When the SEC football schedule changed from two non-rotating teams to one non-rotating team between the 2001 and 2002 football seasons, many Commodore fans complained about losing a decades-long rivalry with SEC Western foe Alabama to a once-every-four-years home-and-away series.
One thing they didn't complain about, however, was keeping the Mississippi Rebels as their non-rotating team from the West.
Under the SEC schedule regime, teams face each member of their own division once each year, and the divisional foes swap venues back and forth. Vanderbilt visits Knoxville, Lexington, Columbia, Athens, and Gainesville every other year, hosting the giants of college football in (as the official media guide calls it) "intimate" Vanderbilt Stadium.
Each team was also allowed to choose one additional extra-divisional opponent to maintain games of interest and traditional rivalries. Despite the fact that Vanderbilt and Alabama had coaching, player, and other long-standing ties between the universities, officials on West End chose to drop the Crimson Tide in favor of the team from Oxford, Mississippi.
In hindsight, it was a great move.
Alabama, despite struggles in the early 2000s, remained a fundamentally mid-tier SEC program at a time when Vanderbilt, roiled in recovering from the coaching carousel that marked the 1990s and early 2000s, was trying its best to rebuild under Bobby Johnson.
Ole Miss, on the other hand, was seeing a hey-day -- but even then, the Rebels had trouble putting the Commodores away.
As was pointed out yesterday, the last nine games between the Dores and the Rebs have been among the most exciting and unpredictable in the Southeastern Conference:
2007...VU 31, UM 17 +14 (Nashville)
2006...VU 10, UM 17 -07 (Oxford)
2005...VU 31, UM 23 +08 (Nashville)
2004...VU 23, UM 26 -03 (Oxford) (OT)
2003...VU 21, UM 24 -03 (Nashville)
2002...VU 38, UM 45 -07 (Oxford) (SEC schedule shift)
2001...VU 27, UM 38 -11 (Oxford)
2000...VU 07, UM 12 -05 (Nashville)
1999...VU 37, UM 34 +03 (Oxford) (OT)
In the last nine games between these two teams, Ole Miss has an average margin of victory of 1.2 points. In the past four games, Vanderbilt has an average margin of victory of 3 points. It doesn't get much closer than that.
In the four-game stretch that has seen the two schools split the games, home-field advantage has played its part: both Vanderbilt wins were in Nashville, and both Ole Miss wins were in Oxford.
Both schools also have a history of winning close games on the other's turf: Ole Miss won by 3 in Nashville in 2003, and Vanderbilt won by the same margin -- in overtime -- in Oxford in 1999.
For the 2008 chapter of the contest, Vegas oddsmakers saw a margin of 5 points. Betting during the week opened that margin to 6-and-a-half, but if history is any indication, the game will probably come down to a closer margin than that.
The game won't be decided by the history books. But this is one series where the Commodores, who've won 2 out of the past 3, against Mississippi, can begin to see that new, winning tradition Bobby Johnson talks about building at Vanderbilt.