Music City teams well in tune
Posted: Tuesday, October 7, 2008 3:26 pm
By: By TERESA M. WALKER, AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — Music City’s three football teams are turning the town into Pigskinville.
The Tennessee Titans are off to the best start in franchise history, one of the NFL’s two remaining undefeated teams and the first to 5-0. The 13th-ranked Vanderbilt Commodores, who’ve never been ranked higher, are a victory away from their best start since 1928 and sitting atop the mighty Southeastern Conference’s East Division.
The success includes even Tennessee State of the Football Championship Series leading the Ohio Valley Conference.
Together, the teams are a combined 15-1.
“I hope everything keeps going,” Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said Monday. “I’d like to see all three teams keep it moving. That would be fantastic for the city. But I don’t think there’s anything in the water. There’s probably some things in the water but not affecting football.”
The Commodores’ success is the most surprising of the three.
The Titans, who can enjoy their 5-0 start with a bye this week, went 10-6 a year ago and reached the playoffs. They currently lead the NFL with eight straight regular-season wins that ties for the franchise’s third-longest such winning streak, first set during 2000 when they had the NFL’s best record at 13-3.
Tennessee State went 8-3 in 2001 and even won consecutive OVC titles in 1998-1999. An 11-0 mark in 1999 also earned the Tigers a 14th black college national championship.
But Vanderbilt is trying to end a 25-year skid since its last winning season. The Commodores beat Auburn last weekend 14-13 to reach 5-0 for the first time since 1943, and a win Saturday at Mississippi State would at least ensure a .500 record and match the 6-0 start of the 1928 team.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher said he senses people are excited about the success.
“I’m very excited for Vanderbilt. They’ve done a good job. They’ve been patient. They’ve done a great job building their club, and they’re very well-coached,” Fisher said.
The Titans and Commodores are very similar. With both teams undefeated, each coach sounds as if he is reading off the same script. After reaching 5-0, Johnson was asked what the victory meant, and his answer: “It gives us a chance to go 6-0.” Fisher said Monday, “We’re trying to win the next game, period.”
Tennessee State’s only loss came a week ago in Atlanta to Florida A&M after the Tigers’ first 4-0 start since 2001. The Tigers are led by quarterback Antonio Heffner, who transferred from South Carolina, and coached by James Webster.
“I hate losing,” said Webster, who was hired away from an assistant’s job at North Carolina in 2005 to return the Tigers to their winning ways.
On the field, the Titans and Commodores share some similarities.
Both play stingy, opportunistic defense. The Titans lead the NFL in turnover margin with an NFL-best 14 takeaways. Vanderbilt leads all of the Football Bowl Subdivision in that category with a plus-9 differential and an SEC-best 15 takeaways.
The Titans turned to backup quarterback Kerry Collins when Vince Young got hurt in the opener, and he has made them only better. Mackenzi Adams replaced an injured Chris Nickson the past two games and finished off come-from-behind wins.
When the Titans went to their lone Super Bowl in January 2000, Nashville fans couldn’t have been more giddy about having a winner in town.
Nashville sports fans dallied with basketball a few months ago when Vanderbilt upset then-No. 1 Tennessee only three days after the Vols knocked off then-No. 1 Memphis. But football is the first love here in the town called the Athens of the South.
Vandy hired Johnson in December 2001 away from Furman, fresh off a loss in the then-Division I-AA championship. He has worked patiently to build depth and add speed and athleticism to his roster, and the results have been paying off. The Commodores are 13-12 over their past 25 games, with wins over Georgia, South Carolina (twice) and now Auburn in that stretch.
Commodores receiver George Smith, one of three SEC players in his sixth season, has noticed the difference. He said they used to treat playing at home as road trips because of the lack of fan support. Against Auburn, Vandy fans had a definite edge in the sold-out crowd and didn’t want to go home after the win.
People kept stopping him to congratulate the Commodores when he went to visit his father at a hotel after the victory.
“You can feel the atmosphere changing. It’s a good thing. The city’s behind us, and we’re doing it for them as well as for us. It’s good to have everybody involved,” Smith said.
Both the Titans and Tigers are off this week. Johnson has to deal with higher expectations for Vandy, but said his Commodores are smart enough to stay levelheaded.
“They know it’s there, and you can’t fool them. So I told them (Sunday) we’re not worried about getting six wins. We’re worrying about playing the sixth game. That’s all we worry about,” Johnson said. “If that gives us an opportunity, fine. It’s the sixth game we’re worried about, not the six wins.”
Hard to argue with an approach that’s worked well so far — for three Music City teams.