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July 26, 2007

SEC Notebook: Is this the year for Vandy?

HOOVER, Ala. When Vanderbilt last played in a bowl game, star junior wide receiver Earl Bennett was

Well, he wasn't.

The 20-year-old Bennett wasn't yet born when the Commodores played Air Force in the 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl, but he's confident he'll be there for the next bowl appearance.

In fact, he plans to play in it. This year.

"Our chances are very high this season," Bennett said. "We have a lot of returning starters and guys who have been working extremely hard this offseason.

"I really don't set expectations for myself, I just go out there, play hard, and do the best that I can to help this team win. That's the most important thing to me, for the team to win, not how many touchdowns or catches I have."

If Bennett who already has 161 receptions and 15 touchdowns in his career isn't making catches and scoring touchdowns, the Commodores' chances of winning figure to decline dramatically.

Still, there is a feeling of optimism based on a victory over Tennessee two years ago and over Georgia last season.

"We were able to hang in there and make the plays against Georgia to get the win," linebacker Jonathan Goff said. "That was a big win for us to get over that hump. We had a lot of close games in previous seasons we did not make the necessary plays to win."

The Commodores' quest to win more close games appears to be enhanced by a schedule which includes eight games at Vanderbilt Stadium.

However, appearances can be deceiving.

Vanderbilt was 2-4 at home in 2006 with the victories coming over Division I-AA Tennessee State and Temple, which finished 1-11.

The Commodores defeated Georgia and Duke on the road.

"We've had bigger wins on the road the last two years than we have at home," coach Bobby Johnson said. "We need to play better at home. Hopefully, that's going to spur us on.

"We actually (put) a little emphasis during spring practice to practice in the stadium more, to make sure that we did feel like that was where we were going to win football games."

Not the same old line

Four starters return in Vanderbilt's offensive line, including tackle Chris Williams, guards Ryan Custer and Josh Eames and center Hamilton Holliday.

That's a significant improvement from when Johnson took over the Vanderbilt reins in 2002.

"Our (offensive line) was decimated when I first got here," Johnson said. "We had only four guys the first spring practice. We were looking for the fifth guy. We were looking hard.

"It takes a long time to build up a position that's really down. Some of the guys we recruited were good players. Some of them weren't quite good enough. It took us awhile to build it up. Right now, we feel like the last four years we've been pretty consistent in recruiting and we've retained some guys."

On the Cutler edge

Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson played so well in his first year as a starter last season that Johnson compared him favorably to former VU quarterback Jay Cutler, who was a first-round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.

"Chris Nickson, I think got better and better as he played last year," Johnson said. "I think Chris was playing extremely well at the end of last season. We expect him to make that kind of progress.

"He actually had a better sophomore year, I think, statistically and record wise than Jay Cutler. If he continues that progress we think he's going to be an outstanding quarterback."

Nickson did indeed have a solid year, but he wasn't quite better than Cutler.

Cutler passed for 2,347 yards with 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions as a sophomore. Nickson threw for 2,085 yards and 15 touchdowns with 13 interceptions.

However, Vandy finished 2-10 in 2003 Cutler's sophomore year compared to last year's 4-8 finish with Nickson at the helm.

It wasn't about the money

Alabama coach Nick Saban said his decision to leave the NFL's Miami Dolphins and return to college football was a matter of correcting a mistake.

Looking back, he said, he shouldn't have left LSU in 2004.

"When the (Dolphins') season was over, as we sometimes do, my wife and I sat down and decided that maybe this is something that we should look into," Saban said. "We love college football. There was something we had to learn about ourselves to go to the NFL.

"When we learned about it, we felt like - at 55 years old - where do you want to spend the rest of your time? We love college football because we like the spirit and enthusiasm of it. We feel like we can impact and affect young people in a more positive way because of their age."

Skeptics might sneer and point out that Saban got $4 million per year to go to Alabama.

He had an answer for that, too.

"Well, I actually took a pay cut," he said.

What? Me worry

Sylvester Croom said he felt pressure for the upcoming season, but the Mississippi State coach said he wasn't concerned about his job security.

He said the pressure he feels stems from a competitive spirit, not from three consecutive seasons in which the Bulldogs have managed just three victories.

"I've coached 30 years. I've never had to go look for a job. I've always had one," Croom said. "I know we're doing things the right way. I know our plan is on track.

"But as coaches we always know (getting fired) is a possibility. But if that should ever come about, I'm quite thankful to have had the opportunity to do it my way."

Quarterback Mike Henig, whose injuries contributed to the Bulldogs' disappointing showing last season, voiced his support for Croom and his optimism for 2007.

"I would not want to play for anyone else," Henig said.

He then added: "This is a huge year for us. It is Coach Croom's fourth year, and just about every guy on the team was recruited by Caoch Croom. I think we have been peeking around that corner, and I think this is the year we turn that corner."

Coach knows best

Senior Titus Brown has developed into a solid pass-rushing defensive end and draws raves from his coach.

"He's what I call a natural pass-rusher," Croom said. "I expected Titus to rush the passer the day he set foot on campus, and he's refined that art even further now. I expect him to have a big year for us."

However, a couple of years ago Croom was ready to allow Brown to have a big year for someone else.

Brown played middle linebacker as a freshman, and balked when Croom wanted to move him to end.

"It finally got to a point where I called him in one day and I said, 'Titus, you're either going to be a defensive end or you need to go somewhere else, because I do not believe you can play middle linebacker. Plus, I know you want to play in the NFL. I know you can't play middle linebacker up there.' "

Obviously, Brown got the message. Last season he recorded 7 sacks.

A short celebration

After Florida won the football national championship, the Gators basked in that glory for a whole week.

No doubt, they enthusiastically celebrated the 41-14 victory over Ohio State last Jan. 8. However, the celebration ended a week later when the Gators reported for offseason workouts.

"On Jan. 15 we started offseason and went back at it again," senior safety Tony Joiner said. "Coach Meyer said to celebrate and enjoy it and then get back to business."

They claim that's exactly what they did, although receiver Andre Caldwell admitted it wasn't that easy.

"It's hard having to forget that," Caldwell said. "But that is what Coach Meyer told us to do. Last year was a special year, no doubt about that. He said that we can cherish it for a little while, but now it is time to forget that.

"We know that the target is on our backs, and if we go into the season thinking that we are better than everybody just because of the title, then someone is going to surprise us."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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