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Posted: Wednesday October 8, 2008 5:36PM; Updated: Wednesday October 8, 2008 5:36PM

Dores Descending

Story Highlights
  • The Vanderbilt Commodores are 5-0 for the first time since World War II
  • Few thought they'd see the school ranked higher for football than academics
  • Now, an electrified team and fanbase have their sights set on an SEC title
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The Commodores' 5-0 record and rise to prominence has the fans and players in a state of euphoria.
The Commodores' 5-0 record and rise to prominence has the fans and players in a state of euphoria.
AP

By Jarred Amato

Vandy Fanatics president Kate Corvese may be the school's biggest sports fan, but even she never thought she'd see the day when Vanderbilt was ranked higher in the Associated Press than U.S. News & World Report.

Truth be told, nobody did. Not this soon, anyway.

"A lot of people look down on Vanderbilt and think we're the nerds of the SEC," said senior co-captain George Smith, "but I think we're proving to people that we can compete on the high level, as well."

In a season full of "firsts," the Commodores have done more than just compete. After beating Auburn for the first time since 1955 to cap an unforgettable weekend in Nashville, they're 5-0 for the first time since World War II and 3-0 in SEC play for the first time since 1950. With a win this Saturday at Mississippi State, Bobby Johnson's squad will become bowl eligible for the first time since 1982.

"There's no perspective to put this in," said student body president Joseph Williams. "What can we compare it to?"

Williams has a point. Vanderbilt hasn't been this good in his lifetime, and probably not his parents' or grandparents' lifetime, either. The Commodores are in the driver's seat in a stocked SEC and are No. 13 in the latest AP poll, coincidentally one spot behind Ohio State and its president Gordon Gee.

When Gee decided to step down as Vanderbilt's chancellor and return to Columbus in the summer of 2007, he knew he would be sacrificing academics for athletics. Turns out he could have had both here on West End, where Vanderbilt is tied for No. 18 in the U.S. News & World Report's list of best national universities.

One of the many creative signs in the crowd during last Saturday's victory said it best: "The Geeks Shall Inherit the Turf."

"Being ranked in the top 20 in both categories goes to show that it is possible to prioritize education while maintaining a top-tier athletic program," said Corvese, head of Vanderbilt's student spirit organization.

Still, possible doesn't mean easy. Johnson would be the first to admit it's been a slow and frustrating process, one that has included more than its fair share of cursing and crying. Smith, a sixth-year senior, can certainly attest to that.

He was here when the Dores would invent new ways to lose each week and when playing at Dudley Field felt like an away game. And he's still here now, when the increasingly talented and confident Dores find ways to win (they've come from behind in every contest and outscored opponents 58-10 in the second half) and have a visible home-field advantage.

The transformation has been overwhelming.

"'The Dud' has never been louder," Smith said. "It's just exciting to see that our stands are filling up. It's more black and gold than it is the other team's color, and it's just good to know that we're helping to electrify the city with our game."

Smith isn't the only one to notice a change in atmosphere.

"It's hard to even imagine a better place to be a student than at Vanderbilt," Corvese said. "On Saturday, some freshmen behind me kept saying, 'I can't believe we actually go here!' and I think that pretty much sums it up.

"I have never felt prouder to be a part of something than I did to be a part of Vanderbilt this weekend."

It started Friday afternoon, when hundreds of fans gathered on The Commons as the GameDay crew recorded a segment for SportsCenter, prompting Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit to call it the "best Friday crowd ever." It continued Saturday morning as thousands woke up at the crack of dawn to take part in the GameDay festivities, lasted throughout the afternoon as tailgaters were out in full force and ended that evening when "The Dud" came alive like never before.

Corvese arrived hours early to put out shakers in the student section and said she was shocked to find that there was already a line of students waiting to be let in. When she saw the stadium fill up before kickoff, she was in awe.

The most memorable moment, however, came afterwards during the singing of the alma mater. Corvese recalled times when 20 dedicated students would stick around until the end. More than 5,000 did on Saturday.

"The thing I will remember most was looking around with tears in my eyes and seeing the ecstatic faces of my peers, still in their seats, all around me," Corvese said. "I've never left a game before the alma mater, and I can definitely say that it's never sounded better than it did after we beat Auburn."

Williams agreed.

"I'll never forget the image I had from the front of the student section," he said. "The joy that spread through everyone. Now we're 5-0, on top of the SEC East. No one in their wildest imagination would have guessed that."

Especially not wide receiver Justin Wheeler, who admitted he is still getting used to the national spotlight.

"To be honest, I don't know what to do about it," he said. "It's an exciting win, beating Auburn for the first time in like 50 years, 60 years. I keep thinking about it. I've got a test in like four hours and I can't stop thinking about the game, but hopefully I'll get that taken care of."

Knowing Vanderbilt athletes, he probably did.

Despite the early season success, Wheeler and the rest of the Commodores know their fame and popularity can go as quickly as it came if they're not careful, which is why they refuse to get complacent.

"We're not satisfied with anything we've done," said linebacker Chris Marve. "Of course we're happy about it, but we've got to keep going."

And to all the doubters who are predicting, and perhaps even guaranteeing, a letdown?

"Let them think what they want to think," Smith said, "because I think we're proving what kind of team we are on Saturdays."

 
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