Earl Bennett: BCS bowl on Vandy's mind

Star receiver Earl Bennett said Thursday that Vanderbilt, which hasn't played in a bowl since 1982, will be gunning not just for a bowl appearance in 2007, but a BCS bowl appearance.

HOOVER, Ala.-- From the sight of the hordes of crimson-wearing autograph seekers jamming the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel Thursday morning, one might have presumed Tom Cruise and/or Paris Hilton were due for an appearance. Nope, the crowd had gathered to catch a glimpse of Nick Saban, the man hoped by Tide fans to be Alabama's latest gridiron messiah.

By contrast, Vanderbilt's simultaneous appearance at Southeastern Conference Football Media Days was decidedly low key. Head coach Bobby Johnson said nothing in his session with the print reporters that would have sent them dashing for their cell phones. Players Jonathan Goff and Earl Bennett represented the Commodores relatively quietly and humbly.

For those on the Vanderbilt beat, perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the outspokenness of Bennett, the record-setting junior wide receiver who could make some All-America lists this fall. As a raw freshman, Bennett became known for giving the press matter-of-fact, one-word answers. But if Bennett's appearance Thursday is any evidence, his dexterity in handling reporters' questions has improved to nearly the same level as his play on the field.

Which is to say, magnificent. Appearing in his home town of Birmingham, Bennett seemed confident, yes even talkative as he answered question after question, shagging them as deftly as if they were footballs from the air.

In response to a question early on about the advantages of playing eight home games in 2007, Bennett said this:

"Playing at home is always an advantage to us. We feel like we can win each game that we play. The BCS is on our mind right now, going to a BCS bowl game. We've been working hard during the offseason staying positive and humble, and just getting ready for the season to start."

Wait a minute, did he say a "BCS bowl"? That statement ought to generate a little copy on Friday.

"This team this year has already been talking about going to a BCS game," he continued. "That's very important to us, that we feel like we can go to a BCS game this year.

"The excitement and the expectations are up. And I feel like we have great athletes this year where we can go to a BCS game, stay focused and win the game, and get over that hump."

For Vanderbilt fans, which have gone through 24 seasons without experiencing a bowl, a bowl bid of any kind would be enough to set off wild celebration on West End... let alone a bid from one of the NCAA's elite names.

The 2007 Vandy press guide refers to Bennett as "one of the most talented players ever to wear the Black and Gold." By the conclusion of his sophomore season in 2006, he had accumulated 161 career receptions-- only 47 short of Criag Yeast's SEC record of 208. But Bennett stressed Thursday that individual records mean little to him.

"It would be nice to break all the records," he said. "But I'm more concerned with going to a BCS game. That would be a lot better than breaking any records."

Earl Bennett

Realistic? Perhaps not... but then, could anyone have projected Wake Forest to go to the Orange Bowl at the beginning of last season?

Coach Johnson was placing no such expectations on his team Thursday, at least not publicly, stressing that the team merely hoped to be at its best in every game it played. But Johnson was far from conservative in praise for his star receiver.

"We knew Earl was a good player when we recruited and signed him, but he's been pretty special," Johnson said. "I just hope he can stay healthy and do all the things he's capable of doing, because he's a pretty special player, an outstanding young man."

With junior Chris Nickson becoming more comfortable at quarterback, this could be a year in which when Vanderbilt depends more on the passing game, according to Bennett-- a development sure to excite fans.

"Chris has gotten better week in and week out," Bennett said. "We do 7-on-7 [voluntary drills] each week, and we've had the opportunity to get our chemistry a lot better. I feel like the first game Chris is going to come out firing the ball, because he has a strong arm. We're ready to get it rolling that first week against Richmond."

Earlier in the week, Bennett was honored by the Birmingham City Council as an outstanding citizen for his charitable work. That appearance, said his handlers from Vanderbilt's media relations department, helped prepare Bennett for Thursday's barrage of questions.

Despite his records, Bennett has toiled largely in anonymity his first two seasons as a Commodore, as the team has failed twice to achieve a winning record. Few outside the SEC region know his name, but that all may be about to end.

With the season opener now just 36 days away, the preseason mentions and accolades are already pouring in. Vanderbilt's sports information department was doing its part to promote Bennett for post-season honors Thursday, distributing a Bennett 2006 highlight DVD to key members of the press.

Should the team's dreams of a BCS bowl become reality, Bennett's national profile will undoubtedly take flight as well.

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