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I will be the first to admit: I thought Vanderbilt was just the latest small school to pretend to belong with the big boys. But after beating Auburn, a team who lives in the top 15, fair and square, in a high-profile game, Vanderbilt has proven to me that they are a team that belongs in the top 25.
A tough road lies ahead, but Vandy sits at 5-0 (3-0 SEC) and is one win from becoming bowl-eligible (something that at Vanderbilt parallels the Super Bowl) by the season's half-way mark. The Commodores are 3-0 in the SEC for just the third time in their history and the first time since 1950.
"This is what coaches live for," Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. "I live to walk into the locker room and see how happy our players are." Johnson will surely be getting phone calls from major schools who are having coaching issues. For now, though, he seems to be happy leading Vanderbilt towards what would be the most surprising SEC East Title in history. That will be tough to accomplish, but if they can beat Auburn, who says they aren't capable of beating Florida or Georgia?
The key plays in the game came very early and very late, and both involved kicks. In the first quarter, after going up 13-0 early, Auburn's log-time consistent, dependable kicker Wes Byrum missed the extra-point on touchdown two. At the time, it seemed to matter little, as the Tigers looked as if they would run Vandy out of Nashville. But by game's end, and a 14-13 Vandy lead, the kick weighed heavily.
The second major play involving kickers came with less than four minutes to go in the game. Vanderbilt, clinging to a one-point lead, was forced to punt, giving Auburn one last chance to save themselves. Commodore punter Clinton Durst dropped a punt in at the one yard line where it was caught and downed, putting Auburn 99 yards away with just three minutes and change to go.
In a near desperate situation, and 40,000 nerds in his ear, Auburn quarterback Chris Todd (8 of 16 for 70 yards and 2 tds) threw the costliest of interceptions on the series' first play. Todd played instead of popular mobile sophomore Kodi Burns (2 of 6, 28 yards) and Auburn messageboards will be surely buzzing over that decision from coach Tommy Tuberville.
Up next for Vandy is a schedule where they should be favored against three of six opponents. A trip to Athens is next, and is followed by games against Duke, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest. The Commodores will win a few of those games, and a very strong bowl awaits them. Of course a second-half slide is possible, but I don't see it happening. I think Vandy goes 8-4 and plays in a Florida bowl game.
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