NASHVILLE, Tenn. For decades, the Vanderbilt Commodores have been one of the worst teams in the country.
Not this year.
A program that has a 64-179-1 record since its last winning season in 1982, the Commodores have won their first three games for the first time since '84 thanks to a mix of talent, a steady coaching staff and the memory of a fallen teammate.
Vanderbilt running back Kwane Doster was shot to death last December while in Florida for the holidays. The Commodores have sealed his locker and dedicated this season to him.
''His memory is always with us, and we use it in the best way we know how,'' senior receiver Erik Davis said. ''We're never going to let him go.''
Vanderbilt now sits atop the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division, looking down on perennial powers Tennessee, Florida and Georgia. The Commodores' 2-0 start in league play is their first since 1956, when they beat Georgia and Alabama.
Students now are talking football on campus, and Vanderbilt enjoyed its biggest single day of donations to the athletic department a week ago after beating Arkansas 28-24 on the road.
''I've got professors asking me questions about football rather than econ,'' tight end Dustin Dunning said. ''It's different. You can feel the tension in the air, and it's exciting.''
The success helped Vanderbilt enjoy a genuine home-field advantage last weekend for a 31-23 victory over Mississippi.
''They were coming out to see if it was all true,'' coach Bobby Johnson said Monday.
It's true, and Vandy's next four games are at home. With Division I-AA Richmond next up on Saturday, followed by winless Middle Tennessee, a 5-0 start is within reach.
''I'm not looking at the schedule,'' Johnson said. ''I'm looking at Richmond. I don't even know. Do we have a schedule?''
As the only private school in the SEC, Vanderbilt's high academic standards have made it tough to build a winning football program.
The Commodores have the worst record in the conference over the past decade at 28-87, and they're the only SEC team not to go to a bowl in the past 20 years.
Chancellor Gordon Gee, who extended Johnson's contract at the beginning of the 2004 season, said he had confidence in his coach despite only six combined victories through his first three years on the job.
''I'd already seen the kind of discipline and quality of effort that was being put into our program. I just felt very strongly that Bobby did not need to be looking to the rear view mirror as to whether the university administration was supporting him. He needed to look through the front window,'' Gee said.
The Commodores went 2-9 in 2004, but lost five games by a combined 15 points.
The low point was blowing a 27-3 lead in the second half in a 37-34 loss to Rutgers last October, nearly prompting quarterback Jay Cutler to leave for the NFL with a year of eligibility left.
Cutler announced his decision to return to Vanderbilt just a few weeks after Doster's funeral in Tampa, Fla.
''This team has stuck together. We're a close-knit family. The coaches have been great, and things are going our way right now,'' Cutler said.
The 6-foot-4, 228-pound Cutler, a four-year starter, is the biggest reason for the fast start.
He is the SEC's active leader in yards passing (6,492) and completions (509) and rushing by a quarterback (1,187). He currently leads the league with 289.3 yards per game and total offense with 338 yards this season.
Vanderbilt ranks 17th nationally in passing offense and 20th in total offense.
''We're the talk of the town, which is fine. ... It's everything everyone wanted it to be, and hopefully we can keep it going,'' Cutler said.
Johnson said his seniors led by Cutler, Davis and linebacker Moses Osemwegie continued to believe in the coaches, even after three straight hopeless seasons.
As a Nashville native, Davis had every reason not to expect to win because he was only 7 months old when the Commodores started 3-0 in 1984.
''There are a lot of faithful Vanderbilt fans who haven't had an opportunity like this,'' Davis said.
Jane McKee of Orlando, Fla., is third-generation Vanderbilt in her fifth year as a graduate student, and knows well the tradition of losing. She has heard the calls for the Commodores to leave the SEC and quit collecting million-dollar checks for bowl games they never played.
But her mother was a senior when Vanderbilt went to the Peach Bowl in 1974 one of only three bowl appearances since 1955 and she still believes a bowl is possible if the Commodores have faith.
''It's cool to see maybe that this year there's a possibility we can,'' McKee said.
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