Zemek: "Pouncing Early" Key for VU

Just as Vanderbilt needed to start strong in order to have a shot at a winning 2008 season, so it also holds that the Johnson Boys will need to pounce early this Saturday if they are to register an ambush of Auburn. The more you think about this contest--the first game since 1984 ...

... in which the Commodores find a ranking attached to their name--the more it becomes apparent that an early surge will need to do the deed.

The theme surrounding this year of Vandy football has been consistent from day one: establish excellence early on. Vandy needed to capitalize on the first third of its schedule if it hoped to rack up the wins needed to get to a bowl game. How fitting it is, then, that this season--which has required strong starts on a number of levels--will demand another bolt from the starting blocks against Auburn. If a big beginning to 2008--four wins in the September section of the slate--is to turn into a magic middle third of the schedule, the boys in black will have to fire on all cylinders in the first 20 minutes against Auburn.

Here's why Vandy--if it is to win this contest--will need to find its A-game in very short order against Tommy Tuberville's Tigers.

The SEC--as everyone knows--is a brutally intimidating league not because of certain individual matchups, but because of the season-long grind. The wear and tear of the long journey catches up with most teams in the end. Winning a division or league title in the Southeastern Conference requires an ability to survive in the face of exhaustion and adversity.

These well-known realities mean something this Saturday in Nashville because Auburn has already sunk its teeth into the meat of its SEC schedule. The Tigers are battle-tested, but that also means they're battle weary. The annual holy war with LSU always takes a lot out of Auburn, and last week's demonstrably sluggish performance against Tennessee indicated as much. Without lavish generosity from the Vols' woeful offense, Auburn very well could have taken a stomach-punch loss on home turf. This outfit from Alabama's plains will enter Music City U.S.A. with an awareness of what it needs to correct, but the Tigers will also bring a lot of bumps, bruises and uncertainties to Vanderbilt Stadium.

Auburn did well to prevail over Tennessee when defeat loomed as a legitimate possibility, but one can just as confidently assert that Auburn's offense is a banged-up and mentally fragile unit. The Vols' offense might be in a heap of trouble, but John Chavis's defense dealt a lot of punishment to Auburn's receivers, ballcarriers, and linemen. The Tigers will not be fresh when they play Vandy. The Dores, on the other hand, are coming off a bye week and will enjoy a pronounced edge in terms of rest and health. The coming months will leave Bobby Johnson's team worn-out and weary, but entering this encounter with Auburn, Vandy hasn't suffered much. Throw in the fact that Auburn has a genuine crisis of confidence at quarterback, and the Tigers--in addition to being physically dinged--have some mental issues to confront as well. Chris Todd and Kodi Burns will both wonder how long--or well--they'll be able to play against a Vandy secondary that clearly knows how to pluck interceptions out of the sky.

If you add all these things up, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to conclude that Vandy must strike while the iron is hot... in the game's embryonic stages. Physically, emotionally and otherwise, Vandy's advantages are most apparent in the early phases of this football fistfight. If the Dores can get an early turnover and land the first big blow, Auburn will doubt itself even more. Crisis at quarterback could potentially turn into full-blown five-alarm panic. Auburn's physical weariness won't wear off, and the Tigers will allow their tiredness to drag them down.

But then imagine a different scenario: If Auburn gets an early gift or the Dores fail to capitalize on a golden opportunity in the opening moments of this affair, that Auburn tiredness will fade away and morph into poise and serenity. Vandy's eagerness would likely lose its edge and slide back into a state of cautiousness. Auburn's uncertainties would give way to a sense that this SEC grind could be handled. The Tigers--who have fought for division titles and have lived in the upper reaches of the SEC on a regular basis--would begin to feel like the big dogs in this matchup, while Vandy could experience that sinking feeling of being a whipping boy.

It's all about the first 20 minutes on Saturday. That becomes more and more apparent with each passing (or running) second.

Yes, football is a 60-minute proposition, and yes, a strong start always needs to be accompanied by a worthy conclusion, but let's be honest: Vandy is not a team equipped to make big comebacks. That's a function of both Vandy's personnel and their psychological profile. Vandy needs to get on top of people so its ball-hawking secondary can lie in the weeds, anticipate a steady stream of predictable downfield passes dictated by the scoreboard, and move in for the kill. Vandy can't expect to win games by falling behind 14-0 or 17-3. Against Auburn, a week of rest--combined with the Tigers' physical and mental troubles, particularly under center--needs to pay dividends from the get-go (or something close to it). Without a big start on Saturday, Vandy's successful September won't become an equally awesome October.

It has to be a thrill for this team to look at the game previews and see a number in parentheses next to the word "Vanderbilt." But the Dores need to translate that thrill into a throttling of Auburn if a good season is to get better... and finally reach the promised land... which has still not yet been attained. Focus and finalization must be brought to the ballpark if Vandy football is to take the next needed step on the road to a potential postseason paradise.

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