On December 31, 2008, the Vanderbilt football team played in its first bowl game since 1982. It ended up winning its first bowl game since 1955 by taking out ACC Championship Game participant Boston College 16-14.
A lot of people suspected that day would be the high point for Vanderbilt football for a while. The team's season brought to mind quite often Mississippi State's surprising 2007 bowl run, one that was earned with wins but not particularly backed up by the stats. The same could be said for Vanderbilt's '08 season, but when the team wins seven games for just the fourth time in 50 years, who wants to rain on its parade?
After losing D.J. Moore, the do-it-all player who almost single-handedly willed Vandy to that bowl bid, almost no one predicted a repeat bowl performance. Some wannabe intellectual tried to make the case that continuous improvement had been going on in Nashville over the entire course of Bobby Johnson's tenure, but even he didn't predict another post season appearance for the Commodores. Vandy was probably going to come up short.
No one predicted what actually happened though.
Vanderbilt didn't regress a little bit. Vanderbilt hurtled back to the bad old days when the team didn't just lose a lot, but it wasn't even all that competitive. The Commodores lost every conference game along with non-conference contests to Georgia Tech and Army (!), and they failed to reach even 14 points on eight occasions. The defense did an admirable job, holding opponents to 24 points or fewer seven times, but there's only so much it can do without any real help from the offense.
Larry Smith turned out to be nowhere near as ready to be an SEC quarterback as thought, and senior Mackenzi Adams couldn't do much against the four bowl teams he faced after Smith went down to injury. Smith has plenty of competition for the starting job now, pricipally from JUCO transfer Jordan Rodgers. Regardless, the defense dominated the offense in the spring, sowing considerable seeds of doubt for this fall.
All was not a waste in 2009, however. Running back Warren Norman became only the second Commodore to win SEC Freshman of the Year. He tied the SEC record for kickoffs returned for a touchdown with three, became the first freshman since Herschel Walker to lead the conference in total yards, and set SEC freshman records for total yardage and kickoff return yardage. He was the lone bright spot for an ugly, ugly offense.
The question of how competitive Vanderbilt will be still remains. On the one hand, Vanderbilt's past two recruiting classes are by far the best two Bobby Johnson has signed in his tenure in Nashville. On the other, those classes are still largely full of just two- and three-star players. They have to hope that among them are some diamonds in the rough like the three-star Norman and the two-star LB Chris Marve, who figure to be the best players on either side of the ball. The team will also be playing with heavy hearts after the tragic and senseless death of 2010 signee Rajaan Bennett.
Asking for another bowl run would be a bit much for the 2010 Commodores. Asking for some clear and solid signs of improvement is not. Johnson is safe as a coach no matter what happens, because when you win the first bowl in 53 years at a place like Vanderbilt, it's a mandate to coach there for life if you so choose.
It will always be tough for Vanderbilt to compete in SEC football as a small private school with limited resources and high academic standards going up against monster-sized state schools with near-unlimited budgets. What the 2006-08 seasons proved though is that VU can win some games here and there and maybe, if the stars align, go to a bowl game.
That's what we're looking for here with Vandy's 2010 season: get back to competing week in and week out and win a conference game or two. That can't be too much to ask.