Vanderbilt to Last? Tune In This Saturday

While two bitter enemies will duke it out in Knoxville on this, the Third Saturday of October, the most intriguing SEC game of week eight actually involves Vanderbilt. Yes, Vanderbilt.

It’s true enough that the Alabama-Tennessee hatefest is the big-event SEC game for October 21. One of college football’s great rivalries–which Keith Jackson said was his favorite when played in Neyland Stadium–will understandably garner most of the attention this weekend from football fans across the South.

But while rivalry games often produce unexpected results, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Alabama isn’t in Tennessee’s league this season. When you consider all the struggles the Tide are experiencing, combined with all the improvements the Vols have made in 2006, it seems very hard–at least on an intellectual level–to think Mike Shula’s sagging ballclub can mount a stiff, 60-minute challenge to the Children of the Checkerboard on the banks of the Tennessee River.

This puts the most interesting SEC game of the week in Nashville, not Knoxville. If you want to see something truly intriguing, go to Music City this Saturday.

South Carolina’s battle with Vanderbilt is significant for a number of reasons. The first reason is that the Gamecocks–who will have much to say about Florida’s SEC East title hopes in one way or another–need to enter their showdown with Tennessee on an up note. Without a win over Vandy this weekend, Carolina can’t build momentum for the big ballgames that lie ahead on the schedule, and history shows that when South Carolina is unmotivated, disaster unfolds on a football field. For every possible reason, the boys from Columbia need a win this Saturday, and they need it something fierce.

But as much as the Gamecocks are in search of a season-propelling victory, it’s Vanderbilt who needs this game even more.

We see this–and say this–all the time in sports, but it bears repeating: you have to back up one good result with another. In the realm of individual sports, this is particularly true with respect to tennis. If you beat the top-ranked player in the world in a round-of-16 match, you need to beat the 25th-ranked player in the subsequent quarterfinal and follow that up with a win over the No. 10 player in the semis to say that you’ve truly become an elite player. The rare win as a huge underdog means little in the long run if you can’t consistently win more evenly-matched battles.

This same dynamic can be applied to the team sport known as college football, and it definitely applies to Bobby Johnson’s Vanderbilt program.

Last year, the final chapter of the Jay Cutler era was both successful and painful for the Commodores. The success lay in the five wins and the season-ending victory at Tennessee, both noticeable improvements for a downtrodden program. But those successes would have meant a lot more had the Dores slammed the door on more beatable opponents: Middle Tennessee and Kentucky. Placed against manifestly inferior opposition, Vandy–so good at times under Cutler–reverted to the frightened, mentally weak, flop-sweating Vandy of old. The two losses against a pair of low-end opponents derailed the Dores’ dreams of a bowl, and they diminished the glory of that rare win against the Vols. What could have been a 7-4 season became 5-6 instead.

With that history serving as prelude, Vandy’s encounter with South Carolina is so huge because it offers the Dores a chance to back up their win at Georgia with another equally impressive conquest. At 3-4 overall, a win here would give Bobby Johnson’s team a .500 record heading into a road date with Duke the following week. How big is this game for Vandy? So big that a win here would give the Commodores–in all likelihood–a winning record heading into November. Just add a win over Kentucky, and you have a six-win, non-losing season in Nashville for the first time since 1982. Vandy’s win over Georgia opened some eyes; now, though, it’s time to keep those eyes fixed on the SEC’s longstanding doormat, and with a win over a Steve Spurrier-coached team coming off a bye, little ol’ Vanderbilt will become a respectable team in the cutthroat world of SEC football.

It’s worth emphasizing the fact that South Carolina is coming off a bye week, because Steve Spurrier used a bye week with particular expertise and effectiveness at his former school… just ask the Georgia Bulldogs about the matter. The challenge for Vandy lies not just in facing the Gamecocks and the emerging talents of blossoming signal caller Syvelle Newton, but in facing said talents after Newton has had two weeks of being “coached up” by one of the sharpest offensive minds in football. The Commodores aren’t just getting South Carolina; they’re getting a fresh and fully prepared South Carolina. That fact makes this game that much tougher for Vandy to win, but at the same time, it would make a win over USC that much more reflective of a real and sustainable resurgence in the world of Vanderbilt football.

Is Bobby Johnson’s team Vanderbilt to last? We’ll find out Saturday in Nashville, the Tennessee city where a truly interesting SEC football game will be contested this weekend. Go to Knoxville if you love a six-figure crowd and holy hatreds, but if you like a much more intriguing football case study, fix your eyes on Music City. One win is a great moment, but a backed-up win represents a real climb on the college football landscape. Against South Carolina and Steve Spurrier, Vandy will discover if it brought its hiking boots to the ballpark.