2006 Season Preview (Game Seven): Vanderbilt

A scant 20 days remain before the season opener between the hedges, yet I am just halfway through my preseason previews. Let us, therefore, turn our attention to the next opponent on the Bulldogs' schedule, the Commodores.

That's the Vanderbilt Commodores, smart guy.

I previously have offered advance looks at Western Kentucky, South Carolina, U.A.B., Colorado, Ole Miss, and Tennessee.

The Game

Georgia v. Vanderbilt
Sanford Stadium
Saturday, October 14

The Opponent

While few Bulldog fans consider the Commodores a rival, Vanderbilt has appeared on the Red and Black's schedule every year of my lifetime and the series has been interrupted only for a single two-year stretch since 1953.

The 'Dawgs and the 'Dores first met in football in 1893, one game after Georgia's original contest with Georgia Tech and two games following the Classic City Canines' inaugural outing against Auburn.

Through 1951, the Commodores led the all-time series with the Red and Black with a record of 10-4-1, but the Bulldogs have dominated the Music City Sailors ever since. Beginning in 1952, Georgia has gone 43-7-1 against Vanderbilt, with four of those seven losses antedating Vince Dooley's arrival in Athens in 1964.

Some college football historians argue that what turned the tide in the Georgia-Vanderbilt series was the introduction of red sweaters, power ties, and pregame arm-crossing to the rivalry.

The Commodores haven't beaten the Bulldogs in consecutive years since Fran Tarkenton's freshman and sophomore seasons. Georgia ran up a nine-game winning streak against Vanderbilt from 1962 to 1972, then the 'Dawgs outdid themselves by reeling off 11 straight victories over the 'Dores from 1974 to 1984. A win over Vandy in this year's homecoming game would give the Red and Black their 12th straight series victory over the Commodores.

Since 1961, Georgia has beaten Vanderbilt 20 times in 21 series meetings between the hedges. The Bulldogs have scored 30 or more points in 15 of their last 19 home games against the Commodores . . . and, in three of the other four contests in Athens, the Red and Black scored 28, 27, and 29 points, respectively.

A Brief History of Vanderbilt University

The only private institution currently affiliated with the Southeastern Conference, Vanderbilt University was founded in 1873 through a gift from shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. The wealthy magnate supplied the American forts around New York City using sailing schooners during the War of 1812, earning the nickname "Commodore," which later became the mascot for the university's sports teams.

(Photograph from Vanderbilt University.)

The college's 40-year-long association with the Methodist Church formally ended in 1914, but, otherwise, the institution has been hallmarked by continuity. Only seven different men have served as chancellor in the school's whole history. The original charter was issued in 1872 and amended a year later to adopt the name "Vanderbilt University" . . . but the charter has not been amended since.

Although rural Mississippi contributed its share, as well, Vanderbilt was one of the sites that gave rise to the Southern literary renascence of the 1920s. In particular, Nashville was home to the Fugitive poets, who later founded the Agrarian movement.

The Music City campus is comprised of 10 colleges and schools, including schools of divinity, engineering, law, and medicine.

Approximately 6,400 students are enrolled at Vanderbilt, making it the smallest member institution in the Southeastern Conference.

Kirkland Hall. (Photograph from Vanderbilt University.)

A Brief History of Commodore Football

It is easy to forget this fact, but, in its day, Vanderbilt was something of a football power, at least regionally. In 11 seasons of membership in the Southern Conference, the Commodores went undefeated in league play three times and suffered a single conference loss on three other occasions.

Dan McGugin, who coached in Nashville for all but one of the seasons from 1904 to 1934, led Vandy to 197 victories and suffered through just one losing season. Coach McGugin was unafraid of scheduling nationally, taking the Commodores on the road to play at Chicago, Harvard, Michigan, Minnesota, Navy, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Yale.

Vanderbilt traveled to Philadelphia to face Pop Warner's Temple Owls in 1935 and tied the Marines at Quantico in 1924. In nine meetings with the Texas Longhorns between 1905 and 1928, the 'Dores were 7-2.

Vandy would have played the Marines at Guantanamo, too, but Colonel Nathan Jessup didn't like the Commodores' white road uniforms.

The program began to slip somewhat under the guidance of Coach McGugin's successor, Ray Morrison, whose six-year tenure produced a 29-22-2 ledger. There have been occasional outbursts of short-lived success over the ensuing years---an 8-3 Gator Bowl campaign in 1955; a 7-3-2 Peach Bowl season in 1974; an 8-4 Hall of Fame Bowl run in 1982---but 10 of the last 11 Commodore coaches (counting the current one) have concluded their careers in the Music City with losing records.

