Bobby Johnson's is a name that gets lost in the shuffle now that James Franklin has come and gone. The softspoken, cuss-averse, grey-haired football coach was the man who put the foundation for Franklin's on-field success into place. Johnson was the man who brought guys like Zac Stacy, Jordan Matthews, Wesley Johnson, and Casey Hayward to Nashville. He was the leader who brought Vandy to a bowl game for the first time since the J. Geils Band was considered a bold new talent.
He only won 29 games in eight years roaming the sideline as Dudley Field, but he turned Vanderbilt from an easy-out to a legitimate opponent across SEC schedules. Under Johnson, the Commodores won some huge upsets against league foes and battled to the last second in other contests that raised the university's profile. Today, we'll look back at the best of the best over CBJ's tenure. There were big wins and disappointing losses, but there wasn't a season that went by without a memorable performance from Johnson's 'Dores.
Let's count it down:
10. Vanderbilt 28, Kentucky 17, 2003. Vanderbilt had gone more than two years without an SEC victory, rolling up a 23-game conference losing streak that extended into Johnson's first season in Nashville. CBJ and quarterback Jay Cutler put together their finest offensive effort against a I-A opponent that year, taking a 28-10 lead into the fourth quarter and holding tight against Jared Lorenzen and the Wildcats. Vanderbilt fans celebrated by storming the field and tearing down the goalposts, then bringing them to campus where university staff cut them into keepsake pieces for students to take home. All after beating a 4-6 Kentucky team.
We've come a long way, guys.
9. Vanderbilt 31, Ole Miss 23, 2005. Cutler threw for more than 300 yards and ran for another 58 to establish himself as a bonafide first-round draft pick as the 'Dores got off to a 3-0 start in Johnson's fourth season. However, it was Jeff Jennings who came up big in the red zone for Vanderbilt. Jennings, a sophomore, had 103 rushing yards and three touchdowns to frustrate the Rebels. Vandy started 2005 off with three straight wins over BCS conference opponents (Mississippi, Arkansas, Wake Forest), but fell off the map later in the season, not earning another big win until, well, just wait for #1 on this list.
8. Vanderbilt 24, #14 Georgia 22, 2006. Chris Nickson showed off the dual-threat offensive capabilities that would make him an all-conference quarterback when he led Vandy to a comeback win over the Bulldogs in Athens. His fourth quarter pick-six nearly sunk the 'Dores, but he redeemed himself by leading a 64-yard scoring drive that culminated in a 35-yard Bryant Hahnfeldt field goal that delivered a dramatic road win.
7. Vanderbilt 17, #6 South Carolina 6, 2007. South Carolina had climbed all the way into the top 10 behind a 6-1 record and wins over #8 Kentucky (seriously!) and #11 Georgia, but Vandy turned Columbia, SC into Steve Spurrier's Waterloo in 2007. The Commodores scored 17 points in the first quarter thanks to Mackenzi Adams's finest work in black and gold and then held on for one of the biggest upset wins in school history. The Gamecocks wouldn't win another game that year.
How little respect did the media have for Vanderbilt headed into this game? The only way for Nashvillians to follow the Commodores that weekend was over the radio. Vandy climbed to 5-3 the following week and then fell short of bowl eligibility by losing their final four games of the season.
6. Vanderbilt 24, #24 South Carolina 17, 2008. Unlike the previous year, this game was a nationally-televised Thursday night game in the second week of the NCAA season. South Carolina took a 10-3 lead into the half, but Chris Nickson led them back while the Commodore defense shut down a dangerous USC team. Vandy only gained 225 total yards in the win, but the victory was the catalyst for a 5-0 run that propelled the 'Dores into the national rankings and towards their first bowl game since 1982.
5. Vanderbilt 23, Ole Miss 17, 2008. Otherwise known as the day we knew Chris Marve was a stud. Vanderbilt wasn't the better team in Oxford that Saturday, but they made the most of their opportunities to carve out a close road win and improve to 4-0 on the season. Vandy was somehow even worse offensively than they were against USC (202 total yards), but the Commodore D was there to bail them out once again. They picked off Jevan Snead four times (three from Ryan Hamilton) and Marve came up with a clutch strip of Dexter McCluster as the Rebs were set to take a late fourth quarter lead. Vandy fans were still welcome in the Grove after that, but their reception got a bit icier that evening.
4. Vanderbilt 42, Florida 49 (double OT), 2005. DANCING IS FORBIDDEN. THANKS SEC REFS!
3. Vanderbilt 24, Tennessee 25, 2007. Mackenzi Adams led Vanderbilt to within a few feet of bowl eligibility and a rivalry game win in Knoxville back in 2006. Adams threw for three touchdowns as the Commodores roared out to a 24-9 advantage over Erik Ainge and the Volunteers, but choked it away in a classic case of "Same Old Vandy." The 'Dores went three-and-out three straight times in the fourth quarter to give UT the clearance to take the lead with 2:46 to go. Adams drove Vandy to the UT 31 with 33 seconds left on the clock and a chance to kick a game-winning field goal, but Bryant Hahnfeldt just didn't have enough leg to clear a 49-yarder that would have made me feel a lot less stupid for drunkenly yelling at Volunteer fans at Corner Pub that afternoon.
2. #19 Vanderbilt 14, #13 Auburn 13, 2008. College Gameday made their first-ever trip to Nashville to cover this matchup of top 20 programs. Lee Corso picked the Tigers to win this one, which in retrospect was probably a blessing for Bobby Johnson's team. Auburn raced out to two first-quarter touchdowns, but a failed extra point on the second conversation would ultimately doom them when Vandy's defense came up big once more in 2008. Mackenzi Adams replaced Chris Nickson and threw a pair of touchdown passes as the 'Dores got their highest-profile win in decades in front of a national ESPN audience.
1b. Vanderbilt 28, Tennessee 24, 2005
1a. vs. Boston College in the Music City Bowl, 2008, 16-14
One of these wins was built on the strength of a four-year starter at quarterback, a revved-up defense, and the presence of one of the greatest receivers in SEC history. The other turned in Vandy's favor thanks to botched punt coverage and will likely withstand the test of time as the only New Year's Day bowl to end with a punter as MVP.
Both were cathartic in their own right.
Objectively, the UT game is light years better than Vandy's first bowl win since 1955. The Commodores went to Knoxville with the best quarterback in school history and delivered a come-from-behind victory that ended when the 'Dores shut Tennessee down four straight plays deep inside VU territory. Their win over BC featured zero offensive touchdowns, 200 yards of total offense, and a brain-exploding 1-15 conversion rate on third down. Broadcasting that game on ESPN Classic would cause the earth to crumble inwards upon itself while trying to understand how that contest meets the definition of "classic" in any context.
However, the Music City Bowl win was the validation of 26 years of futile Vandy fandom. Bobby Johnson took a team whose offense accounted for just 242 yards of offense per game against BCS-conference foes and turned them into the program's first winning season in more than a quarter-century. That was enough to make a garbage football game one of the best of the Johnson-era. But it wasn't enough to usurp the game that made local street preachers believe the Rapture had taken place based on the booming silence that abruptly descended on Neyland Stadium.
Conversely, here are the top 10 wins of the Robbie Caldwell era:
1. at SEC Media Days.
2. vs. Ole Miss, 24-14.
3. vs. a dead-end turkey inseminating job.
4. vs. Larry Smith's confidence as starting quarterback.
5. vs. diabetes (ongoing).
6. vs. oddsmakers who bet Jared Funk would never start an SEC rivalry game.
10. vs. Eastern Michigan, 52-6.