Vanderbilt 2009: Defending A Reputation

The smell of football always excites the senses at the end of another summer, but this time around in Nashville, the air is scented with an even sweeter perfume, and an aura that will hopefully endure in the Autumn of 2009.

The caliber of a Vanderbilt education quite clearly indicates that young minds at the university have been abundantly oxygenated over the decades, but this year, the quality of each breath will be even better in Music City U.S.A., due to the bowl-winning, seldom-sinning, mostly-grinning liberation effort known as the 2008 VU football season. The successful campaign by the Bobby Johnson Boys, completed in a stirring 16-14 win over Boston College on the happiest New Year's Eve in VU football history, allowed the final ledger to indicate that the Commodores won seven games while losing only six. The bonus of a bowl-game championship only offered more ballast to a program that, after 25 seasons of relative futility, navigated college football's always-choppy waters with an extra pinch of resourcefulness… enough, at any rate, to stand on the sunshine side of the divide between the postseason penthouse and the all-too-familiar 5-7 outhouse.

As 2009 beckons, then, the words "Same Ol' Vandy" have been removed from the vocabulary. The words "Charlie Brown and Lucy" no longer occupy the toolbox of sportswriting metaphors waiting to be sprung upon the Dores. This football season might not be as successful as the previous one in Nashville, but regardless of the events that will unfold over the next four months, one reality towers over all else in Vandyland: The spell has been broken, the confining chains linking one losing season to another have been cut apart. The Commodores have slipped out of their shackles, and can now write a new and extended chapter in a gridiron saga that has seen enough heartbreak, and is poised to acquire a decidedly different trajectory. Familiar characterizations of Vandy football no longer apply.

How, then, will a new story be authored in 2009? The final win-loss total is always a point of focus, but it could well be that Vanderbilt will improve its reputation this season and yet fall short of a bowl game. If there's a theme that emphasizes the year's most urgent need, it is the importance of cementing the gains made last season. Once viewed as a doormat, and more recently viewed as a luckless loser, Vanderbilt must use the 2009 campaign as a time to walk on the gridiron (and off it) with a transformed team-wide mindset. The first, last and most important goal of this season is for Vandy to get used to being a big boy… or at least, a bigger boy… on the college football scene.

The notion of walking with a different kind of body language—win or lose—is rooted in the memory of last year's three particularly disappointing losses: the road stumble at Mississippi State, and the home-field debacles against the David Cutcliffe combo of Duke and Tennessee. Vandy would have been playing in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, a breathtaking postseason prize, if the Dores had been able to slam the Bulldogs, Blue Devils, and Volunteers. Yes, the 2008 season turned out well enough (albeit barely), but amidst the 7-6 euphoria and the Music City Bowl magic, it must be noted that VU left behind some ugly reminders of the program that couldn't cross the threshold in seasons past.

Once upon a time, not very long ago, home losses to mediocre Kentucky clubs or the likes of a Middle Tennessee derailed the VU crew on the march to a bowl game. Last year, the Johnson Boys were good enough to overcome their set of stomach-punch setbacks, but until the Dores officially tucked away their sixth and seventh wins of 2008, Vandy fans—taken to the limits of their sanity in a wild rollercoaster ride—were left to recall a million prior occasions when their beloved team snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Last year's journey did shatter VU's snake-bitten identity, but it certainly didn't lack its share of harrowing and humiliating moments, particularly the nightmarish face-plant against Phil Fulmer's feeble forces. This sets the stage for 2009, a year of transition and a time for a new personality to emerge in Nashville.

If there's one thing VU needs to display this season, it is indeed a propensity to win the games the Dores are expected to win... with authority. This schedule is a bear for Bobby Johnson and Co., with Ole Miss and LSU occupying two-thirds of the SEC West dance card, and three of five SEC East games falling on the road. If VU is to reach another bowl battle, the must-haves need to drop into the win column. Just as importantly, Vandy needs to thump the inferior clubs on its schedule so that the program can find some swagger in its step.

