody on the outside can do. It's all internal.
"It's up to us to figure it out and get some mental confidence, mental toughness, and realizing it can be done."
"It's not going to be a magic moment where you say everybody believes, everybody is in the program, everybody is playing at 100%," says Coach Johnson. "Especially in the fourth quarter. It's a process that has to work its way through and you have to build that year after year after year."
Which leads me to...
3. In spite of its personnel losses, this is still a very experienced and senior-dominated Vanderbilt team.
After a couple of key fourth-year juniors bolted for the NFL, many fans figured Johnson would be back to square one for 2005; same ole Vanderbilt. But wait-- a quick glance at the roster shows otherwise. Almost ignored by the prognosticators is the fact that despite the defections, the 2005 Commodores are still a senior-laden and experienced team.
Forgotten is the fact that the team is led by 19 seniors, most of whom will play extensively. Of those, a phenomenal 14 are fifth-year seniors; it's pretty safe to say that's the most at Vanderbilt since the 85-scholarship limit went into effect. The program-building that Johnson tried to establish four years ago is finally paying off.
I don't have to tell you about Jay Cutler; the media has already given him his props. But even aside from Cutler, there are gritty veterans like Moses Osemwegie, Herdley Harrison, Kelechi Ohanaja, Trey Holloway, Ralph McKenzie and many others... guys who have been around the block a few times.
Guys like these don't come back for a fifth year just so they can go 2-9 again.
4. The spirit of "Dot" hangs heavy over this team.
Sadly, Kwane Doster will not rush for any yardage for the Vanderbilt offense this season. A crazed gunman saw to that last Christmas.
But in some strange, intangible but palpable way, the spirit of Kwane Doster is still with this team. To this day his locker is still intact in the McGugin Center locker room. In some unexplainable way, it's as though he's never left.
Coach Johnson has made a conscious effort not to cheapen Doster's tragic death by using it as a motivational factor; good for him. But don't think for a moment that individual players won't think be thinking about No. 1 as they take the field this fall. Believe me, they are unable to forget him. Every person finds inspiration in his own way, and many players have quietly dedicated their efforts in 2005 to his memory.
If there is any justice in this universe, the bittersweet memories of "Dot" should inspire Vandy to greater heights.
And the last reason?
Tennessean writer Mike Organ recently asked 15 Nashville media types how many wins Vandy would post in 2005; not a single one predicted more than five.
So here's the last reason I'm picking Vandy to finish 6-5 AND go to a bowl in 2005:
5. If I turns out that I was right, I look like a genius.
Photos by Bryan Hufalar, copyright 2005 for VandyMania.com.