VU's road to bowl runs through Darth Visor

Can Vanderbilt (4-3, 2-2 SEC) avenge a horrendous loss to the Gamecocks in the 2004 opener? Can Vanderbilt, 0-12 all-time vs. Steve Spurrier, finally pin a loss on the Evil Genius? Most importantly, can the 'Dores spoil USC's Homecoming and keep their bowl hopes alive?

COLUMBIA, S.C.-- So, it comes down to this, does it? Resurgent Vanderbilt (4-3, 2-2 SEC) has four games remaining, needing but to win two in order to attain that elusive bowl-eligibility threshold of six wins. Standing squarely in its path this week is its old nemesis from days past, the inimitable, haughty Steve Spurrier.

The Ol' Ball Coach. The Evil Genius. Darth Visor.

Call him what you wish. The Commodores and the Southeastern Conference all assumed they'd seen the last of him when he abruptly bolted for the NFL in 2002. Good riddance, they all thought.

But alas, it turned out to be an unhappy marriage. Having learned the hard way that there are "no Vanderbilts" to kick around in pro football, the devisor of "ball plays" answered South Carolina's call last fall and returned, somewhat humbled, to the league he had formerly terrorized. When the Gamecocks proposed, the Cocky One accepted.

By no means is this the same Steve Spurrier we saw throughout the decade of the 90's at Florida. This is the kinder, gentler Spurrier, a more modest, toned-down version of the sadist the SEC used to love to hate. At SEC Media Days this summer he adopted a humble, surprisingly self-deprecating tone.

Why, this week he even went and paid Vanderbilt a few compliments. "It's probably the best team they have had in a long time in Nashville," he purportedly said. "We need to play our best all out to beat these guys this week." Huh? The Old Spurrier never would have talked this way. At least give us a few snide remarks to chew on before you beat our brains in!

It's hard to get mad at a man who speaks so respectfully of the opposition... but hopefully some people around McGugin Center have long memories. I sure do. Fact is, Vanderbilt and its fans should have about a thousand reasons to take their frustrations out on the Evil Genius Saturday.

Youngsters today may not realize it, but we old-timers can remember an era when Vanderbilt used to whip up on Florida pretty regularly, especially when the Gators played in Nashville. The first Vanderbilt game I ever saw in person (in 1968 at age 10) was a 14-14 tie of a vaunted Florida team. The Commodores also knocked off Florida in 1974, 1982 and 1988. (That was all "B.S."-- Before Spurrier.)

Though members of the same conference, Vanderbilt and Florida seldom played each other until 1992, when divisional play began. The SEC in its wisdom decided that the Commodores and Gators should play each other every year. It was terrible timing-- it coincided with the rise of Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun offense in Gainesville.

Spurrier clobbered Vandy 41-21 in 1992, 52-0 in 1993, 24-7 in 1994, and 38-7 in 1995. In 1996, the Gators' national championship year, Vandy threw a memorable scare into the No. 1 Gators in Nashville (recall Jamie Duncan's sack of Danny Wuerffel), but still lost 28-21.

Spurrier hung 45 points on Vandy in 1998, 43 in 2000. The piece de resistance came in 2001, when Rex Grossman & Co. rang up 71 points on Vandy, coached by beleaguered Woody Widenhofer. It was the last straw for Widenhofer; he would turn in his resignation the following week.

Spurrier accomplished it all in his tenure at Florida, and he did it without regard to what people thought of him. He won a national championship and seven SEC championships, and ran up the score on just about everyone. He dominated the league like no coach had done since Bear Bryant.

Convinced that there were no more mountains to climb in the SEC, he stepped down at Florida after the 2001 season, figuring several NFL teams would bid for his services. He was right, of course.

Now he's baaaaack. He's accepted a rebuilding job at a locale where the talent level appears to be temporarily down-- and it's enough to make the rest of the league salivate with thoughts of retribution. Already this season, Georgia, Alabama and Auburn have served him helpings of humble pie.

OK, so maybe no one on Vanderbilt's team today remembers the 71-13 drubbing in the Swamp. The Bobby Johnson coaching staff doesn't (this will be Johnson's first time to face Spurrier). To the best of my memory, none of the current Vandy players played in that infamous 2001 game.

But if Jay Cutler & Co. need any extra motivation to beat South Carolina (3-3, 1-3) Saturday, they need only think back to last year's opener. Vanderbilt entered the 2004 season brashly talking about bowl games-- but after Lou Holtz's Gamecocks put a 31-6 hurting on the Commodores, all such talk was quashed.

This year, it's a different story. Vanderbilt is more poised and seasoned. Its bowl hopes are legitimate, provided it can muster two more wins.

The roosters have struggled with a new offense, a new quarterback, a patchwork offensive line, and a number of injuries. They're no pushover by any means-- but Florida of the 90's this ain't. Their only SEC win has come over hapless Kentucky.

Can Bobby Johnson obtain a win Saturday in the stadium where he once sold soft drinks? Can the Commodores avenge the horrendous loss to the Gamecocks in the 2004 opener? Can Vanderbilt, 0-12 all-time vs. Spurrier, finally pin a loss on the Evil Genius?

Most importantly, can the 'Dores spoil USC's Homecoming and keep their bowl hopes alive?

It says here they can and they will.

And you know what they say about paybacks.


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