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‘Dores Ready For Rare Opportunity

By Matt Smith
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Despite the SEC’s self-appointed position as the best conference in college football, Vanderbilt’s history with top-ranked teams is relatively short.

We want to prove to be the best defense on the field. We’ve been waiting for this.
~Linebacker Oren Burks

Despite the SEC’s self-appointed position as the best conference in college football, Vanderbilt’s history with top-ranked teams is relatively short.

Saturday’s visit from No. 1 Alabama (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS) is only the third by a No. 1 team to Vanderbilt Stadium in the 80-year history of the AP Poll.

The Commodores nearly shocked the world 21 years ago, before falling to eventual Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel and national champion Florida, 28-21. Vanderbilt was far less competitive against another team that would go on to win it all two years later, getting blanked by rival Tennessee, 41-0, in 1998. Its only meeting with a top-ranked Alabama team also ended 41-0 in 1980 in Tuscaloosa.

It’s the only eighth time at any location that Vanderbilt has played a No 1 team, with it yet to pull a monumental upset. Could it happen this weekend?

Derek Mason’s team enters Saturday’s game unranked, as it’s been in the previous seven meetings with No. 1, but with a 3-0 record after a home upset of No. 18 Kansas State last Saturday night. A repeat of 1998 seems unlikely, but do the Commodores believe they can replicate the 1996 team’s performance and hang with the mighty Crimson Tide for 60 minutes?

“I’m feeling pretty good about where we’re at,” Mason said Tuesday. “Our football team is handling this the way they should. They’ve practiced the way they’ve always practiced.”

There shouldn’t be a lack of confidence on West End Avenue, even with the obvious talent gap that the Commodores will have to overcome on Saturday afternoon. Vanderbilt is the only defense in the nation allowing fewer than 200 yards per game. It currently sports the No. 9 red zone defense in the country, allowing only one touchdown in four trips by its opponents. That comes on the heels of a top-10 finish in red zone defense last season.

Does this defense belong with the one that will be on the opposite sideline Saturday – one that was the best in the country last season?

“We’re ready for this defense to show ourselves on a national stage,” linebacker Oren Burks said. “That’s what we have the opportunity to do this weekend. We want to prove to be the best defense on the field. We’ve been waiting for this.”

Just playing in the conference’s marquee timeslot is a rarity for the Commodores. Since the SEC and CBS became exclusive partners in 2001, the Commodores have played in the nationally-televised 3:30 p.m. game just twice – a 2001 road loss at Tennessee and a 2015 home loss to Georgia. The team’s only win on CBS came in 2013 (a Noon ET kickoff) against No. 15 Georgia.

“It’s the coolest thing ever,” Mason said on 104.5 The Zone of Saturday’s unique stage. “It’s the main event. I’m excited about the opportunity for this football team, Nashville, Vanderbilt University.”

Somewhat stunningly, it’s even more rare for the Commodores to be hosting the defending SEC champion, an honor Alabama has claimed each of the last three seasons. It’s been 14 years since the previous year’s champion has appeared in Vanderbilt Stadium – with Georgia moving closer to its second straight division title with a win in Nashville in 2003.

Despite a crowd that will likely be at least half crimson, there’s a special buzz around the Vanderbilt campus reserved for a select few games with the magnitude and exposure of this one.

“You can definitely tell the difference winning some games early,” Burks said. “Fans might be surprised, but we’re not surprised at all.”

Given the 2017 Commodores have already exceeded the full-season win totals of both the 1996 and 1998 teams, it’s safe to say that this Vanderbilt team has a better chance to record a home of upset of No. 1 than either of those two teams did.

It’s a challenge that is atypical in the 128-year history of Vanderbilt football, but one by which the Commodores players, who were in diapers the last time a No. 1 team came to campus, won’t be intimidated.

Quotes courtesy of

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.