Can the 'Dores overcome week of distraction?

It's been a week of distraction for the Vanderbilt football team, with three players victimized Sunday morning in a freakish dormitory shooting incident. Though no Commodore players were at fault, several have had to spend multiple hours this week dealing with a police investigation. Is this team focused enough, one wonders, to overcome such an unwelcome distraction?

NASHVILLE-- It's safe to say the 2005 football season has thus far exceeded the expectations of virtually every Vanderbilt fan on the planet. Show me a Commodore fan who predicted in August Vandy would start out 4-0, and I'll show you a Commodore fan who would have been laughed out of the stadium.

Yes, yours truly predicted back in August that Vanderbilt would make it to a bowl game in 2005-- and so far Bobby Johnson's team is making me look very smart. But nothing short of a Quaalude binge would have prompted this fan to go so far as to predict a 5-0 start, which is the result if Vandy wins again Saturday.

The Commodores, still tied for the SEC East lead, are living large. They're on the verge of becoming the biggest feel-good sports story since the Red Sox went to the pinnacle last year. National attention is pouring in; everyone from ESPN to the New York Times to USA Today is taking notice.

The latest to jump on board is Ned Barnett, a columnist with the Raleigh News & Observer, who observes that all the winning is coinciding with the two-year anniversary of Gordon Gee's athletic department restructuring. A winning football team, it seems, makes everything on campus look better... it even makes the ticket salespeople seem more courteous, and the rest rooms, cleaner.

I must confess, all this winning has Vanderbilt enthusiasts strangely disoriented. It's messing with our biological calendars! It had almost become a ritual... by the end of a normal September Commodore fans are thinking basketball season can't arrive quickly enough. They're frantically calling friends, trying to find some way to unload their remaining football tickets, and finding few takers.

Don't look now, VU fans, but you just might want to hang on to those October and November tickets. The LSU and Georgia games are already assured of being meaningful, and depending on how those games go, the home finale vs. Kentucky could end up being the one on which a major or minor bowl bid hinges.

Suddenly, we Vandy fans are seized with this strange, warm feeling, called optimism... and we don't quite know how to react.

Should we start woofing obnoxiously, behaving the way normal Southeastern Conference fans do? Or should we rein it in, knowing that in years past, protracted seasons have had this cold way of shaking us back to reality?

That's why Saturday's contest vs. MTSU (6 pm, WUXP-TV, 104.5 The Zone) is so unexpectedly crucial. With a loss to the Blue Raiders from Murfreesboro, all the good will the team has built up with its fans could hurriedly go up in a puff of blue smoke.

Last week's game against Richmond turned into a pushover; this one likely won't. MTSU gave Alabama the heebie-jeebies for most of three quarters in the season opener, and has the ability if everything goes right to give Vanderbilt similar fits. MTSU is 0-3, but Andy McCollum has had two weeks to regroup and prepare for this one.

No doubt the Blue Raiders will come to Dudley Field charged to the hilt. For Middle Tennessee, the Vanderbilt game is one of the biggest on the schedule. It's a chance to gain respect by besting an SEC team on the road, not to mention to get its 0-3 season headed in the right direction and establish legitimacy in the Midstate football market.

No self-respecting Vanderbilt fan will ever forget the losses to our friends from the Sun Belt Conference in 2001 and 2002-- two of the bitterest, most ignominious losses in recent memory (and that's saying a lot). The first one was essentially the one that got Woody Widenhofer fired; the second one, in which Vandy had to face Middle without its star freshman Jay Cutler, was an unfunny comedy of errors, with MTSU prevailing by one point. The memories send shudders down the spine.

Adding to fans' paranoia is the fact that this week has been one of distractions for the Vanderbilt team, with three players victimized Sunday morning in a freakish dormitory shooting incident. Though no Commodore players were at fault, several have had to spend multiple hours this week dealing with a police investigation. Is this team focused enough, one wonders, to overcome such an unwelcome distraction?

Happily, most Commodore fans feel this team is a much different team from those of 2001 and 2002. It's a team that doesn't get rattled; it conducts itself on and off the field with poise and maturity. So far at least, it kicks tail in the fourth quarter, a far cry from those teams of old.

But if this cagey group of Commodores is as good as we all hope they are, they simply must seize upon this rare opportunity to improve to 5-0. In this little-to-gain, everything-to-lose situation, they simply must not pull a Tulane 1984. They must prove themselves superior at home to the visiting Blue Raiders.

Losing creates pressure-- but then, as Bobby Johnson and his team are quickly learning, so does winning.

******

Middle Tennessee (0-3) vs. Vanderbilt (4-0)
Kickoff: 6 pm CT
TV: UPN-30 WUXP-TV, Nashville; ESPN Gameplan
Radio: 104.5 The Zone; Sirius Satellite Radio
Chat: VandyMania chat room open during game


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