HOOVER, Ala.-Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, who has the toughest job in all of major college football, saw his job get tougher in the last academic year.
The summer of 2004 brought great optimism to the Commodores program, which had been competitive down the stretch of a 2-10 2003 campaign and had its sites set on the program's first bowl since 1982.
Sports talk radio personalities and newspaper hacks from across Dixie were touting Vanderbilt as their surprise team in the SEC East and for the first time in many years, the postseason seemed to be a realistic goal.
South Carolina, a team that had a less-than-impressive ending to 2003 with a 63-17 loss to rival Clemson, was the first opponent. Commodore fans were predicting victory and Gamecock fans were a bit nervous about traveling to Nashville for the season opener.
After all, Vanderbilt had nearly come back and won what ended as a 35-24 loss to South Carolina the previous season and in 2002, Johnson's first, the 'Dores lost a hard-fought 20-14 decision.
This game was winnable.
Like sharks smelling garnet blood in the water, the gold and black-clad Vandy students were frenzied before kickoff and the 'Dores took the field filled with enthusiasm and optimism for the first time in what seemed like an eternity.
Then, reality struck. The Gamecocks took the opening kickoff, marched down the field and scored with ease, built a 17-0 lead at the end of the first quarter and never looked back in a 31-6 win.
That set the tone for Johnson's third straight two-win season which featured realistic causes for hope, followed by major disappointments. Blown leads against Ole Miss, Rutgers and Kentucky and close loses to Navy and Tennessee highlighted the frustration.
Then, the offseason brought something that transcends football. Kwane Doster was shot and killed in his hometown of Tampa, Fla., on the day after Christmas. There is no question that that moment was lower than any loss in a game.
From rock bottom, however, there often is hope.
In Johnson's fourth season, which begins at 7 p.m. EDT Sept. 1 against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C., Vandy will have Jay Cutler, the most experienced quarterback in the Southeastern Conference under center along with favorite target Erik Davis. The 'Dores also have a speedy, retooled defense with a decent front seven.
Indeed both sides of the ball seem to have a chance this year. Also, one glance at the schedule tells you that Vandy has a chance to get off to a decent start.
The trip to Wake for a Thursday night ESPNU broadcast will be a challenge as the Demon Deacons will be able to put points on the board. One would think, however, that because of Cutler and because the talent at Wake and Vandy isn't that far apart, that the Commodores have a chance. Also, Wake Forest star running back Chris Barclay is suspended for that game.
Next is a trip to Arkansas, which lost starting quarterback and first-round NFL draft choice Matt Jones. The Razorbacks will have more talent that Vanderbilt, but it isn't that unreasonable to think that the 'Dores can go into Fayetteville, Ark., and compete.
Mississippi will be playing its second straight game in the state of Tennessee when it visits Nashville on Sept. 17 in the home opener at Vanderbilt Stadium. The Rebels squeaked out a 26-23 overtime win last season in Oxford, so there is a good opportunity for a win given what happened last season.
Richmond is the next opponent. That should be a win.
Given the schedule, a 3-1 start is possible. That would give Johnson more wins by Sept. 24 than he has gotten in any of his three previous seasons at Vandy. It also would rekindle some of that enthusiasm that was so prevalent around the program in the summer of 2004 and go along way toward moving past some of the disappointing and tragic things that have plagued this program since.
JC Shurburtt can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.