TARGET FILE: at Vanderbilt [09.04.08]

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When you really get down to it, South Carolina and Kentucky have got nothing on Vanderbilt when it comes to futility.

All three of the teams have struggled against the titans of the SEC East since South Carolina joined the SEC in 1992. But Vanderbilt has the most stunning historical number of all of them, spanning back decades. The Commodores' bowl record is 1-1-1.

They have been to three bowl games. That's fewer than the number of bowl wins by either South Carolina (4-9) or Kentucky (7-5).

So the futility here did not begin with Bobby Johnson, and he has perhaps done more than any other Vanderbilt coach to try to reverse it. Vandy has fallen one game short of postseason eligibility in two of the last three seasons, and in 2006 they fell two short. For Nashville, this is progress.

Progress just in time, though, for a step back this season. There are few people who believe that Vanderbilt will be bad this year. The question everyone seems to be asking is: How bad? 2-10 bad? Or just 4-8 bad?

There seems to be a perception that this year is marking time, that Vanderbilt intends to make a run (if it ever will) in 2009. But the games in 2008 still have to be played.

So maybe, in 12 months, Bobby Johnson will be a happier man. In the meantime, he best keep some aspirin nearby.

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Calm down, Bobby. Things will get better with time. Maybe.

OFFENSE

Offensive line. Vanderbilt's offensive line this year has as many combined career starts as the university has bowl appearances. Quick refresher for those with short-term memory issues: That's three, or fewest in the country, according to Phil Steele, who adds this typical understatement: "This figures to be a problem area in 2008." South Carolina's o-line is up a notch in 2008, but it doesn't really need to be to stack up favorably to the Dores. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Quarterbacks. Vanderbilt actually has two experienced, semi-competent quarterbacks returning this year, in the forms of Mackenzi Adams and Chris Nickson. Neither has won the job, but either would have more experience than Tommy Beecher, who will still only be in his second game as a full-time starter. ADVANTAGE: VANDERBILT

Running backs. Cassen Jackson-Garrison had a great name, but pedestrian numbers, rushing for 650 on 148 carries last year. He scored five times in his final season. Vanderbilt has no returning back who rushed for more than 360 yards last year. (Though Adams ran for 397.) ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Wide receivers. Earl Bennett was an incredible player for any team, much less for a perpetually downtrodden school like Vanderbilt. But he and his 830 receiving yards and five touchdowns are gone this year. The best returner in terms of yards is George Smith, with 397. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

DEFENSE

Defensive line. The Dores actually had a run defense that South Carolina fans would have taken last year: ranked 32nd in the nation, allowing 128.2 ypg on the ground. On the other hand, three of last year's four starters are gone. But non-starter Broderick Stewart brings back his team-leading six sacks and 8.5 TFL. And Steven Stone, who did start last year, was tied for second in sacks with four. But whether they can stop the run consistently is an open question with a defensive line until it has the playing time to prove itself. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

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The key to Vanderbilt's defense line?

Linebackers. Patrick Benoist was the other man tied for second in sacks on the team, also with four. His 32 tackles, though, are also the most among the team's LBs. This unit obviously pales in comparison to one of the best in the SEC. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

Secondary. This is easily the strongest part of Vanderbilt's defense. They ranked 18th last year, allowing 197.1 ypg. The entire unit returns intact. That means CB D.J. Moore, SS Reshard Langford and company. Moore had six picks and was second on the team with 83 tackles. ADVANTAGE: VANDERBILT

SPECIAL TEAMS

Ryan Succop has almost 2.5 yards more on his average punt and had a FG percentage 11.5 points above his counterparts at Vanderbilt. The return game is pretty much a wash, and Vanderbilt has struggled on special teams for years. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

COACHING

Bobby Johnson is good, and he deserves better than what he's gotten at Vanderbilt. But you have to like Steve Spurrier's chances to reach his goals of SEC contention than Johnson's chances to reach bowl games on a regular basis. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA

RESULT

Any South Carolina fan not scared by this game needs their head examined. Last year, this was the nightmare, the game that got away and ended up costing the Gamecocks a bowl berth. That said, Spurrier has no intention of dropping a game to the Dores for the second time in his career, and he will want to "hang half a hundred" on the board in Nashville. He won't, but the Gamecocks should win comfortably. LIKELY WIN

THE REST OF THEIR SEASON

Another long year. But then, Vanderbilt has come to expect those. They could start the season 2-1 or conceivably, with a few bounces, 3-1, opening at Miami (Ohio), vs. South Carolina, vs. Rice and at Mississippi. Then, after a bye week, they face a gauntlet: vs. Auburn, at Mississippi State and at Georgia. Duke gives a possible breather before the Commodores go back into the fire: vs. Florida, at Kentucky, vs. Tennessee, at Wake Forest. Not only is a 1-7 finish not out of the question, it's likely. Anything better than 3-9 should be considered a good season.

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