Zemek: Vandy Should Stand and Deliver

For the Floridas and Alabamas of the world, seasons are defined by games against Georgia and LSU. For Vanderbilt, however, seasons are shaped by the November home stretch against the likes of Kentucky and Tennessee. Commodore fans have seen a five-game winning streak and a four-game slide, but only now will the 2008 season enter its final and decisive phase.

There's no shame in getting walloped by a Florida team that's playing virtually perfect football. If anything, coach Bobby Johnson's team fought admirably after halftime to minimize the damage last Saturday. No heads should be hanging in the VU locker room, because it's only now that the Dores--nine games into their season--will determine exactly how they'll be remembered.

Vandy's final three regular season games--against Kentucky, and then Tennessee and Wake Forest--give the Johnson Boys a look at three inconsistent offenses they can very definitely shut down. The big boys no longer populate the schedule; it's now a duel to the death against entirely beatable opponents. The way this team handles the final fourth of its season will have enormous consequences for the program.

One win in these final three games is, of course, a must. Just one victory in this closing stretch would at least spare Vandy the humiliation of a seven-game losing streak and yet another negative season after a 5-0 start. Moreover, the SEC's lack of bowl-eligible teams means that Vandy would easily--yes, easily--qualify for a bowl by merely reaching the 6-6 mark. Last year, South Carolina missed out on a bowl at 6-6 because the SEC had far more quality depth. This year, 6-6 would get the Dores to a bowl--most likely the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl--without the slightest hint of sweat. The extra practice time, plus the simple experience of a bowl game, would create an accumulation of benefits that would give a big forward push to the program. Even though a .500 record--in all frankness--should not be rewarded with a postseason game, Vandy would take the bid in a heartbeat, and rightfully so.

With that said, however, the Dores--if they really want to be remembered fondly, and achieve a particularly proud place in the pigskin pantheon--need to win two of these final games and finish with a winning record. A 6-6 finish, while avoiding a losing season and delivering a bowl bid, would represent a substantial waste of not only the 5-0 start, but a year in which the SEC's middle-division teams have largely tumbled, stumbled and bumbled. Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee have all regressed to a shockingly substantial degree, while last year's Liberty Bowl champion, Mississippi State, immediately fell back to the bottom of the SEC West. As much as Vandy would love to merely avoid another losing season and play a postseason game, the psyche of everyone around the program could really use the extra satisfaction of something better than break-even. If a long-term attitudinal shift is to begin for this program, and if a steady upward climb is to take place in Nashville, two wins need to come from this closing trio of tussles. It might seem unfair or burdensome, but the reality is there and impossible to deny: One game, one result, makes a world of difference for a school that has suffered the way Vanderbilt has on the gridiron since 1982. The difference between 5-7 and 6-6 is as large as the Grand Canyon. The difference between 6-6 and 7-5 is as wide and deep as the Pacific Ocean. Legacies and reputations are on the line in this particular November, and there's simply no point in trying to hide from that fact.

Enough of the preamble. The question now staring the Dores in the face is, "How can Kentucky be conquered this Saturday night in Lexington, before another national TV audience on the Deuce?"

The obvious first priority for Vandy is to contain UK's emergent new threat at quarterback, Randall Cobb. A backup throughout the season until this past Saturday's game against Georgia, Cobb used his footspeed and elusiveness to torment the Bulldogs' defense to the tune of 38 points and a near-upset. Because Bobby Johnson has often depended on his own quarterbacks--Chris Nickson and Mackenzi Adams--to make plays with their legs and not their throwing arms, VU's defense should be able to make the right reads and keep Cobb in the pocket. As long as the Dores can make Cobb beat them through the air, and force the still-learning passer to throw into the strength of the Commodores' defense, Vandy should be able to get the turnovers and stops needed to win a low-scoring game, the only kind of game this team is currently equipped to win.

It's worth making a few additional points about Cobb, who has certainly made Kentucky a more formidable opponent in the span of just one week. While Cobb did devastate Georgia, it's also true that Mark Richt's Bulldogs were coming off a psychologically overwhelming blowout loss to Florida. It was certainly surprising to see Georgia get gouged the way it did by Kentucky's new-look offense, but it was not shocking at all to see Georgia play with decreased intensity and vigor. Kentucky had a lot more to play for, despite the difference in talent between the two teams. Now that the Cats have been knocked down a peg, they will find it difficult to muster up the same level of energy against Vandy. If the Commodores can rock and roll in the first quarter, they can break Kentucky's will and bite some corn off the Cobb.

Another thing to consider about Cobb's performance against Georgia is that his backup status for much of the season made him something of a mystery--not a total puzzle, but at least a player whose tendencies weren't fully defined. Vandy has the benefit of seeing Kentucky's full package in this week's film study. The Commodores, more than most SEC schools, will get to see all the ways in which Cobb can exploit them. This should aid Vandy's game preparation and give them a small but real edge.

On offense, there's really little to talk about. Someone under center has to light a fire and provide the kind of play that will unleash meaningful production in key situations. Until then, there's little use speculating about who will do the deed. It's all a matter of finding a way to "git 'er done." The mystery in this Kentucky collision will come when Kentucky has the ball. If the strongest part of the Vandy team can defend the goal line with distinction and rob Cobb of the pigskin, this up-for-grabs game can break in the direction of the Dores.

Ah, but will Vandy make the breaks needed to conquer the Cats? It's time for this squad to put its demons to rest, and turn this November into a month to remember. Saturday in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the Johnson Boys will be playing for their reputations and their football legacies. They simply have to display an accordingly high amount of hunger.

If Vandy loses out, this season will bring a level of emptiness that would be hard to top. For this particular school, that's saying something.

If that internal emptiness is to be avoided, then, the Commodores need to spill their tank on the field.

It's time to stand up and be counted. Time to stand and deliver for the men who make up the 2008 edition of the Vanderbilt football team.

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