Franklin, ‘Dores Continue to Turn Heads
By Matt Smith
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The Commodores got a taste of on-field success last year, winning six games and earning a bid to the Liberty Bowl
Vanderbilt had been little more than an afterthought in the SEC prior to last season, qualifying for just one bowl game in almost 30 years. However, new head coach James Franklin quickly changed the culture in the Commodores' program last season, even if it meant rubbing some of his players the wrong way.
“When we first met him we thought he was crazy, ” said senior cornerback Trey Wilson during SEC Media Days on Tuesday. “He came and implemented all this change. As you start seeing results and seeing how everybody’s performing, you start buying into it.”
Despite the toughest academic standards in the league, Franklin saw no need for the program to struggle in recruiting against the SEC powers.
“We have an unfair advantage,” Franklin said. “We have more things to sell than any school in the country. If you’re the best and the brightest, where else would you go? You live in a great town, and get early playing time. We want to build our own legacy. We don’t want to follow in somebody else’s.”
The Commodores got a taste of on-field success last year, winning six games and earning a bid to the Liberty Bowl. While most saw the strides made by the program as immaculate, Franklin feels it was just the proper amount of progress for a program that won just one SEC game over the previous two seasons.
“We probably had the right amount of success. We wet their appetite. They want more of it. We had just enough that our kids are really confident.”
While 6-7 might be the right amount, 9-4 wasn’t that far off. In games decided by one score or less, the Commodores went just 1-5. Senior quarterback Jordan Rodgers thinks the team can make the subtle changes necessary to turn those narrow losses into wins.
“We weren’t very consistent,” Rodgers said. “We had a long drive, a short drive, a three-and-out, and then a long play for a touchdown. We need to be more consistent over four quarters as an offense.”
Running back Zac Stacy agreed, with particular emphasis on the 31-28 loss to Arkansas that turned on his fumble near the goal line that was returned for a touchdown as the Commodores were about to take a two-score lead in the fourth quarter.
“Most of those losses were less than five points. That gave us confidence that we can compete with the Georgia's, LSU's and Florida's. Confidence leads to victories.”
While many opponents may have taken Vanderbilt lightly a year ago - understandable so given their lack of recent success - Franklin believes opposing teams now know that they’re in for a battle against the Commodores.
“We’re drawing the line in the sand and we’re ready to go,” Franklin declared. “What people realize is that when you play Vanderbilt, you better be ready for a fight. That’s our mentality. When you come into our stadium, you better be ready to play for 60 minutes.”
The first test comes in the first game of the 2012 college football season, a nationally televised Thursday night affair at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville against South Carolina. After being knocked out of the bowl loss with an injury, Rodgers can’t wait to get back on the field.
“It’s awesome. You can’t have a bigger stage than that, a bigger opportunity to show where we’re going as a program, in front of our fans. Aside from all the circumstances, we need a win because it’s an SEC East game. We want to start off the right way and get win.”
Franklin has pushed to turn what historically has been a weak home-field advantage into a difficult atmosphere for opposing teams, using Twitter and other media outlets to promote season ticket packages.
“We’re getting a brand new Jumbotron. We’re getting brand new lights. We’re getting brand new field turf. I don’t think there’s a program in the country that’s been able to do what we’ve done in 18 months [since Franklin’s hiring].”
What is the ceiling for the traditional SEC East bottom-feeder? Rodgers has his sights set high.
“Within our locker room, we have 100% confidence that we are going to compete for the SEC title. If you don’t you shouldn’t be playing the game.”
Confidence - the word that is more indicative of Franklin’s first year-and-a-half in Nashville than any other. Franklin has plenty of it, as do his players. That’s something that hasn’t always been the case at Vanderbilt, and for opponents, that’s a scary proposition.