STARKVILLE — At a school with Vanderbilt’s academic reputation, its students are probably comfortable with math problems involving the largest of numbers.

Forget all that. The number to which most of its football fans have been longing to count to for the past quarter-century is merely six – the number of wins it takes to become eligible to play in a bowl game.

Try as they might, that simple addition hasn’t worked on Nashville’s West End since 1982. Mention disappointing five-win seasons like 1999 and 2005 to the hardiest of Commodore fans, and you’ll get a shake of the head.

But this year’s team has its fans optimistic that the hurdle is about to be cleared.

No. 13 Vanderbilt (5-0, 3-0 SEC) takes its first stab at breaking the 26-year barrier Saturday at Mississippi State (1-4, 0-2). The Bulldogs, energized by an off week and a switch in quarterbacks, will attempt to play spoiler, delaying the culmination of one of college football’s stories of the year in 2008.

How big of a deal will it be if Vanderbilt becomes bowl eligible?

“It’s been so long since Vanderbilt went to a bowl game, Sarah Palin was a college freshman,” columnist Pat Forde wrote in an e-mail. “I don’t care if this is a road game; the Vandy students should tear down the goalposts in Nashville and run naked in the streets if the Commodores win.”

Maybe it won’t happen Saturday. Maybe a collossal collapse is coming. But smart money is that it will happen at some point – even if that is the last thing coach Bobby Johnson wants to hear.

“We want to go to a bowl just like everybody else does,” Johnson said. “(But), we don’t point to six wins. We try to point to each week’s game and this is our sixth game, that’s what we’re worried about.”

Even then, Johnson is realistic.

“They know that it’s there and you can’t fool them,” Johnson said of his players.

Said junior linebacker Patrick Benoist, whose family is from Natchez: “We can’t get too caught up in the hoorah and everything.” But he did say it was nice to be answering questions about success instead of frustration.