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IT'S NOT exactly a plum job, football coach at Vanderbilt. When the team plays in a bandbox of a facility (capacity 39,773, smallest in the SEC) and has a long and colorful history of losing (25 years and counting without a winning record), sweet-talking blue-chip recruits into helping you build a winner isn't easy. Yet under seventh-year coach Bobby Johnson, the Commodores have been one of the nation's early-season surprises. After beating Rice 38--21 at Vanderbilt Stadium last Saturday, Vandy is 3--0 and prompting whispers of "bowl game" around Nashville—two words not associated with the school since Ronald Reagan was president.
Hold on, you say. The Commodores went down this road in 2005, when they started 4--0 ... and then lost six in a row. Why will this year be different? The '05 team didn't have the depth and speed that the '08 squad possesses. "It's night and day," says senior quarterback Chris Nickson. "This year we've got serious athletes all over the field."
Whereas the '05 team was basically a one-man show featuring quarterback Jay Cutler (now the starter for the Denver Broncos), this year Vandy has playmakers on both sides of the ball. Senior wideout Sean Walker, one of the fastest players in the SEC, can stretch defenses, and junior cornerback D.J. Moore is a dynamic all-purpose player. Against Rice, Moore accounted for 206 yards, including 67 on a punt return, 31 on an interception return and 37 on two carries when he lined up on offense as a wide receiver.
"It's been a slow process, but we've been able to gradually increase our talent," says Johnson, whose team started 3--1 last year but finished 5--7. "We've recruited better each year, and that has led to more wins, and more wins have led to better players. Now the stakes are getting higher for us."
The key to their bowl hopes is Nickson, a former state Mr. Football and class valedictorian at Pike County High in Brundidge, Ala., who turned down a scholarship offer from Alabama to sign on with the Commodores. Two years ago the 6'1", 210-pound Nickson succeeded Cutler as the starter, but last season he separated his right (throwing) shoulder in the third game, against Ole Miss. He was ineffective after that, and the coaches eventually shut him down for the year.
But Nickson regained his job in preseason camp this year and has been a productive run-pass threat, though he needs to become a more accurate passer before Vandy goes up against the likes of Georgia and Florida later in the season. He rushed for 166 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 91 yards and another score in the season-opening 34--13 win over Miami (Ohio), ran for one TD and threw for another in a 24--17 upset of then 24th-ranked South Carolina, and ran for 85 yards and two scores against Rice.
"We're not just shooting for six wins this year and a bowl game," says Moore. "We feel like we can win eight or nine games and do some great things in the SEC."
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