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That Time Tommy Tuberville Lost to Vanderbilt

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Fine, since this is making the rounds on the internet, let’s talk about it.

Vanderbilt v Florida

So, Tommy Tuberville is officially, as of last night, the Republican nominee for the United States Senate in Alabama.

Anchor of Gold has never, officially, been a politics-free zone, but while we try to keep the front page articles free of politics, occasional comments on the humorous intersection of politics and sports have come up. We won’t comment on Tommy Tuberville’s politics, but we are definitely here to comment on a thing that the Alabama Democratic Party has used as a line of attack on him:

Yes, that’s correct: Tommy Tuberville lost to Vanderbilt. (He also lost to a 3-9 UConn team during his final year as a college head coach, but never mind that.)

So let us set the stage for the matchup at Dudley Field on October 4, 2008. Bobby Johnson, in six previous years at Vanderbilt, had a record of 20-50, and it says quite a bit about the 25 years of Vanderbilt football that preceded 2008 that this was considered an acceptable record. After all, he’d inherited a disaster from Woody Widenhofer and won six games — total — in his first three seasons in Nashville. 2005 brought some hope, with the Jay Cutler-led Commodores starting the season 4-0 before dropping a home game against MTSU on a blocked field goal, which started a six-game losing streak that ended with the minor consolation of the program’s first win over Tennessee since 1982.

1982 was also the last time Vanderbilt had had a winning season, or gone to a bowl game, and after a predictable rebuilding year with Cutler gone in 2006, Vanderbilt again knocked on the door in 2007, starting 5-3 with a road win over then-#6 South Carolina before falling in the tank again and finishing 5-7.

In other words, the 4-0 start that Vanderbilt got out to in 2008, while better than the alternative, was also something Vanderbilt fans had seen before by this point. The Commodores opened the season by easily dispatching Miami (Ohio), then beat South Carolina at home in a Thursday night game on ESPN. Vanderbilt struggled a bit with a surprisingly salty Rice team — the Owls would finish 10-3 that season — before winning 38-21, and then picked up a 23-17 road win at Ole Miss to improve to 4-0 and jump into the Top 25 for the first time since 1984.

And then it happened: College GameDay came to town.

That’s right: Vanderbilt’s game against Auburn in 2008 would be the first, and so far only, time that ESPN’s flagship Saturday morning preview show would come to Vanderbilt. Suddenly, Vanderbilt football was a big deal. And with GameDay in town, Vanderbilt fans packed the house — the announced attendance was 39,773 (everybody remembers Vanderbilt packing the house during the James Franklin years, but it’s often forgotten that Vanderbilt drew pretty well at the tail end of Bobby Johnson’s tenure as well.) Still, there was a nagging sense that this was where the dream would end.

Auburn, after all, came into the game with a 4-1 record and ranked 13th in the country. The Tigers had entered the season ranked in the top 10, but a 26-21 loss to LSU two weeks before had taken some of the shine off. What really took the shine off, though, was one of the wins. Auburn had gone to Starkville on September 13 and somehow won the game in spite of only scoring three points. This was, of course, back in the time when most SEC coaches — with Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer being the notable exceptions — played things close to the vest, operating under the assumption that points were hard to come by and instead focusing much more energy on stopping the other team. And Bobby Johnson had kind of learned to play into this; with a frequently undermanned team, Johnson from 2006 on settled into a pattern of fielding an offense whose main goal was to limit mistakes and put the defense in the best position to win the game for them. This wasn’t a great strategy against the few teams that really could put points on the board, and most of the time it just led to a lot of close losses — but if the other team couldn’t get out of its own way, Johnson could spring a trap.

But the game’s first quarter didn’t really dissuade Vanderbilt fans from the notion that the end was nigh. Auburn got stuffed on 4th and goal at the Vanderbilt 1 on its first offensive possession, but scored on its next possession and, after a Chris Nickson interception, scored again to go up 13-0. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, followed up the Nickson interception with two drives that didn’t cross the 50.

And then, late in the second quarter, Bobby Johnson pulled a struggling Nickson — the oft-injured senior finished the game 3-for-8 passing for four yards with an interception — and inserted Mackenzi Adams. Adams was a quarterback of a type that basically doesn’t exist any more in high-level college football, a guy who got beaten out for the starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2006 and instead of transferring out of the program, stuck around as basically a career backup, albeit one who played a considerable amount thanks mostly to Nickson’s persistent inability to stay healthy. Adams engineered a touchdown drive on his first series and brought Vanderbilt back into the game just before halftime.

In the second half, Auburn’s offense continued to sputter; the Tigers’ first three drives of the second half resulted in three-and-outs, and Vanderbilt took the lead midway through the third quarter when Adams found Brandon Barden from one yard out. The only thing that prevented Vanderbilt from stretching the lead out further was a pair of missed field goals by Bryant Hahnfeldt, but still, Vanderbilt led 14-13 after three quarters.

And that ended up being enough. Auburn had one final shot when the Tigers stopped Vanderbilt on 3rd and 7, forcing a punt with 2:16 left. But a booming Brett Upson punt meant that the Tigers would have to go 97 yards to win the game, and anyway, Myron Lewis intercepted a Chris Todd pass on the first play of Auburn’s potential game-winning drive to seal the deal. And Vanderbilt was 5-0 for the first time in 24 years.

Still, Vanderbilt fans would have to sweat out bowl eligibility — again — after losing four games in a row following this game, but they’d finally get over the hump with a win at Kentucky in November. But let us end this by saying that Mackenzi Adams does not deserve this disrespect.