After the impressive first six teams of the SEC, a lot of commentators look down the standing and seem to focus on programs in decline. People are wondering what is going on at Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee, even Kentucky (which was on the verge of bowl-eligibility last season). But I think it’s been overlooked that Vanderbilt has become bowl-eligible for the third time in five years. Their 2008 appearance against Boston College had been their first bowl game since 1982.
Things were looking so bad at one point that in 1995, LSU actually hired Gerry DiNardo, who had been the Vanderbilt coach, because he had accomplished the feat of winning 5 games in a season there not once but twice. I guess that was harder to do when it was an 11-game season though, to be fair. Only once in the following 10 years would Vanderbilt win 4 games or more (going 5-6 in 1999).
Something is different this year though. When Vandy went 6-6 in 2008, they had lost 6 of 7 going into the bowl game, only becoming bowl eligible in a close game against Kentucky after having lost three similarly close games (to Mississippi St., Georgia, and Duke) in consecutive weeks at the beginning of a 4-game losing streak.
In 2009 and 2010, Vandy started 2-2 and 2-3, respectively, before finishing with 2-10 marks in both seasons.
Then last season, the Commodores started 3-0 only to finish 6-7.
This is also the fifth time in eight seasons Vandy has won 5 games or more. In 2005, Vanderbilt won the first 4 games before losing 7 in a row then beat Tennessee in the finale. In 2007, the ’Dores started 5-3 then lost 2 games by a touchdown or less (either of which would have made them bowl-eligible) as they ended the year with a 4-game losing streak.
Granted, this was partly because the end of the season has a lot more conference games than the beginning does, but I think it was more than that. I think that confidence and killer instinct goes away, and it’s more a sense of “not again” and playing not to lose game after game.
This is the first time I’ve seen Vanderbilt as the team that’s making things happen rather than having things happen to it.
The Commodores started this season 1-3. They gave South Carolina a good game then lost to Northwestern. When (after beating FCS Presbyterian) they were dismantled by Georgia, 48-3, I thought they were giving up already and they would be back to the usual. Then they beat Missouri on the road the next week, and their only loss since that point has been to then-#4 Florida by a somewhat respectable score of 31-17.
I also wanted to talk about their series with Ole Miss. Ole Miss and Vandy are one of the lesser-known permanent rivalries in the SEC. This means that despite being in different divisions, they play each other every year. In fact, they have played every year since 1970 and in all but two years since 1945.
Vanderbilt dominated the series early in the rivalry, only allowing Ole Miss a total of 16 points in their first 16 games against the Commodores, but every game in the series until 1948 was played in Tennessee (though many were at Memphis, fairly regarded as a neutral site).
But then Vanderbilt went winless in the series from 1952 to 1973 and had only one win from 1952 to 1980. In total, the Commodores only won three times at Ole Miss from the beginning of the series until 2007. Since then, Vanderbilt has won three times at Ole Miss (that’s three in a row).
Vandy has also beaten Ole Miss 5 times in 6 seasons. This is despite the fact that Ole Miss went 9-4 twice in that time period and still has a shot at becoming bowl-eligible this season. In all, the ’Dores have beaten Ole Miss a total of 6 times from 2005 to present after only defeating the Rebels 7 times from 1952 to 2004.
I’ve always respected Vanderbilt as an academic institution and I have a soft spot for underdogs, so they’re the #1 team I cheer for out of the East. I don’t see them making the SEC championship game anytime too soon, but I’m hoping they will be regularly competitive for some time. If only we can convince Kentucky to care half as much about football as they do about basketball, there might not be any long-term doormats in the SEC.