Vanderbilt Focused on Wins, not Bowl
By Matt Smith
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James Franklin has his sights set on winning an SEC East title at Vanderbilt, a goal that will require far more than just six wins to reach.
Following his team’s 40-0 shutout of Kentucky on Saturday to improve to 5-4 on the season, Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin was asked about the possibility of the Commodores clinching a second straight bowl appearance this weekend when they travel to Ole Miss.
With no hesitation, Franklin turned to his director of media relations, Larry Leathers, and asked about what lied ahead for his team.
“Larry, who do we play next week?” Franklin asked.
“We play Ole Miss, Coach,” Leathers responded.
“I had no idea,” Franklin said. “Ole Miss you said? We’ll start working on Ole Miss tomorrow morning.”
This isn’t the first time this season that Leathers has been asked to “inform” Franklin of his upcoming opponent. While Franklin won’t win an Oscar for his perceived lack of knowledge of the team’s schedule, he has established a mindset within the program that going 1-0 each week is the only goal. What has already happened and what could happen later are irrelevant.
Keeping his team focused on that goal will never be tougher than it is this week. After three straight wins, the Commodores now need just one win in their final three games to become bowl-eligible. Vanderbilt has only played in five bowl games in its history, never in consecutive years. The Commodores lost to Cincinnati, 31-24, in the 2011 Liberty Bowl.
If saying the words “Tennessee” and “Wake Forest”, the team’s two remaining opponents following Ole Miss, is taboo in the locker room, then so is the word “bowl,” as a potential 13th game would not come for at least a month after the regular season ends. Franklin again refused to take the bait during his weekly Monday press conference, pleading ignorance to a potential “opportunity” for his team in late December or early January.
“At the end of the year, if people tell us we have the opportunity to go play for something, we'll go play it,” Franklin said. “Last year, the season was over after Wake Forest. The season was over. They scheduled us another game in Memphis called a bowl, so we talked about it at that time.”
For Vanderbilt, this week is not about becoming 6-4 since the start of the season, it’s about becoming 1-0 since Sunday.
“We want to be 1-0 this week, just like every other week,” Franklin explained. “Any other significance doesn't matter. They're all big games. Every week is like the Super Bowl for us, whether it's conference, non-conference, at home or on the road. There isn't any other significance.”
His players have clearly bought in to the mentality, at least when speaking to the media.
“Honestly, we’re just trying to be 1-0 this week,” said sophomore wide receiver Chris Boyd. “Obviously we’re trying to win as many games as we can. [Ole Miss] is another SEC game, so it’s important.”
Senior defensive tackle Rob Lohr joked Monday that the only context he knows for the word “bowl” is as an eating mechanism.
“I had a bowl of cereal this morning,” said Lohr, when asked to at least mention the word. “It’s a 0-0 mentality going into each week. We’re going into Ole Miss 0-0 and trying to come out 1-0 and move on to the next one. It’s pretty easy to buy in when you’re winning.”
Credit the team for its short-term focus. In a world where bowl projections begin in July and are discussed weekly, it’s easy to hone in on six wins as the make-or-break number to a successful season for programs like Vanderbilt who aren’t perennial SEC or national title contenders.
Perhaps, six wins aren’t good enough anymore. Franklin has his sights set on winning an SEC East title at Vanderbilt, a goal that will require far more than just six wins to reach.
Whether or not the not-to-be-uttered word will come out on Saturday night in Oxford should the Commodores defeat Ole Miss to reach the six-win plateau remains to be seen. When Franklin addresses the media outside of the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium visitors’ locker room, there is only one certainty. Someone will have to tell him his team plays Tennessee next week.