On one afternoon, the
future of Vanderbilt football came into view, and for the
first time in quite a while, that future looked as bright as
the autumnal radiance that bathed the Commodores in
glory when Bryant Hahnfeldt’s last-minute field goal
stunned Mark Richt’s Bulldogs.
You could choose to lament the agonizing losses from last
season, especially against Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss,
You could choose to let your mind wander into the past,
and allow the ghosts of 2005, 1999, 1994, and 1991 to
produce restless nights during an uneasy summer in
You could mumble the words “Middle Tennesee” and
“Kentucky,” sure-fire ways to torment your soul during an
offseason that just can’t end soon enough.
But wait a minute—this offseason can’t end soon enough?
Can it be?
It’s as undeniable as Vanderbilt’s superior academic
reputation: this year, there’s real excitement in the air as
Vanderbilt’s football team prepares for its string of
autumnal armageddons. In 2005 and 2006, Bobby Johnson’s team started knocking; in 2007, Vanderbilt
could knock the Dore down and bust on through to a
Oh, don’t jinx the effort, you might (understandably) say.
Keep this team humble and under the radar, you might
Ah, but isn’t that the whole point?
In 2007, it’s quite rational to expect Vanderbilt to make a
strong run at a bowl game and a non-losing season. This
time around, the thought possesses genuine heft and
For one thing, this isn’t a team that quarterback Chris Nickson will carry on his back the way Cutler once did for
previous Commodore crews. That’s a very good thing to
Indeed, this ballclub isn’t a one-man show in which
massive deficiencies can be masked by a single individual.
This is true precisely because the 2007 Dores
figure to be a cohesive unit that embodies the
very concept of what a team is. Vandy returns
17 of a possible 22 starters on offense (9) and
defense (8). What’s more is that last year’s
group was loaded with underclassmen who
are now much more seasoned. A handful of
plays could have led to a bowl season last
year, so imagine what a more experienced
outfit can do this season on the gridiron.
This point bears mentioning, however: to say
that the 2007 Commodores won’t be a onetrick
pony should not be taken as a dismissal
of Nickson’s talents. The balance that is
evident on this year’s Dores should not lead
one to overlook or undervalue the
quarterback position, which is hugely
significant throughout college football, and
especially in the defense-first SEC. Nickson is
eminently capable of leading this offense with
While not the prototypical quarterback Cutler
was, Nickson is very much a playmaker. It’s
just that Nickson is suited to make plays with
his speed, not just his arm. When he does
pass the ball, Nickson will need to be sound
more than scintillating; ball security and an
ability to distribute the pigskin to his backs
and receivers will be the biggest key for
Vandy’s starting signal caller. If Nickson finds
the right balance between leadership and
tangible, statistical production, the
Commodores could be in for a very big year.
And given his on-the-job training last season,
it’s fair to say that Nickson is much more
equipped to use his talents effectively. Chris
Nickson is a quarterback who has every
chance to succeed in 2007, and that’s why
Bobby Johnson’s team could realistically get
over the hump this fall.
Another big reason why 2007 holds genuine
promise for the Dores is that they came within
six points of beating the reigning national
champions on a day when lots of things went
Special teams miscues put Vanderbilt in a
desperate situation against Urban Meyer’s
Florida Gators, but after a first half full of
hiccups, the boys in black settled down and
punched the eventual SEC titleists in the
mouth. When all was said and done,
Vanderbilt had accumulated more first downs,
more total yards, and more rushing yards than
mighty Florida, all while committing fewer
penalties and turnovers. A late-season
encounter against a championship team often
provides a pretty solid indication of the season
to come. If there was substantial slippage from
the breakthrough win at Georgia, the fierce
fight against Florida didn’t have it. The
Commodores displayed talent throughout the
entirety of their 2006 season, from the opener
in Ann Arbor, Mich., to the season finale
against Tennessee. The problem was that
inexperience often prevented that talent from
emerging with the consistency and crunchtime
reliability that must exist in a bowl season
for any college football program.
Here’s a very simple way of understanding
why 2007 is a year of legitimate hope and
promise for Vanderbilt football: the equation
isn’t so complicated. The formula for success
iisn’t so tangled, hidden, or multifaceted.
Whenever a program is trying to overcome
the odds or dig out of an extended period of
pronounced frustration, the path to victory
is much harder to determine. When you have
the gridiron ghosts that Vanderbilt football
has had to shake off over the past 25 years,
most offseasons and summer training
camps are chock-full of question marks and
gaping holes. One defining part of life as a
downtrodden football program is that there’s
usually room for improvement at most
positions. This makes the formula for success
akin to the most complex quadratic equation.
This year, however, the onset of summer finds
a Vanderbilt program that is no longer at that
bottom-rung stage where the formula for
success is dependent on a bewilderingly large
array of variables. No, in 2007, Vanderbilt has
accumulated appreciable amounts of speed,
talent, depth, and experience, four qualities
that exist in abundance at elite programs.
And while it’s true that Vanderbilt isn’t
overflowing with talent the way Florida is, it’s
just as true that for the first time in a very
longwhile, no one would say that Vanderbilt
is sorely lacking in these departments, either.
No one would tab Vandy as a top-three
finisher in a brutal SEC East, but the Dores
aren’t a sure-fire pick for the division cellar.
Given the quality of the division, that’s saying
a lot about the improvements that have taken
place in Bobby Johnson’s program.
This year, there isn’t an endless parade of
question marks. In 2007, the formula for
success is startlingly but happily simple for the
Commodores: combine improved talent with
the big-game experience accumulated last
season. If Vanderbilt can put its speed and
savvy together on several Saturdays, a bowl
bid will come to Nashville.
Talent plus experience equals bowl bid. The
path to gridiron glory has never been so
simple—or encouraging—for Vanderbilt
partisans in quite some time.
Cassen Jackson-Garrison (VM/Stan Jones)
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