Vanderbilt’s first bowl appearance in 26 years will be at least in part a celebration for the hometown Commodores, who haven’t won in the postseason in more than half a century.
If recent seasons are any indication, Boston College plans on crashing the party.
The Eagles will look to extend the nation’s longest active bowl winning streak to nine on Dec. 31 in Nashville’s Music City Bowl, where Vanderbilt hopes to erase a dismal second half with just its second bowl victory in school history.
Coming off 25 straight losing seasons, Vanderbilt was college football’s surprise story early this year, winning its first five games and rising as high as No. 13 in the rankings in early October.
After that start, it seemed like the Commodores would cruise to their first bowl bid since 1982, but the rest of the season was a struggle. Vanderbilt (6-6) would lose its next four games, including a 10-7 home loss to lowly Duke, before finally becoming bowl eligible with a 31-24 win at Kentucky on Nov. 15.
The Commodores also went on to drop their last two games, including another disappointing defeat at home to in-state rival Tennessee, but they still were offered a bid to play in their hometown at LP Field, home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.
“We are really thankful that a lot of our fans will be able to get here for the game and hopefully a lot of our out-of-town fans will load up the car or get on the plane and head to Nashville,” said Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, a former player at Clemson who has never played or coached in a bowl. “… It has been a long time and awful lot of hard work, so we’re excited.”
None of Vanderbilt’s players had been born the last time the Commodores reached the postseason, when they lost 36-28 to Air Force in the Hall of Fame Bowl on Dec. 31, 1982.
In their previous two bowl appearances, they tied Texas Tech 6-6 in the 1974 Peach Bowl, while their only win came in the 1955 Gator Bowl, 25-13 over Auburn.
“Normally at this time we are working on getting ready for next year, but this year we are still finishing out this season, so this is exciting,” senior safety Reshard Langford said. “We have had a couple of practices lately and the team is practicing hard and trying to get healthy.”
The injury problems may slow down Vanderbilt’s struggling quarterbacks even more. Three different players, including redshirt freshman Larry Smith, threw at least eight passes in Vanderbilt’s most recent game, a 23-10 loss at Wake Forest on Nov. 29.
Senior Chris Nickson was injured on the fourth offensive play and replaced by junior Mackenzi Adams, who has completed 47.7 percent of his passes and thrown three touchdowns and eight interceptions in his last six games.
Nickson, who has 485 rushing yards and six touchdowns this season, returned after Adams injured his shoulder, but was eventually replaced by Smith. The freshman couldn’t cure Vanderbilt’s passing offense, as the Commodores have scored more than 14 points just once in their last eight games and rank 113th nationally with 122.8 passing yards per game.
It’s unclear who will play on New Year’s Eve, but they will almost certainly have to do better against the Eagles (9-4).
BC leads the nation with 26 interceptions, as safety Paul Anderson and linebacker Mark Herzlich have each grabbed six. Five of the interceptions have been returned for touchdowns, tied for the most in the Bowl Subdivision.
Anchored by All-ACC defensive tackle B.J. Raji, the defensive unit is ranked sixth nationally, allowing 273.4 yards per game.
The Eagles have reached a bowl each of the last nine years, winning the last eight - including a 20-16 win over Georgia in the 2001 Music City Bowl.
They also won their final four regular-season games this year and had a shot to advance to the Orange Bowl, but they lost 30-12 to Virginia Tech in the ACC title game on Dec. 6.
“We fell a little bit short, but it takes nothing away from what these guys accomplished this year,” second-year coach Jeff Jagodzinski said. “They kept battling. It didn’t go our way.”
The main culprit for BC has been an inconsistent offense looking to recover from the loss of quarterback Matt Ryan. The ACC player of the year in 2007, Ryan was drafted No. 3 overall and has led the Atlanta Falcons into playoff contention as a rookie, but the Eagles haven’t exactly filled his shoes.
Senior Chris Crane threw 10 touchdowns and 13 interceptions before breaking his collarbone on Nov. 22 against Wake Forest. Freshman Dominique Davis stepped in and led BC to tight victories over the Demon Deacons and Maryland, but he was just 17-of-43 with a touchdown, two interceptions and a lost fumble against the Hokies.
“It wasn’t the game I thought it was going to be. It was totally opposite,” Davis said. “I’m not going to have this feeling again. If we make it back, we’re going to win. I’m not going to let my team down like this again.”
He’ll try not to against Vanderbilt, whom BC has beaten in the schools’ two previous meetings in 1962 and 1963.
Last year, the Eagles also lost to Virginia Tech in the conference title game, then beat Michigan State 24-21 in the Champs Sports Bowl to finish 11-3.
With the program lacking a large group of traveling fans, this season’s squad - again the ACC runner-up - slipped to the Music City Bowl, which had the fifth selection in the ACC. The bowl was obliged to choose the title game’s loser if it had not yet been selected.