For the first time in school history, the Vanderbilt Commodores are bowl eligible for the second consecutive season.
That six-win plateau might not mean much to the Alabama, LSU and Georgias of the world, but the team that anchors down in the Music City proudly sporting black and gold couldn’t be more excited.
Ask the pessimistic fanbase and head coach James Franklin how much turning it around means to the perceived SEC bottow-dweller who can’t compete on the recruiting front with other East big wigs and routinely plays in front of the league’s smallest home crowd.
“You can’t win there,” Franklin heard from many outsiders upon arriving in 2011. “They don’t care about football.”
The former Maryland offensive coordinator has proved the opposite and with two more wins to end the regular season, his program could possibly sell-out its bowl ticket allotment. Football’s fun again at a place known for losses. Since the start of the 2000 season, Vandy’s lost 80 of 96 games in the SEC and the Commodores have had four winning seasons since 1959 with just five all-time bowl appearances.
It’s easy to get lost in the futility. But times, as Bob Dylan would say, are a-changin’.
Saturday’s latest win — a 27-26 nailbiter at Ole Miss — showcased Vandy’s never quit mentality. This team was a handful of plays from beating Florida, had South Carolina on the ropes and squandered a halftime lead at Northwestern late in the game. Vandy’s close, and over October and November, the Commodores have proved their worth.
Vandy trailed throughout in Oxford, but like they’ve done all season, hung around until the end. That’s when quarterback Jordan Rodgers led his team on a gutsy touchdown drive that put Vandy ahead with 52 seconds remaining. Franklin’s bunch has now won three consecutive conference road games for the first time ever and all four losses have come to ranked teams.
The program’s headed in the right direction and during an up-and-down season in the SEC featuring a handful of hot-seat coaches, Franklin deserves all the credit. He’ll have the job as long as he wants it with a team that believes it can win anytime the animated 40-year-old steps on the sidelines. Look what has happened at Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee, three programs with twice as many resources as what’s available in Nashville. Vandy’s one embarrassing loss was a road game in Athens against arguably the SEC’s best one-loss team. As for those other three? Defense has been non-existent, close games have gone astray and effort level has been questioned.
The same can not be said at Vandy where Franklin runs a tight ship and demands accountability from his players and staff. The Commodores have a realistic shot at an eight-win regular season, something that would boost Franklin into coach-of-the-year talks. Wins over Tennessee and Wake Forest would equal consecutive victories No. 5 and 6 entering the bowl season making the Commodores a sexy selection for a second-tier invite.
We all said Vandy was a much-improved football team after its performance in a nationally-televised Thursday night opener Franklin uniquely dubbed his team’s “Super Bowl” against the Gamecocks. Now, with an impressive body of work, Vandy’s shaping into a team that’s more than just a wild-card qualifier.
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