HOUSTON, Texas — What a difference two years can make.
Two years ago this Wednesday, the Vanderbilt Commodores were taking the field in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana. They proceeded to get clobbered by the NC State Wolfpack.
Now, led by the same quarterback in Kyle Shurmur and same head coach in Derek Mason, the Commodores are set to take on the Baylor Bears in the Texas Bowl on Thursday night. Instead of playing on the day after Christmas in smaller stadium in a city that most probably couldn’t locate on a map, the Commodores will take the field in an NFL stadium in a major city.
Oh yeah, and it’s the only football game on TV on Thursday night. If you want to watch football, you’re watching the Commodores and the Bears go head to head at NRG Stadium.
According to the players that were there in Shreveport two years ago, the attitude this time around is much different.
“In our mode of preparation, I think we were a little too comfortable just making it to a bowl game,” defensive lineman Dare Odeyingbo said. “This time, we really understand that making a bowl game is all well and good, but winning the bowl game is way more important than just making it. I think that was critical in our preparation and how we approach the game.”
That attitude has permeated far beyond football. The team has maintained a competitive edge even in pre-bowl events in Houston, such as Sunday’s Rodeo Bowl, which Vanderbilt won.
“You can see that we’ve taken a step forward in just the events that we’ve done competitively against Baylor or just within ourselves,” tight end Jared Pinkney said. “Last time we went bowling, it was kind of just ‘We’ll win in the game.’ I think now we realize everything we do has got to be competitive, whether it’s football-related or not.”
Whether it’s catching footballs or lassoing steer, the Commodores have maintained a high level of energy, and that stems directly from the veterans on the team that have seen what happens without that energy.
“These guys in this room were there two years ago,” Mason said. “They understand exactly what we encountered, how we practiced, what it looked like in the end. We didn’t like the end result. Now, you’re looking at four young men that are vital to how we play and what we do, and they fully understand why we’re here. The preparation has been different for these guys because they know and understand what we’re trying to do.”
A win in the Texas Bowl would mean more than just a bowl victory for Vanderbilt. The program has had just four winning seasons since 1980, and a win in the Texas Bowl would give Mason his first winning season as Vanderbilt’s head coach and give the program its fourth winning season in the last 10 years.
But, as the Commodores learned two years ago on the banks of the Red River in Northwest Louisiana, winning doesn’t come easy in the postseason.
“Coach Mason has done a great job of making sure that when we’re practicing, we’re practicing hard,” Shurmur said. “But he’s done a good job of taking care of us with our off time and making sure that we get our rest and we recover, so that when we come to practice, it’s good work. I think our energy level is pretty high and I think we’re going to be ready to go.”