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Vanderbilt does not see itself as underdog.


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Vanderbilt does not see itself as underdog

By THOMAS STINSON

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Friday, October 17, 2008

Nashville — Vanderbilt has never beaten three ranked teams in one season.

It hasn’t been 5-1 in 58 years either. Or atop the SEC in … forever.

Vandy is a 14-1/2-point underdog at No. 9 Georgia Saturday afternoon. Kind of daunting, huh?

“Well, we’re not daunted,” Commodores coach Bobby Johnson said. “Or whatever it is.”

Everybody’s a comedian these days over in this city’s West End and why not? If this is the year of Brainiac Ball, the light burns just a little brighter here than at Duke or Northwestern or Stanford, if only because this is the SEC, where for decades Vandy had been told to go sit in the corner and be quiet until basketball season.

But now, the Commodores, No. 22 according to the AP, are tied with Florida at 3-1 atop the Eastern Division. One more win and they are bowl eligible for the first time since 1984. For the first time since the schools began playing each other in 1893, Georgia and Vanderbilt will be ranked when they play.

The team has grappled with this kind of history almost every weekend this season. Having beaten South Carolina when it was No. 24 and beaten Auburn two weeks ago when it was No. 20, Vandy has knocked off two ranked opponents for the first time since 1955.

“It’s amazing,” said T.J. Greenstone, a defensive tackle who came here from Gwinnett County’s Collins Hill High School. “The feeling that we’re trying to do something here that hasn’t been done since before my parents were born? It’s hard to even grasp that.”

Vanderbilt doesn’t pound on anyone. It can’t. The Commodores have trailed in every game they’ve won, falling behind Auburn by 13 and Ole Miss by 10. They trailed Mississippi 17-7 last weekend but couldn’t complete the comeback in 17-14 loss. The Commodores have outscored all opponents 64-24 in the second half and 109-41 after the first quarter.

Georgia should remember that well. Two years ago when the Bulldogs were 5-1, Vandy marched down the center of Sanford Stadium on a 65-yard drive that ended with a Bryant Hahnfeldt 33-yard field goal with two seconds left for a 24-22 win.

That loss eliminated Georgia from the SEC race. Johnson downplays its significance now. His program had won games at Arkansas and Tennessee. But it was the first road win without the graduated quarterback Jay Cutler and the result gave the program a reason to believe it could win without a marquee player, a belief that has only grown this fall.

“We did it under great duress,” Johnson said. “That’s a tough place to play but they’re all tough places to play and I think we’ve gotten used to that. I expect when we go into a game and we execute, we’ll have a chance.”

This all began to take root in 2003, when the Commodores commemorated Johnson’s second season with a second consecutive 2-10 performance. Vice Chancellor David Williams, who oversees athletics as well student affairs — recall the school has no traditional athletics director — went to then-Chancellor Gordon Gee and asked that Johnson’s contract be extended.

“Why?” Gee asked.

“Because we have to realize what we gave him in the first place,” Williams answered.

Johnson was granted a 10-year extension and the decision was critical. Vanderbilt’s recruiting has always been crimped by academic stipulations but granted time, Johnson has been able to find the occasional star while, perhaps more importantly, creating depth.

Earl Bennett, for example, had been recruited widely as a defensive back in 2004 but wanted to play receiver. Johnson offered him the position. Bennett went on to break the SEC career receptions record (236).

The current starting 22 Commodores include 13 fourth- and fifth-year players. Johnson’s staff has excelled at taking under-valued recruits and developing them into viable SEC performers by their final two years.

Take Chris Williams who in 2003 arrived as a 6-5, 240-pound tackle from Baton Rouge, La., who was so minimized a prep player that cross-town LSU didn’t bother to recruit him. Williams was redshirted his first year, did not play a single snap his second year but three seasons later, at 6-6 and 320, became the 14th player taken in the NFL draft (Chicago).

Once obscure kids on campus, the players are now recognized. Safety Reshard Langford, who Johnson found un-recruited at tiny Tanner (Ala.) High, is a sudden celebrity as well as a potential All-American as a senior.

“Oh, the whole team, people recognize us more,” Langford said. “You can’t hide in the shadows when you’re winning.”

Little Vanderbilt Stadium (39,773) has been rocking like it’s the mid-1950s, when the school last fielded a string of ranked teams. The student body has been hit with emotions it didn’t know it had.

“People care about a loss mid-through October,” said Jarred Amato, a senior from Boston who covers the team for the student paper, the Vanderbilt Hustler. “I bet there are very few fans who realize basketball practice starts (Friday). In the past, by mid-September, people knew exactly when basketball was starting.”

They are also learning that winning, in its perverse way, only makes losing worse. Vandy hasn’t beaten Georgia in consecutive years since 1957-58. This ride could end in a jolt.

“It’s in the back of people’s minds, for sure,” said Amato, who as a freshman watched the team start 4-0 and finish 5-6. “I guess until they prove otherwise, it’s hard to blame them.”

A deeper fear is that one day, Johnson will be gone, wooed away by a bigger program. Vandy has been faced with this before with basketball coach Kevin Stallings and even baseball coach Tim Corbin. Duke went after Johnson last year and it is almost a certainty that Clemson will call this winter. Johnson was an academic All-American at Clemson in 1972.

“Success is a very strange commodity,” said Williams, the Vice Chancellor whose job it is to keep Johnson right where he is. “On one hand, you feel good about having the right man for the job. By, my god, there has to be an easier way to make a living.”

While Georgia will out-man Vanderbilt at almost every position, Vandy has proven by playing mistake-free and opportunistically, it can compete with anyone. The Commodores lead the SEC in interceptions (11) as well as sacks (20). Brett Upson is third-best in the SEC in net punting. Hahnfeldt, the kicker, has already broken the school scoring record. Vandy is the least penalized team in the league. And then there is the 40-point scoring disparity in the second half.

Who knows where this all will lead. There are a couple more ranked opponents (Florida, Wake Forest) waiting in November. Vandy has never won the SEC in 76 years of trying. But for a school that had lost touch with its inner-football, Saturdays matter again.

“Hey if I could start out 5-1 every year?” Johnson asked. “Put me down in favor of that.”

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Thats great Vandy is riding high, for once. Bowl eligible for the first time in a while is great motivation, but they are still underdogs whether they believe it or not. Good team, but i dont see em winning this game. Like the writer said georgia just out mans them at most every position..

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