For Vanderbilt, Saturday’s game against Western Carolina is a first. Not so for Commodores’ coach Bobby Johnson, however.
“They beat us in the playoffs one year when I was an assistant coach (at Furman),” Johnson said. “Their fans tore down our goal posts, and I’m still mad.”
The important point connected to Johnson’s vivid memory is that Western Carolina has the potential to take part in a playoff. That’s because it’s a member of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), formerly Division I-AA.
Conventional wisdom suggests that an SEC school, particularly one that qualified for a bowl game the previous season, ought to handle such an opponent with ease. The match-up looks even more favorable when it’s against an opponent that was 3-9 overall in 2008, its first season with a new coaching staff.
Johnson, however, refuses to subscribe to that sort of thinking.
“I’ve seen a lot of Southern Conference teams whip teams that are supposed to be better than them,” he said. “We’re concentrating on playing our best people as long as we have to play them, as hard as we can play them, as well as we can play them.”
Vanderbilt is 24-3 all-time against schools from the Southern Conference, but has a seven-game win streak since a loss to The Citadel in 1979. All of those games have been against just three schools — UT-Chattanooga, Furman and The Citadel.
"They have a fine football team,” WCU coach Dennis Wagner said. “They have several of their starters back on both sides of the football, in particularly on offense. … Their returning nucleus is really strong and it is a good football team. We are going to have to do all phases of the game (well) to make sure we stay in this football game.”
This is the second time in three years the Commodores open with an FCS opponent.
They began 2007 with a 41-17 victory over Richmond — one of six victories under Johnson by 24 points or more. Five of those six have come against FCS opponents.
"Right now, the unique challenge is not knowing exactly what they're going to do offensively or defensively, and of course they don't know what we're going to do,” Johnson said. “…The big thing for us is for Vanderbilt to execute. We have to make sure we do what we're supposed to do and react to what Western Carolina does.”
A look at Vanderbilt’s most decisive victories under coach Bobby Johnson:
45 points (51-6) – vs. UT-Chattanooga, Sept. 6, 2003
31 points (49-18) – vs. Furman, Sept. 7, 2002
29 points (38-9) – vs. Tennessee State, Sept. 23, 2006
29 points (43-14) – vs. Temple, Sept. 30, 2006
24 points (37-13) – vs. Richmond, Sept. 24, 2005
24 points (41-17) – vs. Richmond, Sept. 1, 2007