Oxford, again? Seems like we were just here

Vanderbilt (1-2, 0-1 SEC) meets Ole Miss (2-1, 0-0) Saturday at Oxford, Miss.-- where, curiously, the same two teams met a mere nine months ago. Kickoff is set for 11:30 a.m. CDT (Jefferson-Pilot TV).

The Commodore armada is ready to travel south to Oxford, Miss. for Saturday's game against Ole Miss-- certainly one of the South's loveliest settings for a football game.  The Grove provides a warm, picturesque pre-game atmosphere, and Oxford is without a doubt one of the South's most charming and appealing college towns.

However... if it feels as though we just played a game here... it's because we did.  As a result of an unusual scheduling twist, Vandy and Ole Miss meet Saturday in a rematch of a game played here just nine months ago.

That game, last Dec. 1, was originally scheduled for Sept. 15, 2001, but was postponed by the SEC in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.  It turned out to be Woody Widenhofer's swan song as head coach, and Vanderbilt mounted a 20-3 lead before collapsing in the fourth quarter.  Eli Manning engineered a fourth-quarter comeback, and Ole Miss was ultimately victorious, 38-27.

Nine months later, Vanderbilt returns under the new management of Bobby Johnson, who is looking for his first Southeastern Conference win.  But why in the world does Vandy have to travel to Oxford two years in a row?

The answer is that as of the 2002 season the SEC is beginning a new schedule rotation.  Unlike the previous eight-year rotation, the new five-year rotation provides a visit to all six of the SEC West stadiums over a five-year period, and also brings all six to Vanderbilt Stadium at least once during that same period.

Under the rotation, Ole Miss becomes Vanderbilt's only permanent opponent from the SEC West (under the old system Vandy's permanent opponents were Ole Miss and Alabama).  The other five Western teams-- Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Arkansas and Mississippi State-- rotate on and off the schedule over the course of five seasons.

Like all other SEC schools, Vandy will still play four SEC opponents at home every year, and four on the road.  To make up for playing Ole Miss on the road in successive seasons, Vandy will host Alabama at Vanderbilt Stadium later this year-- for the second straight season.


The focus of the Commodore defense will doubtless be on stopping Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning, one of the best in the nation.  But Vanderbilt also brings a formidable weapon in receiver Dan Stricker, and Stricker has had outstanding games against the Rebels the last two seasons.

Last year in Oxford, Stricker had a career day with 11 catches for 169 yards and a touchdown.  Two years ago in Nashville, Stricker played despite a bout with the flu and still managed seven catches for 144 yards, in a 12-7 loss.

Also, Stricker is one of several seniors on this year's squad who were around three years ago when Vanderbilt pulled off a 37-34 overtime stunner in Oxford.  In that game Stricker, starting as a freshman at receiver, had four catches for 58 yards.


Speaking of scheduling, Bobby Johnson told WTN radio in an interview Thursday that Vandy has been negotiating with Air Force, Southern Methodist, and perhaps other service academies regarding future football games.  Earlier this week Vandy finalized its 2003 schedule by adding UT-Chattanooga, but open slots remain for non-conference opponents on the 2004, 2005 and 2006 schedules.

"We're talking to a lot of people," Johnson told WTN.  "When you have eight conference games... you just don't have a lot of options.  You've got to find some people who have an open week the same week you do, or be fortunate to find someone who has another week where they can move a game.   But you just don't have a whole bunch of teams you can call and say, hey, let's get it arranged.  It's pretty tough work."

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