No Time For Hype - Vandy Needs to Be Dandy

There's really no point in saying that this is going to be the year for the Vanderbilt Commodores--not because they don't have the ability to forge a fabulous season, but because the big tests for this team will come and go before you know it.

Teams like Vanderbilt, in an ideal world, would have the opportunity to ease their way into a season before the biggest games come across the calendar. For these Commodores--long on heart and determination but short on results--it would be nice if September (and August) could be a month for working out the kinks in advance of some sensational SEC showdowns. The path to a six-win season and a bowl bid is usually created in the latter stretches of a season. The early weeks merely set the table and hopefully avoid disaster.

Unfortunately for Bobby Johnson's boys, 2008 is just not going to be one of those years. The fate of this team will be decided in the first five weeks, before we even see the month of October.

There's no getting around it, Dores fans: September will make or break this Vandy squad. The gateway games that, if won, will propel this team to a non-losing season are almost all found in the first half of the 2008 schedule. With the exception of Duke on Oct. 25, the beatable opponents for Vandy litter the first six weeks of action.

To put a finer point on the upcoming season, consider VU's home opener on Thursday Night Football before a national ESPN audience. The SEC lid-lifter against South Carolina offers a perfect example of why the Johnson Boys will need to deliver a September to remember... and why such an accomplishment is very much within their reach.

In the world of September football--distinct from October football (the settled midway part of the campaign) or November football (late-year cold-weather ball in which the pain of accumulated bruises has to be overcome, while rivalry games call for amped-up effort)--underdog teams have a better chance of winning because other clubs are still rounding into form. If highly-talented squads display a rusty and sloppy brand of ball, hungry opponents can swoop in and steal wins. This is the very dynamic which applies to the South Carolina contest on Sept. 4. It's a contest that is likely to define Vanderbilt's year.

The Gamecocks should be a solid team in 2008, but the biggest bugaboo in Columbia since Steve Spurrier took over for Lou Holtz has been the quarterback position. More specifically, USC has had a number of signal callers who have not shown the intelligence or decision making that Spurrier demands from his field generals. Turnover-plagued and inconsistent play under center has kept South Carolina from doing big things in the SEC. It is therefore a blessing for Vandy to get the Gamecocks so early in 2008. In week two, Carolina will still be needing to iron out its passing game, and Vandy's stellar secondary--with D.J. Moore and Reshard Langford, among others--will be in prime position to smother the Gamecocks' offense once again. After a dominating performance in Columbia last season, Vandy's defense will need to carry the load for the offense. Because South Carolina will still be in search of consistency come Sept. 4, it's a blessing that the Dores will draw their division rival in September.

One can say similar things about two other Vandy opponents in the first half of the 2008 season: Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

The Rebels have improved talent at quarterback and a new coach in Houston Nutt, but it's likely that the guys from the Grove will grow more slowly than most of their SEC counterparts. For this reason, it's providential that Vandy goes to Oxford on Sept. 20, and not a week later. Ole Miss could be a really tough team come November, when a new staff and some new skill position players get on the same page. In late September, however, the Rebels figure to be a work in progress. Vandy could--literally and figuratively--pick off Ole Miss at the pass, with a stack of interceptions turning a loss into a victory. The Oct. 11 date with Mississippi State--another team whose offense shouldn't exactly be lighting up the night sky in 2008--gives Vandy a third chance to tackle a beatable SEC opponent at a favorable point in the season.

If you look at the schedule in its entirety, the trajectory of this season--if it is to be a successful one--should quickly become obvious.

First of all, September must be a 3-1 month, and could really use a 4-0 mark. If Vandy doesn't have a good-looking record heading into the first of two open weeks (Sept. 27; the second open date is Nov. 1), the chances of a six-win season will go down the drain.

Secondly, if the Dores find themselves at 3-1 after their first four weeks, the Mississippi State game becomes a must win. Period. Added to the Duke game later in the year, a triumph over MSU would give Vandy five wins, just one away from the magic number of six. A brutal schedule is a brutal schedule, but with at least five wins in the winnable games, Vandy could make an all-out push in the pursuit of a bowl bid. In light of all that's been said about Mississippi State, one could take a longer view of things and simply say that, one way or another, the Dores need to at least split with the Mississippi schools.

Third, if Vandy does win five games against its most beatable opponents, the November game that needs to be plucked is the Kentucky game. VU fought the Wildcats tooth and nail last season, and the loss of quarterback Andre Woodson has left UK feeling more than (Big) Blue in Lexington. If there's a particularly vulnerable late-season opponent on the Dores' slate, it's Kentucky.

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. There's no time to grow into the season or tout moral victories that can be chalked up to the "learning process." At Vanderbilt, students need to apply lessons with mental dexterity and considerable skill. It's no different for the 2008 VU football team, which needs to take all the pains of past years and channel them into a furious start out of the blocks. With a supreme September, this could be the team that will change the subculture--and the fortunes--of Commodore football.

There's no use pontificating or speculating. Any preseason ink spilled on Bobby Johnson's bunch will become irrelevant and outdated very quickly. Last season, VU didn't know about its bowl fate or its record until the very final moments of a few white-knuckle November nailbiters. This year's team, on the other hand, will write its destiny in a very short while. Buckle up, folks: the biggest part of this thrill ride isn't going to be saved for the end.

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