Tonight's Northwestern game will be James Franklin's 15th as a head coach, and it's the closest thing yet he's had to a must-win game.
You could argue that last season's Wake Forest game was a must-win because we needed a sixth win to become bowl eligible. But Franklin already had one more victory than the two previous seasons combined, and he'd secured a positive job evaluation and was building a solid recruiting base. A bowl berth was icing on the cake, but he didn't need it to show he was doing a good job. What he really needs is to show improvement year over year, and now the bar is raised to seven wins.
To get there, conventional wisdom says he must do what he did last season — win all four non-conference games and two SEC games — and then win the bowl game.
With the Presbyterian Blue Hose coming to Nashville next week, UMass entering its first season in the FBS, and Wake Forest squeaking by Liberty 20-17 last week, Northwestern appears by far to be Vandy's toughest non-conference opponent.
Northwestern can beat Vandy. The Wildcats have solid talent, great coaching and they have a way of winning close games regardless of the opponent, something we're still working on.
Right now, Vandy fans are talking about seven or eight wins. We're taking for granted that we beat Kentucky and Ole Miss as we did last year, and that we beat Northwestern and the other three non-cons. And then, because we had so many SEC teams on the ropes last year, we figure we'll get over the hump and beat one or two of our opponents ranked ahead of us in the current polls (including votes received): Georgia, Florida, Auburn, Missouri and Tennessee. (Thank God we don't play LSU, Alabama or Arkansas.)
Picking up these wins is not impossible. We believe those wins will come. But we need them to build on a 4-0 non-conference record and help us move up in the bowl pecking order. And with Texas A&M and Missouri joining the conference, we may need seven wins to even get a bowl bid. Do you really think bowl selection committees are going to take a 6-6 Vandy over a 6-6 Tennessee, 6-6 Florida or 6-6 Auburn, even if we beat them head to head?
Losing to Northwestern puts us in the position of needing one of those signature SEC upsets just to get six wins and then maybe needing another one just to get a bowl bid.
I believe we win tonight, and when we look back on the season, the Northwestern game will be like last year's UConn game, one we had to dig deep to win, and one that enabled us to gain the momentum and confidence we needed to accomplish our goals.
Let's say Vandy 31, Northwestern 27.