Vanderbilt has its goals within reach

If you think about history, you'd still be pessimistic about the Vanderbilt football team's bowl chances this year. But the SEC we're seeing in 2007 has little to do with history. Yes, there are a number of reasons to be upbeat if you're a Commodore in this, the final week of September.

Anyone see Ole Miss extend and push Florida for sixty minutes (maybe 58:46 if you want to be technical about it; Florida sealed the game with a Tim Tebow first down at the 1:14 mark in the fourth quarter)? Yeah, that's right--the same bunch of Rebels that Bobby Johnson's team smacked around in Nashville on Sept. 15.

Anyone see Mississippi State push around Auburn a few hours before the Dores dusted off Ole Miss on that same Saturday? Auburn suddenly looks very winnable for Vanderbilt... even in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Tennessee might not have a losing season this time around, but the Vols are still mired in an extended program-wide funk. Days of malaise have become more normal than not in Knoxville, as John Chavis' defense has looked a lot worse than mediocre. A truly lousy Volunteer defense has the Children of the Checkerboard in dire straits.

Georgia has talent, but oh, wait a minute: the Dores already dusted them off in Athens last season. A return encounter in Nashville is well within Vandy's ability to win. Matthew Stafford made some big-league plays in a huge win at Alabama, but he still threw several horrible passes that, miraculously, weren't picked off. Coach Johnson's defense will have chances to make huge plays when Georgia comes to town in mid-October.

South Carolina is underdoing QB controversies and signal caller shuffles. The Gamecocks are anything but a stable and solidified team whose results can be easily predicted on a weekly basis. Volatility defines the crew from Columbia, who could definitely get picked off--literally and figuratively--by the Dores. It's a scenario that's easy to imagine: Blake Mitchell having the latest in a series of meltdowns against an opportunistic Vandy defense.

And oh, what about seemingly mighty Kentucky? Anyone bother to realize how awful Louisville's secondary is after the embarrassment against Syracuse? Suddenly, that very narrow win doesn't seem to mean all that much. The Wildcats then beat Arkansas only because the Hogs gift-wrapped the most breathtakingly bad blunders in all of the game's meaningful moments. The boys from Lexington won only because the Razorbacks decided to hand them a game that had been an Arkansas rout for the first 27 minutes of play. Kentucky, at 4-0, is only a few heartbeats from being 2-2 instead. UK is a feel-good story without question, but Rich Brooks' team is eminently flawed and beatable.

What's the point of saying all this? It might seem like the same old song and dance, trying to see optimism when there's little cause for it. With the SEC still being a balanced and competitive league, the onus is still on Vandy to deliver the goods and get to a bowl game.

But all of the above examples are instructive because they reveal something unique about 2007 in the SEC: there's something different about this particular season. If you look closely enough, the balance you see in this league is not the kind of balance you're used to seeing.

Typical SEC balance would suggest that the traditional powers will always have their way, and that home field advantage matters. Neither piece of conventional wisdom is holding sway this season: Kentucky is higher than Tennessee, and Mississippi schools are scaring--and sometimes beating--bigger-name SEC schools. South Carolina beat Georgia in Athens; Georgia beat Bama in Tuscaloosa; Kentucky beat Arkansas in Fayetteville. Normal logic doesn't quite apply in the conference this year.

Another observation to make about the SEC so far is that there are so many unproven quarterbacks. Even the ones who win are playing shaky ball. Andre Woodson has needed good fortune to even get to a position where he could have the ball in the final minutes with a chance to win. John Parker Wilson is making a (dangerous) living out of falling behind and relying on pass interference calls to carry his team in the fourth quarter. Erik Ainge has his up-and-down moments, and Matt Flynn is a sideshow for LSU. And these are the GOOD quarterbacks in the league, along with Vandy's own Chris Nickson. Only Tim Tebow is playing at a truly elevated level under center. In this year of SEC ball, the nature of the balance in the SEC is a "weak balance." In other words, SEC teams aren't equal because they're both heavyweights; they're equal because they can't separate themselves from each other. This dynamic is the very kind of situation Coach Johnson and Vanderbilt have been waiting for.

Nickson, Earl Bennett, and the rest of Vandy's offense have an even-money chance of stepping into the void and, with timely plays in key situations, winning multiple SEC games to carry the Dores to a .500 record in the conference, which would give the program a winning season and its long-sought bowl bid. Given the fragile, frail nature of every league school with the exceptions of Florida and LSU, it's becoming increasingly apparent that Vandy's clearly improved talent will put the Dores in position to win games when the fourth quarter comes calling. The Johnson Boys have every opportunity, every legitimate opening, in front of them. In a sport where one or two plays--as shown by the Kentucky-Arkansas affair--can acquire enough weight to affect sixty minutes of game time (and three and a half hours of real-world clock time), Vandy has just as much of a chance as any of its opponents.

Vandy doesn't get its 'Dores blown off by SEC rivals anymore. Bobby Johnson has recruited too much talent and cultivated too much toughness for this program to fade away at the slightest hint of adversity. This team lacks the polished profile of an elite team, but it is no longer the deficient doormat, the automatic "W" that it used to be. With talent and speed on both sides of the ball, especially in the form of Bennett--soon to be the SEC's all-time leading receiver, an extraordinary accomplishment when you think about it--Vandy will have more than a mere "puncher's chance" in each non-Florida SEC game it plays. The Commodores will play most of their league games on very even terms. The ability to pounce when the moment is right--to make the biggest plays in the portions of games when momentum is waiting to be seized--will carry this team to the winner's circle. Do the Dores have to go out and make the plays? Of course they do. But what's different this season is that a volatile SEC offers this program a greater window of opportunity and a larger margin for error. By merely being great when they have to be, the boys of VU can play imperfect football but produce perfect results. Doubt this if you will, but win or lose, it's a verdict that has some substance in 2007: Vandy is closer than ever to that elusive winning season.

Matt Zemek writes for

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