Making the most of a Vanderbilt education

Vanderbilt prides itself on being the premier educational institution in the Southeastern Conference. As a result, the first game of the post-Jay Cutler era must become a learning experience. Let's be honest and cut through the typical coachspeak, okay? Vanderbilt likely isn't going to beat Michigan this Saturday at the Big House.

Michigan's fans are restless. They're demanding that embattled coach Lloyd Carr to go 13-0 this year, 12-1 minimum (with the loss not being to Ohio State), or they will want the Wolverines to find a new head coach. Carr--according to both coaching colleagues and journalists in the Big Ten--is more stressed this year than he's ever been before in his tenure at Ann Arbor.

Michigan has big-time weapons that are also mature. Quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart return for their junior seasons behind a typically stout offensive line. If Hart can remain healthy the whole year, there's no reason why the Wolverines can't compete for the national title, let alone the Big Ten crown. So let's not think Vandy will strut into town before a national ESPN audience and upend the mighty Wolverines. Could the Commodores compete for 1.5 or maybe two quarters? Possibly. But let's not expect Bobby Johnson to be able to call upon the depth or talent needed to outlast a loaded Michigan squad for 60 full minutes on the road.

The big element of this Michigan game is that it's a springboard for the rest of the season, and in particular, an SEC slate that will come a-knockin' on the Dores very quickly. Right after this foray into Ann Arbor, Vandy must travel to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama on Sept. 9, and then spin around to face Arkansas on Sept. 16 in Nashville. Of the first three games in this brutal early-season stretch, Michigan is clearly the expendable game, the game that is both least winnable and also the best teaching tool.

With that in mind, then, Bobby Johnson needs to learn as much as he can about his football team when it encounters a massively talented--and just plain massive--colossus in the Maize and Blue.

Against Alabama and Arkansas--and, for that matter, the rest of the SEC--Vanderbilt will stand to profit from simpler packages that don't overburden new quarterback Chris Nickson. The familiarity of conference play will demand that Nickson has a manageable worklo ad and conceptually simple formulas that enable him to make proper reads against cutthroat defenses. Against Michigan, then, it will actually be important for Johnson and Vandy's offensive staff to give Nickson a lot of responsibilities and see what the kid can do in various situations from multiple formations. Vanderbilt--on both sides of the ball, but especially on an offense that lacks Cutler's mighty right arm for the first time in a long while--would do well to throw the kitchen sink at Michigan... not because it's the best way to beat Michigan, but because the coaching staff needs to see various plays and packages on gameday, not just on a practice field. The more looks Vandy uses against the Wolverines, the more chances the coaches can identify some winning tactics and Nickson-friendly formations for the Alabama and Arkansas games to follow.

There are no preseason games in college football, but Vanderbilt--who has sometimes had to open its regular season with an in-conference game--gets to start 2006 outside the SEC. Therefore, Coach Johnson and the rest of the Commodore coaches need to use this game as an educational tool. That's something Vanderbilt people know how to do in all facets of life; why should football be any different? Top Stories