Like stars on the helmets and opposing colors in the stands, the tantalizingly winnable SEC home opener has become a bit of a Vanderbilt tradition. This game serves as the target of Vanderbilt hope all throughout the summer - the one game that's circled on the calender and could 'tip' Vandy towards that elusive bowl season. A win would pay tremendous dividends - like in 2005 - giving the team and fan base a surge of confidence while generating a 'buzz' around Nashville. A close loss - like in 2003 or 2006 - would slip everyone back into patterns of "same ol' Vandy" (SOV) doom and gloom.
A quick recap of recent SEC home openers:
Opponent: Ole Miss, 9-3 (7-1)
Final Score: Ole Miss 24, Vanderbilt 21
Turning Point: Ole Miss 54 yard FG with 3:52 remaining
Opponent: South Carolina, 6-5 (4-4)
Final Score: Carolina 31, Vanderbilt 6
Turning Point: Carolina takes first drive of the game 80 yards for a TD
Opponent: Ole Miss, 3-8 (1-7)
Final Score: Vanderbilt 31, Ole Miss 23
Turning Point: Cutler drive ends on a Jeff Jennings TD with 1:26 remaining
Opponent: Arkansas, 10-4 (7-1)
Final Score: Arkansas 21, Vanderbilt 19
Turning Point: Bryant Handfeldt's wind-blown missed FG with less than 30 seconds remaining
What does that mean for this year and the tantalizingly winnable SEC home opener against Alabama?
For the team, not much. After all, the inability of Jay Cutler, Norval Mackenzie, and Brandon Smith to finish against Ole Miss in 2003 has nothing to do with the ability of Chris Nickson, Jeff Jennings, and Earl Bennett to finish against Alabama in 2007. Nor do those 22 years of losing to the Crimson Tide. All spring and summer the team has had a positive, confident focus ("BCS!") and I believe they are completely insensitive to those past failures. This Vanderbilt team knows that they're talented and that they have a great chance to win on Saturday. Just like Curtis Gatewood said in the City Paper this morning: "We’re not cocky or arrogant, because we don’t have the right to be, but we’re very confident... We expect to win, and that’s something that’s very different with Vanderbilt football." It'll be decided with X's and O's, execution, and lucky breaks - things I can't discuss with any authority.
For the fans, though, those past failures are inescapable. The experience of a dedicated Vanderbilt fan is a difficult one to express. I read Bill Simmons book "Now I Can Die in Peace" and was frequently struck by the parallels of Red Sox fans and Vandy fans. Of course, there are many differences (the typical hopelessness of Cub fans is probably a better parallel), but the most startling similarity is that dread when things are beginning to look up.
In 2004, I traveled to Lexington with Mr. Diezba and saw Vandy take a 13-0 lead heading into the fourth quarter, only to turn to my friend and jokingly say, "Ya know, it's a shame we're going to find a way to lose this game." Sure enough, we did lose (14-13) in a game that spurred five players to graduate rather than return for a fifth year of SOV. After so many disappointments, how confident can you ever be when it comes to Vanderbilt football? Simmons most recent ESPN the Magazine article put it like this:
No Sox fan can find total peace; we'll always dread the next meltdown or come-from-behind charge by the Yankees. These feelings are wired into our DNA, like Haddonfield citizens who will never again feel totally safe on Halloween.
I feel great about this year's team, and I think we have an excellent chance of beating Alabama. Deep down, though, I feel like we're going to lose another heartbreaker. That doubt persists. And it's because I've seen and remember so many heartbreakers. Those above games join a depressing list with MTSU (especially 2005), Rutgers ("illegal forward pass"), Navy, Kentucky (with 2005 as the worst), and others. Your experience may vary, but it's the same feeling and you can't escape it.
I guess my point is that this game means a lot to Vanderbilt fans. Every year, we raise our hopes in August thinking that this just might be the year - and frequently those hopes are dashed after the first few heartbreaking defeats in September. The arc of a typical Vandy season (I think I read this on VandyMania once) is optimism to realism to pessimism to cynicism, and the switch from optimism to realism usually happens after the SEC home opener.
Every time we, like Tantalus, fail to reach that low-lying branch it becomes harder to believe that it is reachable. A win over Alabama, over Nick Saban and 95,000 at the A-Game and all that, would legitimize our progress in the SEC and mean a whole lot to this fan base.
So therefore I choose to hope - I dare to believe. Go Dores.