Married Life Begins This Week for Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt football fans who are blessed enough to have a loving spouse should be able to understand--more than most--the nature of the challenge facing the Commodores this Saturday against the hated Tennessee Volunteers.

You see, when the global population of Vandy backers woke up on the morning of Sunday, November 16, 2008, their beloved football team had been forever changed. The Johnson Boys are no longer a bridesmaid. They're now a bride that didn't get dumped at the altar. Yes, married life has begun for this program. The sun will rise in the east, just like any other day. Three square meals need to be eaten, and work still needs to get done. But life--as every Dore diehard now knows--will never be the same again. There's a glow on the face of Vanderbilt football, the kind of aura that can never be removed from a soul or stricken from the record of human memory.

And so, as the Vandy bride clutches the hand of her beaming new husband, Mr. Bowl Game, a long-sought love affair--unable to happen for 26 years because of numerous family issues and internal psychological weaknesses that always seemed to get in the way--has finally been consummated within the bounds of wedlock. The hunger for real love, a deep and abiding passion that always existed from a great distance, but could never be fully expressed in Novembers past, has finally found its form and its voice.

So now, with a new future to look forward to, Vandy football needs to begin to act like a married person. The period of restless infatuation and constant obsession can now end. Time to settle down and make the VU football family even stronger.

Time to throttle Phil Fulmer in Vanderbilt Stadium for the first--and last--time. Time to max out against the Children of the Checkerboard from Knoxville.

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Coaches--in any sport--will insist that every game has to be treated the same, even if reality suggests otherwise. Any mature sports fan can understand the wisdom in such a worldview, but the trick is to adjust one's psychological framework even while maintaining normal standards of effort and performance. That's the challenge facing Vanderbilt football at the dawn of this bright new day for the program. Everything is the same, and yet everything is so profoundly different. Normal life needs to carry on, but now a spouse has to be tended to as well, for better or worse, for rich or for poor, in sickness and in health, til the Chick-Fil-A Bowl do we part.

Okay, enough of the metaphors (they've been shelved since 1982; gotta allow for a little excess at a time as giddy as this). The point of all this is to say that, while teams do need to prepare and practice in a structured way, they also need to be realistic about the challenges in front of them. Any ballclub--especially in the more emotionally volatile world of collegiate sports--has to have a reliable and proven method that enables its players to focus on the task at hand, without getting unduly distracted or unsettled. Yet, a locker room also needs to know when it has crossed a threshold the way Vandy has. A coaching staff needs to convey the idea that a 6-4 record, and the status of favorite against Tennessee on Saturday morning in Nashville, brings with it a new set of responsibilities.

Game preparation must remain the same as it's always been at Vanderbilt. Bobby Johnson's methods have been affirmed and validated to the fullest possible extent, because the on-field results are better than anything seen in the past quarter century in these parts. With that said, however, every VU player needs to carry himself with a new level of quiet confidence, an extra degree of serene sureness. Vandy--it needs to be said--is no longer a loser. It's not an act of hyperbole or well-intentioned encouragement to say so. No, it's now a plain and unmistakable fact of life.

Vandy.

Football.

Is.

Not.

A.

Loser.

Anymore.

Let the words sink in. Allow the reality to be absorbed by your bones and marrow, to flow through your veins and arteries.

This is what the Johnson Boys need to do, right along with the entirety of the Commodore Nation. They are a transformed people now, this band of brothers in a locker room that didn't give up the ship after the devastating four-game losing streak that featured unbearable losses to Mississippi State and Duke. Therefore, in a manner befitting a renewed and liberated team, it can no longer be acceptable to make the kinds of mistakes losers make.

It will no longer be acceptable to lob passes into triple coverage when the ball should be thrown away. Unnecessary holding penalties, away from the ball, will no longer be tolerated on 15-yard running plays. Blocked kicks returned for touchdowns? Not an option. Fumbled punts and kickoffs? Winners don't do that.

Don't get the impression that the Dores should start donning a cape and display a level of offensive potency that could rival Tim Tebow and Florida--that's not the gist of this line of thought. The point is that Vandy, in a new era with a transformed identity, should now carry itself in a different way.

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Perhaps Tennessee--an old nemesis whose former offensive coordinator, David Cutcliffe, won again in Nashville earlier this season with Duke--will haunt the Johnson Boys in the first quarter of Saturday's game. Perhaps the Vols will work a little mojo for 15 or 20 minutes. Periods of occasional fear and uncertainty against Tennessee--even a 3-7 edition of the despised in-state rival--would be understandable.

The key for the Commodores, then, is to make sure that before too much time elapses on Saturday, the visitors from Knoxville receive a boldly delivered message: "We're different now at Vanderbilt. We're not going to beat ourselves, and you--with your sputtering mess of an offense--are going to have to play really well for 60 minutes to beat us on our turf."

Maybe Tennessee gets a 7-0 or even a 10-0 lead after a quarter and a half, due to a bye week, a desire to play hard for Mr. Fulmer, and a turnover caused by coordinator John Chavis's defense, which has remained solid throughout Tennessee's train wreck of a season. If Tennessee spilled the tank early and gained a quick advantage, it would not rate as a stunning turn of events. Not in a rivalry game, and not with Fulmer--one of the better coaches in the history of the SEC--wanting to exit on a high note and beat Vandy one more time.

If things do go badly in the early stages, Vandy should be able to fight back instead of sagging the way past Commodore teams have. This is what winning can and should (and must!) do for a program. This is the confidence, the reserve stash of resourcefulness, that a team can bank on when it leaves behind a losing history and sets out on a new path toward success.

A month and a half ago, this writer felt that Vandy had to get Auburn early, because the Dores hadn't yet crossed the six-win threshold of bowl eligibility. Strong starts to a season had been attained in recent years, so until the program received its ultimate transformational moment, the feeling here was that the Dores needed to deliver the first few punches.

Now, though, with Tennessee standing in the way of a winning season, the sense is--and should be--different. In this new era of VU football, Vandy should now be able to shrug off mistakes and display a better, bolder attitude on gameday. Now, the Johnson Boys don't have to wonder what it's like to win six games or punch a ticket to a bowl game. Now, this team doesn't have to worry about breaking through. Now, this locker room doesn't have to question its capabilities when locked in a tight game late in the fourth quarter.

This Saturday, Vanderbilt's football team needs to realize that, up and down the roster, it has already grown up. These players might have started the season as boys, but when you become the first VU team to win six games since 1982, you graduate to the level of full-fledged manhood. It's now time for that newly adult way of being, that extra degree of maturity, to pay off against the Children of the Checkerboard. It's time to pay back the school that has made Vandy look overwhelmed, overmatched, and not ready for prime time on so many occasions in the past, 2005 being the conspicuously lonely exception.

Married life has begun, Vanderbilt. As Tennessee endures a difficult divorce from its longtime head coach, it's time to show how sweet it can be to have the emotional stability, internal confidence, and personal pride that a healthy marriage will provide. It's time to make the Vols experience the pain that Commodore fans have known for so long. It's time to bear a new identity with pride and purpose in Nashville.

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