Vanderbilt's Perfect Start: What's Under The Hood?

Bert HancockCorrespondent IOctober 3, 2008

I love to look at the surprise teams of a new college football season, to project if they’ll continue providing pleasure to their oft-starved and surprised fans.

If a school like Vanderbilt starts strong (4-0, #21 in the nation), you’re going to take notice, especially when it includes two hard-fought SEC wins. The most recent victim, Mississippi, followed the ‘Dores defeat by upending Florida in The Swamp.

The question is: Can a program without a winning season since 1982 continue stunning the conference and country?

You can often tell plenty about a team’s strength by reviewing the statistics; they leave footprints for those willing to look beyond the score.

Head coach Bobby Johnson’s done some wonderful things with a program vastly outrecruited by most, if not all, of its peers. He has them doing the little things that add up to wins in close games.

Still, when you see Vanderbilt ranked #112 in total offense (out of 119 teams) and a less-than-stout #73 in total defense, it grabs your attention.

The second-game triumph over South Carolina grabbed everyone’s attention, as Bobby Johnson upended Steve Spurrier for the second straight season. “I'm sure those Vanderbilt players are wondering what kind of excuse the South Carolina guys have now. We don't have excuses, they just beat us," Spurrier said.

So much for the revenge factor.

The ‘Dores, despite only etching out 225 yards, won 24-17 on clutch plays, three SC turnovers (vs. just one of its own) and crucial penalties.

In a “brain school battle,” Vanderbilt and Rice were knotted 21-21 at halftime, but the Commodores rolled to a 17-0 second half edge to put away the Owls, 38-21.

Again, Johnson’s squad was outgained in victory, 407-344. Another two-turnover advantage helped make difference, as did D.J. Moore’s 67-yard punt return to the Rice one-yard line.

Next came Ole Miss, and ol’ Vandy had a similar song. Despite being massively outgained (385-202), the ‘Dores reveled in the Rebels’ turnover fest, claiming six gifts while giving just two of their own. Sloppy Ole Miss also gifted 82 yards in penalties.

The host team Rebels led early, 10-0, and drove again into Vanderbilt territory. In the turnaround play of the day, Ryan Hamilton stole one of his three passes in the game and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown. The surprising Commodores survived several Ole Miss scoring shots, winning 23-17.

Vandy obviously faces huge challenges ahead. It’s the meat of the SEC schedule that dooms it annually. After modest starts, Bobby Johnson’s program historically craters, to the point of winning at a near-invisible 10 percent clip in November.

This year’s squad seems to have a winning knack not normally associated with Vanderbilt football. Kudos to Johnson for creating an obviously well-coached and believing team.

Even so, will the excessive reliance on opponents’ miscues catch up with the ‘Dores?

What’s more, if a team averages 80 yards a game throwing (#116 nationally), can it suddenly go aerial after opposing defensive stalwarts shut down its ground game?

We may find out this Saturday when Vandy hosts defensively stout Auburn.

A final note, though; despite Auburn holding a 13-game winning streak and obvious talent edge, it may not be the “obvious” no brainer to pick the Tigers.

Their own offense (ranked #97 in scoring) isn’t exactly guaranteed to blow the Commodores out. And when Vandy has stuck around this fall, good things have happened.

Good things for college football as well, I believe.