September 1, 2006

Michigan matchup can only be good for Vanderbilt

Should they have, or shouldn't they have? At 11 a.m. tomorrow, that question will no longer be relevant.

Much was made of Vandy's decision to accept ESPN's invitation to open their 2006 college football season versus Michigan. Most in the Nashville media thought VU Vice Chancellor David Williams had lost his marbles when he agreed to take the Commodores to The Big House sans NFL first round draft pick Jay Cutler.

The common diatribe goes something like this: To get to six wins, Vandy needs to schedule as many winnable games as possible. My simple response: You mean someone like MTSU?

This is year five of coach Johnson's Vandy tenure. For the first time, he has all of his recruits. He has retained all but two of his coaches during that time. And, he has received the full and unquestioned support of Vanderbilt's administration and fans. If he can't go to Michigan and give them a run for their money, then it wouldn't matter whether that game had been Louisiana-Monroe instead of U-M.

Furthermore, this is a once-in-10-years opportunity for this program to get national exposure on ESPN, the unrivaled and unquestioned gold standard in sports coverage. You literally cannot buy the sort of gross ratings points this game will give the program. Had Vandy simply announced they had successfully scheduled Michigan, everyone would have raved about their savvy and guts. But because ESPN seemed to be looking for a sacrificial lamb, VU was castigated. Makes no sense to me.

In addition, this is the sort of game seniors like Kevin Joyce, Marlon White and Steven Bright have paid their dues to play. Anyone who believes these kids are going to be scared to play on the big stage simply hasn't spent any time around them. They've been through enough tough times and nay saying over their VU careers to weather anything that could happen in Ann Arbor.

Finally, let me say what no one seems willing to think, let alone verbalize: What if Vanderbilt wins? A victory over the Wolverines, on live worldwide television, with Jay Cutler watching on the sidelines for posterity--is there any question that it would be the single biggest event in modern Vanderbilt athletics history?

Sure, the potential downside is there. A blowout to Michigan would be a setback at least, and could severely damage the confidence of a young quarterback in his first college start.

But the upside is enormous. Perhaps even incalculable.

Of course, everyone wants to know if we think VU can do it. Given that VU will start their first quarterback of the post-Cutler era, that's a legitimate question. In addition, Johnson still has some fairly big holes to fill to compete with top ranked programs like Michigan.

But after attending most of the practices this fall, we at VandySports.com are as excited and eager for 11:00 to arrive as anyone. That's because we've seen a level and depth of talent we've not seen around here since starting VandySports.com. The Commodores may come in with no respect, but they don't come in without potential.

After weathering some scary injuries to star players Earl Bennett, Reshard Langford, Joel Caldwell and Steven Bright, and then an emergency appendectomy to starting tailback Cassen Jackson-Garrison, the Commodores are back at full strength. Truth is, Johnson had been playing his injury situation for all it was worth (if only just a little) for some time now. This is a team that will bring just about its full arsenal to Ann Arbor.

And look for an unusually large number of true freshmen to make the field tomorrow. While Johnson has managed to employ the strictest redshirt plan of any VU football coach in modern history, it appears that as many as seven true freshmen will contribute in Ann Arbor. But unlike in years past, when unprepared and under-talented freshmen were thrown to the wolves, this group is being pressed into action because Johnson believes they can do some serious damage to the Wolverines.

No doubt the area that needs the greatest improvement is special teams. Vanderbilt's kick coverage was among the worst in the NCAA last year. That had little to do with the work of freshman All-SEC kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt, who was asked to take over punting, kickoffs and place kicking as much by default as design.

This year, another true freshman, Brett Upson, has clearly walked away with the punting job with his consistency in practice and confident attitude. And many of the most impressive newcomers who will see action tomorrow--like Nate Campbell, Patrick Benoist, D.J. Moore and Brent Trice--will bring some much needed speed and power to the coverage units. Look for special teams to be much better this year, which can only help Vandy's cause tomorrow.

Finally, there's the rules change. In an effort to speed up the game, the NCAA has decided to start the play clock immediately after the change of possession, as opposed to when the ball is snapped. Most football gurus believe this will decrease the number of plays by 10 to 15 per game. The odds seem good that a shorter game will favor the Commodores.

The bottom line, however, is that this is a game that will be fun for the kids and an excellent experience for the coaches. Furthermore, this is a chance for Vanderbilt's northern alumni to see their Commodores play a respected Big 10 power.

Those who say Vandy shouldn't play this game basically believe it could be embarrassing if you lose. But if there is anything Vandy can handle it should be embarrassing losses. On the contrary, this is a program that is ready to embarrass someone else for a change.

No time like the present. Bring on the Wolverines!


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