Exactly 364 days day after Vanderbilt kicked off its 2006 season with what might generously be called an underwhelming offensive performance, a game in which quarterback Chris Nickson made his debut as a starter by completing just 11 passes for a paltry 99 yards and star wide receiver Earl Bennett caught just 6 balls for 58 yards, the duo proved Saturday they have come a long way.
Granted, the Commodores were not playing in the vaunted Big House Saturday. And the competition wasn't quite as stiff as the Michigan team they lined up against a year ago.
But in connecting for half of Vanderbilt's 446 yards of total offense Saturday, Nickson and Bennett proved during the Commodores' 41-17 Opening Day romp over Richmond they have evolved both as individuals and as a unit into the kind of playmakers capable of leading this Vanderbilt team to its first bowl appearance in nearly a quarter-century.
"I hope we put out a statement that we are going to come out and play hard every week and that people shouldn't take us for granted because we are going to put points on the board and play hard each day," Bennett said after catching 13 Nickson passes for a Vanderbilt single-game record 223 yards. "Chris and I are definitely on the same page right now and I think that showed tonight."
A unanimous preseason All-Southeastern Conference first team selection and a member of the Maxwell and Biletnikoff Award watch lists, Bennett caught scoring strikes from Nickson of 15, 1 and 49 yards while inching his way to 14th on the SEC's all-time list for most career receptions.
And he just may well have forced his name into conversations about potential Heisman trophy candidates.
"He's just a great player," Nickson said of Bennett. "I don't know how he does it, but I just believe every game that he is going to do it. I've watched him and seen him on the field and all I can say is, `Wow, how did he do that? He is a tremendous athlete."
But Bennett couldn't have done it without Nickson, who, armed with a full year of experience as Vanderbilt's unquestioned starting quarterback, looked poised and confident from the opening gun Saturday and seemed to know exactly where on the field Bennett was at all times.
"There is no substitute for experience," said Nickson, who completed 19 of 26 passes for 284 yards and four touchdowns - a career high. "I kind of didn't know what to expect against Michigan last year in game one. I was trying to go out and just perform well. But this year it is more than that. This year I want to go out and lead my team and try to do things that I know I am capable of doing."
Bennett said Saturday that he and Nickson have been intentional during the past year about spending as much time together as possible in an effort to develop their chemistry. The two can often be found long after practice has ended throwing balls to each other and working on routes and timing.
"It is easier now for me now to identify what is going on and when I can get Earl the ball and when I can't," Nickson said. That's the big thing. I can't say this enough. The big key is experience. All the time we have had together now has given me a much better feel for where he is going to be at all times. I know tonight there was one miscue but as soon as I told him he was like, `I'm sorry man.' We make our mistakes sometimes, but we really are doing a great job of connecting."
It is a reality that was on full display Saturday, and one that gives Vanderbilt a legitimate chance at ending is postseason drought.
"There isn't one guy on this team who is any more or less important than anyone else," Bennett said. "Everyone has to contribute for us to get where we want to go. But if Chris and I are clicking and producing it definitely makes us that much more dangerous and that much more of a threat to make some real noise this year."