13-11. That is Vanderbilt ‘s record under James Franklin as the Commodores get set to face Wake Forrest to finish the regular season on Saturday. That record would have you on the hot seat in certain SEC circles, but at Vanderbilt it’s simply hot. During the current five game winning streak, Franklin has begun several press conferences listing some of the precedent setting achievements of his team. Among the more notable stats:
1. First 5 win season in SEC play since 1935
2. First back to back bowl teams in Vanderbilt History
3. 4 SEC wins of 23 or more points in Franklin’s two seasons. From 1957-2010, Vanderbilt had 4 such wins.
I could go on. But what Franklin mentions is that he hopes to get to a point where the program will get beyond such announcements. He has higher aspirations despite his unwillingness during the season to discuss anything beyond the next opponent. In a recent conversation with Vanderbilt play by play man Joe Fisher prior to the Tennessee game he referenced “that win total (6) everyone keeps referring to” as not some sort of magic number, but instead “the minimum”. To his credit, this has been his mindset from the start. He stated the same thing the day he took the podium and addressed the media for the first time after accepting the job.
So now that Franklin has taken the first major step, what is the next step? Can this level of success be sustained? Is there another level?
Despite the fact that Vanderbilt was 4-20 in the two years leading up to Franklin’s tenure, the cupboard wasn’t as bare as it seems. In the aftermath of Bobby Johnson’s breakthrough year of 2008, he was able to string together some decent talent that has made up the solid veteran core of Franklin’s two teams. All but 4 of the 26 players Vanderbilt lists as starters on this week’s depth chart (including Kicker and Punter) are either 3rd, 4th, or 5th year players recruited by Johnson. That group includes the school’s all-time leading rusher in Zac Stacy, and a pair of first rate WR’s Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.
Franklin and his staff deserve a ton of credit for instilling confidence and developing this group- it has truly been remarkable to observe. But give Johnson an assist for leaving him an experienced core to work with.
Another factor that has helped generate early success is the makeup of Vanderbilt’s schedule. The relative slippage of yearly league opponents Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Tennessee has at least helped Vanderbilt go a combined 5-1 against them these two years. Depending on how Missouri and Ole Miss finish the season, there is a distinct possibility that Franklin will enter his second bowl game without a win over a team finishing the season with a winning record (The ’08 team alone had 5 such wins). But again, full marks to Franklin who has positioned his team to take full advantage of this, where dozens of Vanderbilt teams of the past could not have.
So given these circumstances, can Vanderbilt sustain and build on this foundation? Here is what Franklin has going for him:
1. Schedule: Franklin has wisely altered the schedule to increase the number of winnable non-conference games. Next year the Dores will have a home game with Wake Forrest, which on paper represents the toughest non-conference game they will play. They also have home conference games with Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Missouri. As Franklin often points out, unless you are playing for a national championship, there is no bonus for strength of schedule.
2. Veterans Returning: While Vanderbilt will lose several key seniors such as Stacy, there is a strong group of Juniors and redshirt sophs that will keep the squad with solid experience and leadership. This core includes Matthews, Boyd, OL leader Wesley Johnson, LB’s Chase Garnham and Karl Butler, and DE Walker May.
3. Recruiting: It’s no secret Franklin has created amazing energy around the program never seen before. He is getting interest from a higher level player than his predecessors. Any recruiting rankings you look at will reflect this. Already he has been able to work in several of his young recruits without having to rely on them too heavily. RB Brian Kimbrough, TE Kris Kentera, WR Josh Grady, and LB Jake Sealand would be a few examples.
4. Competitiveness: Despite lacking a signature win to this point, Vanderbilt under Franklin has played toe to toe with the best in the conference more consistently than past Commodore teams. Close battles with top ten teams such as South Carolina and Florida this year/Georgia & Arkansas last year are more common than this year’s debacle in Athens.
5. Statistical Advancements: This may illustrate the advances in the program more than the wins themselves. For example this year’s offense is scoring 27 points per game, which is the highest in the last 40 years with the exception of Jay Cutler’s senior season of 2005. The defense has allowed just 18 ppg, which is the lowest since the Peach Bowl squad of 1974. It’s not a fluke that the Commodores are winning. The stats back it up.
All of these factors are providing momentum for Franklin to keep advancing the level of the program. The ultra-competitive SEC will always make it tough, but every year Franklin can be successful makes the next one easier to achieve, and therefore easier to get the attention of top rated talent that Franklin is so adept at recruiting. It doesn’t guarantee success, but the perception of the program is changing.
An often asked question is whether Vanderbilt can keep James Franklin. He may indeed have other opportunities to go elsewhere- maybe even at the conclusion of this season. But the elements are there for him see the challenge through here in Nashville. He has an administration that is putting a high level of resources behind him. He has momentum. He believes there is another level where a 6 win season is seen as the minimum and not the holy grail. Consistent 6-9 win seasons would be an amazing achievement over a 5-7 year period at a school like Vanderbilt playing in a league like the SEC. Whether anyone can get it to a level beyond that is hard to answer. Is that good enough for James Franklin to see it through at Vanderbilt, or does he want a different challenge? We’ll see. But for Vanderbilt fans, this is a good dilemma.