SPECIAL FEATURE: It’s no “optical illusion” that Vanderbilt is now playing fun, winning football!

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

BIRMINGHAM, Ala., Jan. 2, 2014 — Some think Jordan Matthews, an All-American who has broken all the Southeastern Conference’s pass catching records, might be the greatest football player ever at my alma mater Vanderbilt University. “This Matthews,” says my Vandy pal Douglas T. Bates III, “his catches are just optical illusions. There will be two people defending him, and I don’t know how he catches the passes, but he does.” His performance this year has made it possible for our Vanderbilt Commodores to be playing Saturday at 12 noon CT in the “BBVA Compass Bowl” against the University of Houston Cougars here in this historic north central Alabama city.

Of course, many football fans must think it’s an optical illusion when they see Vanderbilt listed as playing in any bowl game.

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In the early 20th century, actually from 1904 to 1934, the program was one of the nation’s best under Coach Dan McGugin., an Iowa native.  But for most of the 60 years that my friend Bates has been a fan, the Commodores have been the whipping boys of the SEC.  It sure hasn’t been that way the past three seasons, when Coach James Franklin has taken our scrappy lads to three consecutive bowl games.

Our teams, says Bates, now have true grit.

“This team now reminds me of what the baseball manager Leo Durocher once said about the great infielder Eddie Stanky,” said Bates. “He said Stanky ‘couldn’t hit, couldn’t field, all he can do is beat you.’  Well, our Vanderbilt football team has a lot of weaknesses, but we’re 8-4.  They’ve reached a point where they can figure out a way to win.”

In any of the big wins, our star Jordan Matthews has played a big role.  But the best thing about him is that he is the classic All-American football player — good kid, good citizen, smart student, real competitor.  I can’t say it better than it was reported this week in a story by Jerome Boettcher on the Vanderbilt sports site on the Internet.  If you want to read about one of the more inspiring college players of today, click here to read that story.

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Wide receiver Jordan Matthews, of the Vanderbilt Commodores, is shown here celebrating after the victory over Tennessee in Knoxville this past season.  (Photo from Vanderbilt University Athletics, used here with permission.)

His statistical line for the year includes 107 pass receptions, 1,334 yards and five touchdowns.  If there’s been a pivotal play, Matthews has generally been involved — even on defense.  When the Commodores beat arch-rival Tennessee for the second season in a row, this time at Knoxville, Matthews made a key catch in the drive for the winning TD.  Then he was inserted as a deep defender on defense and batted away the Hail Mary pass that UT threw, trying to win it.

The outcome of Saturday’s game against Houston will probably hang on how often and how effectively Vandy can get the football to Matthews.  Our starting quarterback for most of the season, Austyn Carta-Samuels has been lost to a leg injury and will not play.  Replacing him will be redshirt freshman Patton Robinette, whom Bates says “is special.

“First of all, he’s a 4..0 student who scored a perfect on his 36 on the ACT test,” Bates continued.

And then there’s the fact that, as a starter, Robinette directed Maryville High School teams in eastern Tennessee to a 29-1 record and two state championships.  He originally signed at the University of North Carolina, but decided to transfer to Vanderbilt.

The opponents, the Houston Cougars, are mighty impressive.  They are 8-4 this season with a 5-3 record good for fourth place in the American Conference, one of those new leagues formed in all the conference re-alignments.  The previous 17 years they were members of Conference USA.  Coach Tony Levine is in his second year directing the team, and has fans excited.  Their four losses this season were by a total of only 20 points.

They, too, have a youngster at quarterback.  He is freshman John O’Korn, who has started most of the year and has been phenomenal.  He is 239 for 399 passing for 2,889 yards and 26 touchdowns.  He is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and led his high school to a state championship.

The Cougars, by the way, have a nickname for their nickname.  Houston fans typically refer to their team as “the Coogs.”  Cute, huh?

Otherwise, the more I read about their school, the more fascinating it becomes.

Their president, since 2008, has been Renu Khator, a native of India who split her college education in physical science between a university in her home country and Purdue University in the U.S.

Don North, a Vanderbilt classmate of ours who is recently retired after directing a prep school in Houston, said Khator “is very bright, very capable, and very clear about how important football success is to her ambition to build U of H into a first tier university.”

As for their football following, they play in a metro area that has very divided loyalties.

The Coogs compete for fans with the professional Houston Texans team in the NFL and the Rice University Owls.  But our pal North says the team with the biggest fan base in the Houston area is the University of Texas Longhorns, who base in Austin.  “There are about 50,000 UT alumni in Houston and most of them are nuts about UT,” he said. “Come to think of it, I could have put the period after the word nuts and that would have worked   just fine, too.”

So, there’s your BBVA Compass Bowl primer.  

But the bowl name does need some explanation. It is being sponsored — for the eighth and last time — by BBVA Compass Bancshares, Inc., a sprawling empire of 716 branch locations under ownership of a Spanish company, Banco Bilbao Viscaya Argentina, with their U.S. headquarters here in Birmingham.

Hopefully, some other business or organization will pick up the bowl sponsorship in this city that has such a deep football tradition.  Legion Field, where our game is being played, dates to 1926, and many fans remember it as the site for about 40 years of the annual Alabama vs. Auburn rivalry game, called the “Iron Bowl.”  That game now alternates between the schools’ own stadiums on their campuses.  The University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers play their home games at Legion Field, and the annual “Magic City Classic” is held there, matching the football teams from the state’s largest two traditional African American colleges — Alabama State University of Montgomery and Alabama A&M in Huntsville.

But there have been other end-of-season bowls at Legion Field, too — the early Dixie Bowl, the Hall of Fame Bowl, the All-American Bowl, the PapaJohns.com Bowl and most recently the BBVA Compass Bowl.

“For old SEC fans like me, it’s a thrill to go to Birmingham just to play at Legion Field,” Doug Bates says. “It’s just a shrine to Southern football.”

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This was the scene when the Vanderbilt Commodores were about to take the field a year ago in the Music City Bowl in Nashville.

You can write the columnist by email at chuck@Offenburger.com or by using the handy form below here.

 

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