The Vanderbilt Commodores concluded their 2006 football season not with a bang, but with a whimper against a physically superior Tennessee Volunteer team that avenged last year's historic loss 39-10 last Saturday in Nashville.
(T-G Photo by Danny Parker)
While it's true that the Commodores appear to have taken a step back at first glance, it's important to take all factors into consideration before drawing a definitive conclusion for this season or for the program's future expectations.
Vanderbilt played an extremely tough schedule, removing a home game against Middle Tennessee to play at Michigan, and then went into Tuscaloosa to play Alabama before taking on Arkansas in Nashville on successive weekends to start the season.
They played with Michigan for the better part of three quarters before falling 27-7, lost by three at Alabama and came up about two wind-blown feet short of defeating Arkansas on a field goal off the foot of Bryant Hahnfeldt.
Did I mention that they were playing with a quarterback who had thrown just 13 passes in his brief career before this, all in mop-up duty for Cutler?
Vandy took care of business as expected against Tennessee State, Temple and Duke, but fell short against Ole Miss, despite running up over 600 yards of offense and outplaying the Rebels on both sides of the ball.
They broke a 49-game losing streak dating back to 1992 to ranked teams by defeating then-No. 16 Georgia 24-22 between the hedges. It was their first road victory against a ranked team since the Associated Press began their poll in 1936.
Turnovers killed the Commodores in their loss at Kentucky and they were driving for the win against Florida when stopped by a very poor mark by the officiating crew on a fourth down play deep in Gator territory, setting off a firestorm of controversy.
"As far as accomplishing goals of developing your program, developing players and developing depth, I hope we did," Commodore coach Bobby Johnson said. "As far as wins and losses, obviously not.
"We had some opportunities. We certainly had a chance to beat Arkansas. We should have beaten Mississippi. But when you start talking in the past, where you should have done something, to me that is not real healthy to talk that way.
"We have made some progress and we still have some work to do. We are committed as a staff and as a team to accomplish our goals."
Vanderbilt lost four SEC games by seven points or less and were just that close to 8-9 wins.
It speaks well for how far the program has progressed that Commodore fans are sorely disappointed in a four-win season.
The Commodores played 12 games in 12 weeks in the toughest conference in the nation. A review of the schedule shows that only Alabama and Auburn attempted such a feat. It was a brutal undertaking for the only private school in the SEC and it took its toll physically on an already thin roster.
Kevin Joyce, Marcus Buggs, Chris Booker, Reshard Langford and Darlron Spead all played the last few games at less than 100 percent physically. Additionally, Vanderbilt lost numerous other players during the season including preseason All-SEC selection Brian Stamper, who anchored the offensive line. Stamper was a three-year starter and did not allow a sack in 2005. He was named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week for his play against Arkansas in week three before going down with a back injury.
"All of them tried to play hurt and we just weren't able to play very well," Johnson said. "We were down to the bare bones and we were placed into situations where we didn't have a great chance of success. We are beat up and we are going to give our team a nice break.
"It is an important period for them in their school life right now. They need to concentrate on the things they need to do off of the field right now. There is plenty of time for them to get back into the weight room. That is our mindset right now."
The future looks bright for the Black and Gold as they return 17 players who started the better part of the year and several others that saw significant playing time.
Quarterback Chris Nickson will return having a full season under his belt and, despite a rather up-and-down performance in spots, has solidified himself as a legitimate big-time player.
Nickson finished the season as the new single season rushing leader for Vanderbilt with 694 yards. He threw for 2,085 yards and was a big reason why his team ranks seventh in the SEC in passing and in total offense.
"I don't feel like we reached our potential this season," Nickson said. "I felt like we had a decent season and had some good wins. I would have liked to do some bigger and better things."
Earl Bennett, the third leading receiver in Div. I-A with 1,146 yards this season, also returns.
The running back corps is strong with starter Cassen Jackson-Garrison, Jared Hawkins and Riverdale product Gaston Miller all returning.
The key to next year's running game may very well lie with the league office's decision on Stamper's medical redshirt application due to back surgery.
Linebackers Goff and Buggs return after outstanding seasons, as do defensive end Curtis Gatewood and safety Langford, making for a solid foundation defensively.
Four wins do not make a dynasty, but this team was able to meet some of their preseason objectives and they have built up unprecedented expectations for the future of their program.
"Record-wise it was a disappointing season," Jackson-Garrison said. "But the way we played this year, I'm not disappointed because we played hard, and I know we are a better team than our record shows.
"If people don't know by now, I'm glad they don't. They are not in tune. We're not just the regular Vanderbilt anymore."
Vanderbilt appears to have learned from their mistakes this season. They will open next season at home against I-AA Richmond on Sept. 1 and will have a bye week during the 2007 season. They will play eight of their games on the home turf.
T-G sports writer Jimmy Jones covers Vanderbilt football.