Will you be paying attention to Vanderbilt and Ole Miss Saturday? You probably didn’t even know they were playing if you live outside of Nashville or Oxford. However, this game is interesting to me for several different reasons, and we’re going to find out which program will become bowl eligible first and which is moving faster in the right direction. It’s a great benchmark game, if you will.
The Rebels and Commodores are both on similar paths to being relevant in the SEC.
The situation was a mess when James Franklin took over in Nashville, and upon being hired, Franklin inherited a 2-10 team and led them into a bowl game in his first season. The Commodores finished 6-7 and lost 31-24 in the Liberty Bowl to Cincinnati. However, Franklin’s teams showed resolve and fight, and they only lost four conference games to Georgia, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee by an average of 4.75 points per game. So, naturally, we knew the Commodores wouldn’t sneak up on anyone in 2012, especially with 15 returning starters. Franklin has once again done a nice job in 2012 getting his team to live up to expectations and not play to the low expectations your daddy’s Vanderbilt once had.
I talk all the time about coaches changing the brand of the program and the way people look at the program as a whole, but it usually takes different players to change the culture to truly get the desired results. Franklin is doing it with the same players he inherited. It’s remarkable, and he doesn’t get enough credit for what he’s doing.
Even though the Dores started slow at 2-4, they are winners of their last three. Vandy has never been to back-to-back bowl games in the history of the program, and James Franklin will be the man to lead that charge.
Hugh Freeze, much like Franklin, inherited a hornet’s nest in Oxford in taking over Houston Nutt’s 2-10 dumpster fire, but he’s given his team, program and fan base an identity. There’s passion; there’s enthusiasm, something that has been absent in their 16-game SEC losing streak. It’s debatable, but it’s not out of the question that Hugh Freeze could win the SEC Coach of the Year. I think he would have to win out to receive the award, beating both LSU and Mississippi State. That’s a tall task.
Freeze’s fast-forward offense gave Alabama their second toughest game. The Rebels are averaging nearly 30 points per game and have scored 269 total points in nine games, compared to just 193 total for all of last year. Ole Miss averaged just 64 plays per game in 2011, and they are averaging 70 per game this season, as well as 127 yards of total offense more per game. And he’s doing it with the same roster outside of the quarterback.
Saturday will tell us which one of these two teams is ready to take that next step. The winner becomes bowl eligible first, and both programs are virtually on the same track with great young head coaches who are doing work and making some noise in the process.
It’s apparent both programs are on the rise and have the coaches in charge to get them to where they want to be, but which team is on the faster track? We’ll find out Saturday night.
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