On what began as a beautiful late-August evening, Commodore and Blue Raider fans assembled at Vanderbilt Stadium for the 2001 opener for both teams. Vanderbilt coaches had had all summer to prepare for Andy McCollum's unorthodox "spread" offense. Though Vanderbilt had stubbed its toe in the previous year's opener vs. Miami of Ohio, only the most pessimistic of Commodore fans could conceive of an unprecedented loss to the former teacher's college from down I-24.
I must confess, I too succumbed to pre-game hauteur. I perhaps added fuel to the flame by publishing a column in this space titled "Hey, Mitsoo, this ain't the Sun Belt", which took a number of derogatory potshots at the Blue Raiders and their far-flung conference. Oh, well... pride, as the Good Book says, goeth before a fall.
To their credit, the boys in blue outplayed Vandy and collected a 37-28 win-- a landmark triumph for the fledgling Division I-A program-- and simultaneously served us Vanderbilt enthusiasts a giant dose of humble pie. Watching the Blue Raiders dance giddily at midfield, Commodore fans were stunned. They vented their anger toward Head Coach Woody Widenhofer, whose fate was more or less sealed by the shocking loss.
So, here we are a year later, for Round II of the I-24 Brawl. Widenhofer is long gone, as are many of the players who played key roles in last year's game... Vandy's Greg Zolman and Lew Thomas, MTSU's Wes Counts and Kendall Newson. MTSU's win in that game still stands conspicuously as the Blue Raiders' only victory ever over Vandy or any other SEC foe.
Middle Tennessee (which for some reason is trying desperately to lose the "State" in its moniker) started last season 5-0, but has begun this campaign 0-5. Three of those losses have come against SEC foes Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky, while the last two have come against lightweights Southeast Missouri State and Arkansas State. The Blue Raiders from the 'Boro, it would appear, have learned the hard way something that Vanderbilt has known for years-- that "good" losses to SEC foes are no guarantee that you can win the following week against lesser competition.
Meanwhile Vanderbilt's football fortunes, under first-year head coach Bobby Johnson, had taken a turn for the better-- at least, that is, until the suspension of quarterback Jay Cutler and a season-ending injury to leading rusher Norval McKenzie. Since a blowout loss in the opener against Georgia Tech, the Commodores had made steady improvement each week, losing by 7 to Ole Miss and by 6 to South Carolina.
What to make of this rematch? As I see it, there are three key questions:
1. Can Benji Walker, making his first collegiate start at quarterback, adequately replace Jay Cutler? The fourth-year senior from Brentwood possesses worlds of ability-- particularly to make plays with his feet-- but next to no meaningful college experience. The start will be Walker's first since Brentwood Academy lost to MBA in the 1998 Division II state championship game.
2. Will Dwone Hicks be healthy enough to play? MTSU's NFL-caliber running back shredded Vanderbilt's defense for 203 yards on 27 carries last year; more significantly, behind Hicks, the Blue Raiders were able to control the clock once they took the lead and keep the ball away from Vandy's offense. But Hicks has missed the last two games due to a knee injury, and his status for Saturday's game remains questionable.
3. Which Blue Raider team will show up... the one which nearly came back to beat Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium (and might have done so but for a curious bit of home-cooking-- Vandy fans, by the way, know full well how that works)... or the one that dropped a home game to lowly Division I-AA SEMO? Whether Hicks plays, of course, could go a long way towards answering the question.
Ah, questions, questions... Which team needs to win the worst? Which team holds the psychological edge? Can Vanderbilt devise and execute a defensive scheme to stop the potent Blue Raider offense? Can M. J. Garrett have another game like he had last year against MTSU (8 catches, 219 yards)? Can Bobby Johnson finally come up with a win over a Division I-A team?
There are almost too many unanswered questions, too many things up in the air, to begin to handicap this battle for Midstate supremacy. However, from the Vanderbilt perspective, two things are absolutely beyond question:
(1) Commodore fans will approach this year's game with a much more respectful, wary eye toward Middle Tennessee.
(2) Neither Commodore players nor fans have forgotten that little postgame ceremony the Blue Raiders held on Dudley Field last year. The memory is all too vivid.
Tickets remain for Saturday's game. For information, call the Vanderbilt Box Office at (615) 322-GOLD or toll-free at 1 (877) 44-VANDY. Tickets can also be purchased at Vanderbilt's official website, www.vucommodores.com. Tickets are $22 for adults and $10 for youth.