While Vanderbilt's all-time record is above .500 (537-527-50), the Commodores have won more than five games in a single season just three times in the last 50 years.

Returning Starters

Six Commodores are back on offense, including three offensive linemen and wide receivers Earl Bennett and Marlon White. Cassen Jackson-Garrison, the junior running back who was last year's Tony Milton-like "feel good" story of the season, could be counted as a returning starter, as well, and he certainly will see more action with Jeff Jennings sidelined by torn ligaments in his left knee.

Cassen Jackson-Garrison against Georgia in 2005. (Photograph from VandyMania.com.)

Just as the offense is apt to be hampered by the loss of quarterback Jay Cutler, the defense is liable to suffer from the departure of Moses Osemwegie, despite the return of six starters on that side of the ball, as well. The Commodores bring back two of four linemen, two of three linebackers, and two of four defensive backs.

Coaching

Bobby Johnson proved last season that he is a better coach than his record showed. He takes a no-nonsense approach, he forbids his players from cursing, and his team takes the field wearing uniforms without names emblazoned on the backs of the jerseys.

Yes, the Commodores are 11-35 on his watch, but no one can deny that Coach Johnson's teams have been competitive. Since he took over the program in 2002, Vanderbilt has lost 15 games by a touchdown or less, including nine in the last two years.

Coach Johnson's Commodores are a couple of lucky bounces and a few officiating calls away from records of 1-1 against Georgia Tech, 2-2 against South Carolina, 2-2 against Florida, 2-2 against Tennessee, 3-1 against Kentucky, and 4-0 against Ole Miss. (Fortunately, his squads have never challenged the 'Dawgs over the course of 60 minutes, losing by successive margins of 31, 19, 30, and 17 points.)

Bobby Johnson at his previous coaching stop. (Photograph from Amazon.com.)

Coach Johnson's staff was reshuffled somewhat during the offseason. Astonishingly, Vanderbilt defensive line coach David Turner was hired at Alabama in spite of the fact that last year's Commodores ranked 10th in the S.E.C. in rushing defense and recorded fewer sacks than any other team in the league. It's hard to believe that Coach Turner's replacement, Rick Logo, won't be an upgrade.

Otherwise, Coach Johnson's staff remained intact, although some returning coaches received new responsibilities. Charlie Fisher and Jimmy Kiser---who coach receivers and quarterbacks, respectively---now share the cumbersome nomenclature "co-passing game coordinators." In addition to coaching running backs, Kenny Carter has now assumed the role of recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach Warren Berlin has taken charge of Vanderbilt's special teams, as well.

Offense

Last year, Cutler attempted 462 passes, completing 273 of them for 3,073 yards and 21 touchdowns. The 2005 Commodores ranked first in the S.E.C. in passing yards (280.5 yards per game) and first downs (258) and were second in the league in total offense (395.6 yards per game), red zone offense (88.9%), and third-down conversions (44.6%). The 27.2 points per game averaged by the 'Dores in 2005 gave Vandy its best scoring offense since the 1948 season.

Last year, Vanderbilt's most experienced returning signal-caller, Chris Nickson, attempted three passes, completing one of them for 13 yards and no touchdowns. No, those are not typographical errors.

Either Nickson, a sophomore, or redshirt freshman Mackenzi Adams will succeed Cutler in the huddle, but whichever Q.B. earns the job will be hampered by the absence of reliable tight end Dustin Dunning and veteran center Trey Holloway.

One of these guys may or may not be Vanderbilt's backup quarterback.

Fortunately for the Commodores, the news on offense is not all bad. Nickson, a former Alabama "Mr. Football," has talent and, although Jennings started 10 games at tailback last year, returning running back Jackson-Garrison nevertheless led the team in rushing yards (539), rushing touchdowns (8), and yards per carry (5.6).

Right tackle Brian Stamper, voted second-team all-conference last season, returns to anchor the line and guard Chris Williams has been moved to left tackle in order to shore up an offensive line that lost two starters from a 2005 unit that surrendered 24 sacks . . . a respectable number, considering how often Vandy threw the ball last fall.

Vanderbilt's underrated receiving corps is led by Bennett, who made first-team all-S.E.C. as a freshman after setting a rookie record with 79 receptions . . . 49 of which came over the course of the Commodores' last four games, including 16 catches for 204 yards against South Carolina and 14 catches for 167 yards in the win over Tennessee, all in spite of the fact that Bennett had only one reception of longer than 31 yards last season. Three of Vandy's top four receivers from 2005 return in 2006.

