Sure, James Franklin likes to say that the most important game is the one we’re playing this week. But today’s Army game is hugely important.
Vandy fans are already talking about making bowl plans and even extending Franklin’s contract to prevent him from jumping ship. Hopefully, we’ll be doing those things soon. But let’s don’t jump to conclusions.
While we’re excited about Franklin’s recruiting abilities and his helicopter and his postgame speeches about never backing down, it’s important to remember that this team hasn’t arrived yet. At this point, Franklin hasn’t done anything on the field that hasn’t been done in the past 10 years.
Bobby Johnson improved our talent base considerably and took us to wins over Top 10 teams and a bowl victory. Franklin’s Hail Mary recruiting class of last February was nothing short of stupendous, and he’s already gotten verbal commitments from seven four-star recruits for next year’s class. So far so good.
Franklin started 3-0, beating Elon, UConn and Ole Miss. We should have beaten Elon, we expected to beat UConn and got tons of help from their weak quarterback, and then we soundly beat Ole Miss, building on what Robbie Caldwell and his staff did last year.
Then we got worn down by South Carolina (Bobby Johnson beat ranked Gamecocks teams twice) and Alabama (George MacIntyre beat the Bear and Watson Brown took Bama to the wire twice), and then dang near beat Georgia (something Johnson did in Athens and Gerry DiNardo did twice in his four years at VU).
But here’s something Franklin could do that no Vandy coach in the modern era has ever done: Go 4-0 in out-of-conference play.
We’ve played a four-game OOC schedule seven times in the last nine years as we were phasing into a 12-game schedule:
2010: Beat Eastern Michigan; lost to Northwestern, UConn and Wake Forest
2009: Beat Western Carolina and Rice; lost to Army and Georgia Tech
2008: Beat Miami-Ohio and Rice; lost to Duke and Wake Forest
2007: Beat Richmond, Eastern Michigan and Miami-Ohio; lost to Wake Forest
2006: Beat Tennessee State, Temple and Duke; lost to Michigan
2005*: Three opponents (Beat Wake Forest and Richmond; lost to MTSU)
2004*: Three opponents (Beat Eastern Kentucky; lost to Navy and Rutgers)
2003: Beat Chattanooga; lost to TCU, Georgia Tech and Navy
2002: Beat Furman and UConn; lost to Georgia Tech and MTSU
(In case you’re wondering, before the advent of the 12-game season Woody Widenhofer did go undefeated against out-of-conference opponents in 1999, beating Northern Illinois, Duke and the Citadel.)
Of course, we’re all painfully aware that we’d have gone to a bowl in 2005 if we’d beaten MTSU. That was the biggest knock on Bobby Johnson. He wanted to overpower people. When he was overpowered in 2005, he figured out a way to outsmart and outlast Wake Forest, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Tennessee and nearly Florida. In 2008, his Commodores outsmarted and outlasted South Carolina, Ole Miss, Auburn, Kentucky and even the rare scary Rice team.
But when he was favored to win, Johnson went conservative and got outsmarted and outlasted, by MTSU in 2005 and by Duke in 2008.
While wary of our past history against underdog opponents and particularly service academies, we’re excited about this Vandy team because so far it seems like Franklin plays to win instead of playing not to lose.
Our narrow loss to Georgia was not a rarity by any means, but it was unusual because of how we almost won. We didn’t take a huge lead and then blow it in the fourth quarter with a bone-headed fake punt or a fumble. No, we were getting manhandled, and Franklin somehow figured out a way to take control of the game. Though losing to UGA by five points wasn’t unusual, the difference is that Vandy fans were saying “Wow” and Georgia fans were stunned, as opposed to everybody in the stadium joining in a chorus of “Same Old Vandy.”
So we’re excited about our coach and our team. But he hasn’t done anything yet. It’ll be fun to watch him do it.
And does Franklin really have to go 4-0 against OOC opponents this year? No. Victories over Army, Kentucky and Tennessee and the resulting bowl berth would soothe the pain if we happened to lose our last game, on the road, to what’s shaping up to be another rock-solid Wake Forest team.
But right now, he absolutely must beat Army, which is no easy task. Vandy fans still feel the sting of the recent loss at West Point, and we also remember the time a quarterback who really wanted a Vanderbilt scholarship (Mike Bath at Miami-Ohio) led his team to a stunning upset in Nashville. Trent Steeleman, the Army QB who grew up in nearby Bowling Green, Ky., and otherwise known as the Man We Could Not Tackle, would like nothing more than to stick it to us tonight.
Here’s what I’d really like to see Franklin do: Make Vandy fans forget our past history. It could happen, but it’ll take some time.