2007: The Year we Make Contact with a Bowl!

As the 2007 season approaches, Bobby Johnson's Vanderbilt football team should look back to the afternoon of October 14, 2006, in Athens, Georgia. It was on that sun-splashed day between the hedges that a young team—without Jay Cutler's right arm— managed to stride into an enemy lair and topple the program that has won more SEC titles in the past 5 years than anyone else in the conference.

On one afternoon, the future of Vanderbilt football came into view, and for the first time in quite a while, that future looked as bright as the autumnal radiance that bathed the Commodores in glory when Bryant Hahnfeldt's last-minute field goal stunned Mark Richt's Bulldogs.

You could choose to lament the agonizing losses from last season, especially against Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Kentucky.

You could choose to let your mind wander into the past, and allow the ghosts of 2005, 1999, 1994, and 1991 to produce restless nights during an uneasy summer in Nashville.

You could mumble the words "Middle Tennesee" and "Kentucky," sure-fire ways to torment your soul during an offseason that just can't end soon enough.

But wait a minute—this offseason can't end soon enough?

Can it be?

It's as undeniable as Vanderbilt's superior academic reputation: this year, there's real excitement in the air as Vanderbilt's football team prepares for its string of autumnal armageddons. In 2005 and 2006, Bobby Johnson's team started knocking; in 2007, Vanderbilt could knock the Dore down and bust on through to a bowl game.

Oh, don't jinx the effort, you might (understandably) say. Keep this team humble and under the radar, you might plead.

Ah, but isn't that the whole point?

In 2007, it's quite rational to expect Vanderbilt to make a strong run at a bowl game and a non-losing season. This time around, the thought possesses genuine heft and validity.

For one thing, this isn't a team that quarterback Chris Nickson will carry on his back the way Cutler once did for previous Commodore crews. That's a very good thing to contemplate.

Indeed, this ballclub isn't a one-man show in which massive deficiencies can be masked by a single individual.

This is true precisely because the 2007 Dores figure to be a cohesive unit that embodies the very concept of what a team is. Vandy returns 17 of a possible 22 starters on offense (9) and defense (8). What's more is that last year's group was loaded with underclassmen who are now much more seasoned. A handful of plays could have led to a bowl season last year, so imagine what a more experienced outfit can do this season on the gridiron. This point bears mentioning, however: to say that the 2007 Commodores won't be a onetrick pony should not be taken as a dismissal of Nickson's talents. The balance that is evident on this year's Dores should not lead one to overlook or undervalue the quarterback position, which is hugely significant throughout college football, and especially in the defense-first SEC. Nickson is eminently capable of leading this offense with distinction.

While not the prototypical quarterback Cutler was, Nickson is very much a playmaker. It's just that Nickson is suited to make plays with his speed, not just his arm. When he does pass the ball, Nickson will need to be sound more than scintillating; ball security and an ability to distribute the pigskin to his backs and receivers will be the biggest key for Vandy's starting signal caller. If Nickson finds the right balance between leadership and tangible, statistical production, the Commodores could be in for a very big year. And given his on-the-job training last season, it's fair to say that Nickson is much more equipped to use his talents effectively. Chris Nickson is a quarterback who has every chance to succeed in 2007, and that's why Bobby Johnson's team could realistically get over the hump this fall.

Another big reason why 2007 holds genuine promise for the Dores is that they came within six points of beating the reigning national champions on a day when lots of things went wrong.

Special teams miscues put Vanderbilt in a desperate situation against Urban Meyer's Florida Gators, but after a first half full of hiccups, the boys in black settled down and punched the eventual SEC titleists in the mouth. When all was said and done, Vanderbilt had accumulated more first downs, more total yards, and more rushing yards than mighty Florida, all while committing fewer penalties and turnovers. A late-season encounter against a championship team often provides a pretty solid indication of the season to come. If there was substantial slippage from the breakthrough win at Georgia, the fierce fight against Florida didn't have it. The Commodores displayed talent throughout the entirety of their 2006 season, from the opener in Ann Arbor, Mich., to the season finale against Tennessee. The problem was that inexperience often prevented that talent from emerging with the consistency and crunchtime reliability that must exist in a bowl season for any college football program.

Here's a very simple way of understanding why 2007 is a year of legitimate hope and promise for Vanderbilt football: the equation isn't so complicated. The formula for success iisn't so tangled, hidden, or multifaceted.

Whenever a program is trying to overcome the odds or dig out of an extended period of pronounced frustration, the path to victory is much harder to determine. When you have the gridiron ghosts that Vanderbilt football has had to shake off over the past 25 years, most offseasons and summer training camps are chock-full of question marks and gaping holes. One defining part of life as a downtrodden football program is that there's usually room for improvement at most positions. This makes the formula for success akin to the most complex quadratic equation. This year, however, the onset of summer finds a Vanderbilt program that is no longer at that bottom-rung stage where the formula for success is dependent on a bewilderingly large array of variables. No, in 2007, Vanderbilt has accumulated appreciable amounts of speed, talent, depth, and experience, four qualities that exist in abundance at elite programs.

And while it's true that Vanderbilt isn't overflowing with talent the way Florida is, it's just as true that for the first time in a very longwhile, no one would say that Vanderbilt is sorely lacking in these departments, either. No one would tab Vandy as a top-three finisher in a brutal SEC East, but the Dores aren't a sure-fire pick for the division cellar. Given the quality of the division, that's saying a lot about the improvements that have taken place in Bobby Johnson's program.

This year, there isn't an endless parade of question marks. In 2007, the formula for success is startlingly but happily simple for the Commodores: combine improved talent with the big-game experience accumulated last season. If Vanderbilt can put its speed and savvy together on several Saturdays, a bowl bid will come to Nashville.

Talent plus experience equals bowl bid. The path to gridiron glory has never been so simple—or encouraging—for Vanderbilt partisans in quite some time.

Cassen Jackson-Garrison (VM/Stan Jones)

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