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Vanderbilt's formula simple: Play to win

9/30/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Vanderbilt junior safety Ryan Hamilton can do the math. After all, he is going to school at Vanderbilt.

The Commodores have lost 21 games since he arrived on campus in 2005. They've lost 11 of those games by a touchdown or less. During the 2006 and 2007 seasons, they lost four games by three points or fewer, and three of those games were decided in the final seconds by kickers.

"We just couldn't close out games," Hamilton said.

Notice he used the past tense. Again, he's a Vanderbilt guy. He knows the difference between past and present tense.

And the present is all that matters to these Commodores, who're unbeaten, nationally ranked for the first time in nearly a quarter century and bracing for their most anticipated home game since ...

Well, let's just say it's been a while.

How are they doing it?

Fittingly, with smarts, discipline, an opportunistic approach and an attitude that screams out: We could care less what's happened around here in the past.

"We're still a pretty young team," said Hamilton, who had three interceptions in the Ole Miss win. "A lot of the guys here now weren't around for all those games we couldn't close out. This is a new team, a new Vanderbilt. We don't lose those games anymore."

Indeed, the No. 19-ranked Commodores (4-0, 2-0 SEC) head into their game with No. 14-ranked Auburn on Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium -- complete with ESPN's College GameDay on hand -- doing all of the things right that it takes to win those close games. Both of their SEC wins came by a touchdown or less.

Here's their formula: They're tied for first nationally in fewest penalties per game (2.75) and interceptions (10). They lead the SEC in turnover margin (plus-9) and sacks per game (2.75). They're tied for the SEC lead with Georgia in red zone offense (scoring on 16 of their 17 chances) and are second in the SEC in red zone defense (allowing only four touchdowns in 11 chances).

In both of their SEC wins, they either scored a touchdown on defense or set up a touchdown with a big play on special teams.

Simply, this is a well-coached, fundamentally sound football team that believes. And don't think the Commodores don't have talent, either. Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson has upgraded the recruiting, and there's a higher caliber of athlete on campus now than ever before.