Defense

There's an old joke in Georgia . . . every time the national education rankings come out, Peach State natives say, "Thank goodness for Mississippi!" In 2005, for the second year in a row, Vanderbilt players looked at the S.E.C. standings in total defense and found themselves saying, "Thank goodness for Kentucky!"

Junior Theo Horrocks is the lone standout at defensive tackle and the prospects for strengthening the middle of the line were dampened by the departure of Lamar Divens. The Commodores face similar difficulties at linebacker; although Marcus Buggs, Jonathan Goff, and Kevin Joyce are capable starters, the loss of all-S.E.C. performer Osemwegie and his 118 tackles is huge and all three second-stringers are redshirt freshmen.

Fortunately, only one of these two teams lost a player named "Moses."

Speaking of redshirt freshmen, quite a few of them are likely to see significant playing time in the secondary, as well. Joel Caldwell and Darlron Spead will see some action at cornerback, despite playing behind three different returning players with at least one start last season.

Perhaps the most highly touted member of last year's first-year class, though, is redshirt freshman Ryan Hamilton, who is expected to take over for Kelechi Ohanaja, a three-year starter, at free safety. The strong safety spot belongs to sophomore Reshard Langford, a returning starter who already has begun to live up to his considerable potential. Langford's three interceptions last year led the team.

For those of you keeping score at home, that means the Vanderbilt D will have six freshmen and four sophomores on the two-deep, with four of the 10 underclassmen being probable starters. Welcome to the Southeastern Conference, gentlemen.

Last year's Commodore defense surrendered 29.2 points per game. Only one of the top four tacklers from the 2005 Vanderbilt squad returns in 2006.

Special Teams

For the first time in his tenure in Nashville, Coach Johnson has designated a special teams coordinator . . . and the change came not a moment too soon.

Bryant Hahnfeldt served as both placekicker and punter in 2005, but he sustained an A.C.L. injury in the last game of last season. Bennett ranked eighth in the league in kickoff returns, Vanderbilt ranked ninth in the S.E.C. in kickoff coverage and 11th in punt returns, the team's 30.2-yard net punting average was the worst in the conference, and four of the Commodores' field goal attempts were blocked, including one that would have been the game-winner that made the Music City Military Men bowl-eligible.

This photograph isn't from 2005 and it does not depict Bryant Hahnfeldt, but, since it shows Georgia blocking a Vanderbilt field goal, I'm using it, anyway.

Since fall practice began in Nashville, Brett Upson has staked a claim to the starting punter position.

Dawg Food

As you know, a critical component of every autumn Saturday is the traditional pregame meal, which must in some way be connected to that day's opponent so that fans might bring good fortune to the team by feasting on the flesh of the enemy.

In light of the seafaring linkage established by the nickname "Commodores," it seems only right that we should look to the Navy Ration Law passed by Congress in 1794 to establish the daily fare provided to American sailors.

The 1794 act called for the distribution of a pound of bread, a pound of pork, half a pint of peas or beans, and four ounces of cheese on Saturdays. We among the Bulldog faithful should consume a similar meal prior to the homecoming game.

For the record, the Navy Ration Law also provided:

[T]here shall also be allowed one-half pint of distilled spirits per day or, in lieu thereof, one quart of beer per day, to each ration.

Whether you choose to follow that provision of the law is between you and Michael Adams.

What Worries Me Most

Short of unleashing my inner Munson, I can't bring myself to feel much in the way of worry over this one. Since the Bulldogs' next opponent after Vandy is Mississippi State at home, there's virtually no chance of the Red and Black looking past the Commodores.

The homecoming game is the first contest of the second half of the season, so I expect that the kinks will have been worked out of the offense by this point and, if Matthew Stafford develops as quickly as hoped, this should be a chance for the impressive freshman to shine.

What Will Happen on Saturday

This game should be the most predictable outing of the autumn since the opener against Western Kentucky. Both teams will put up a fair number of aerial yards and there'll be a good bit of movement between the twenties, but superior athleticism on Georgia's part will make the difference.

I don't mean to get involved in any Middle Eastern religious conflicts or anything, but I expect Mohamed (Massaquoi) to prevail in the absence of Moses (Osemwegie).

Vanderbilt's scoring will be limited to the teens and Georgia's scoring will be in the thirties. If Stafford is starting under center and the offense is on, the 'Dawgs might score in the forties.

Coming soon: Mississippi State.

Go 'Dawgs!

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