Why did the Dores fall into a trap against the Dukies, Mississippi State, and the Children of the Checkerboard from Knoxville? Football might be football, but it would be foolish to claim that the psychological calculus of those contests wasn't substantially shaped by one overriding thought: "We had better win this game, or else!" Vandy felt immense pressure in that triumvirate of tussles, treating games as torture chambers needing to be endured and escaped, and not as opportunities waiting to be seized.

For individual athletes and teams alike, the progression from loser to winner is built on the strength of a mental transformation that absorbs pressure with confidence and doesn't shrivel in the spotlight. A Vandy team that has lost two receivers (Terrence Jeffers and Justin Wheeler) in the offseason, and which faces another question-mark quarterback situation (maybe Larry Smith will be the savior, but the lad's undeniably a work in progress at this point), will have to become an even more mature outfit in order to take care of business against underdogs. If VU can merely attain a sparkling track record against inferior opponents in 2009 (forget the SEC for a moment), the first and foremost foundation of a program's transformation will have been firmly established. Weeding out bad losses—a goal unattained despite last season's bowl-game bounty—is the number one task for this year's football team.

If there's a second major point of emphasis for the 2009 Commodores, it's the need to make SEC East opponents beat them with the pass. Sure, D.J. Moore and Reshard Langford are gone, but what one needs to remember about the SEC East is that—with the exception of a man named Tebow—the division lacks proven signal callers. Stephen Garcia could become something special at South Carolina, but history—and Garcia's erratic 2008—suggest otherwise. Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia—for various reasons and to varying degrees—are in far worse shape under center than they were two seasons ago. Myron Lewis and Ryan Hamilton bring consistency and credentials to this year's VU secondary, meaning that if the non-Florida teams in the East want to throw against the Dores, they'll be playing the kind of game Vanderbilt can win. Just one interception-rich romp against Georgia or South Carolina in the middle of October would—in tandem with five wins in each of VU's "must-haves"—catapult the Johnson Boys back to a bowl.

And so the reality becomes clear: In a season when Vanderbilt will be trying to cement a new reputation with a remade pigskin personality, the Commodores need to defend the gains of 2008 with swagger and distinction. This team's pitch-and-catch capacity has taken a hit in recent months, which means that points aren't likely to be plentiful for VU, but as long as the Dores can take care of business whenever they're a solid favorite, a measure of progress will be secured with 2010 looming on the horizon. If five must-have wins (against Western Carolina, Rice, Miss. State, Army, and Kentucky) can be tucked away, the word "regression" will not trip lightly from mumbling Vanderbilt lips. With that foundational goal safely achieved, a big-league defense can then attempt to pick off an SEC East quarterback and score the extra scalps that will allow the Dores to go bowling, and experience another Christmas filled with postseason giddiness.

Everyone in Nashville obviously wants the bowl-game train to keep rolling in 2009, and a loaded defense could well bring Vanderbilt a second straight season of supreme satisfaction. With that having been said, however, the biggest goal for the Dores this season is to ensure that cringe-inducing mistakes and ambush-level losses fully disappear into the mists of history. Making the postseason would certainly represent a step forward for a program that wants to be known as a consistent winner, but as long as VU doesn't repeat the Mississippi State missteps and Duke downers of seasons past, this upcoming year of college football will consolidate the improvements made by the legendary 2008 squad.

Make no mistake: Vanderbilt, fresh off its exhilarating climb last season, is not about to go 10-2. The changes in attitude and performance that need to be seen in Nashville this year are not entirely related to the scoreboard; it's time for Bobby Johnson to bring a more businesslike team to the field, a club that won't flinch in the face of failure, and will convincingly conquer the teams it's supposed to spank. If that much of a shift can occur at Vanderbilt Stadium (and the road venues this team must visit), the 2008 season will remain a positive turning point. That much ought to be expected in this brand new era of Commodore football.

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