If James Franklin gets Vanderbilt to a bowl game in his first year - without players he has recruited, with an almost entirely new staff, and coming off a pair of 2-10 seasons - would he be the most impressive rookie coach the Commodores have had in the modern era? Hell, would he be their most impressive coach, period?
That's the question in mind after Vanderbilt rolled over Kentucky on Senior Day to improve to 5-5 and bolster Franklin's credentials in the 2011 SEC Coach of the Year race. The Commodores steamrolled the Wildcats early, running out to a 31-0 lead by the third quarter and posting their largest conference win in 40 years. The team made Maxwell Smith look like a true freshman behind center and used a balanced offensive attack in the 38-8 triumph.
More importantly, the victory put the 'Dores just one win from bowl eligibility with two games left to play. Both games are winnable contests, too - trips to Tennessee and Wake Forest aren't the daunting challenge that matchups against Alabama and Arkansas were. The Commodores will have a chance to finish 7-5 on the season and record up to five wins against teams from BCS conferences. While games with Elon and Army have helped pad the team's record, Vanderbilt has proven time and again that they can not only compete with the NCAA's top programs, but also win.
That brings us back to Franklin. His impact in 2011 has been easy to see. He inherited players that had combined for four wins in the past two years and instilled the mindset that Vanderbilt is a doormat for no team. This attitude was on display in a game that had all the makings of a classic Vandy disappointment against UConn. Dumb mistakes turned a Vandy lead into a deficit in the second half, hitting the point where the teams of 2009 and 2010 would have turtled up and waited out the clock.
Not this year. The defense picked up the offense and individual performances from guys like Casey Hayward and Zac Stacy lifted the team to victory. The 'Dores hit a turning point that game, rallying to win a game where they had already sealed "moral victory" status. From that point on, this team showed off a new era of swagger and attitude - just feeling good about competing wasn't enough. This mindset has been the stark difference between 2010 and 2011.
It was there against Florida, where Franklin's players were outclassed by better athletes but fell a few tough calls away from overtime or better against the Gators. It was there against Ole Miss and Kentucky, were the 'Dores played above the level of their competition rather than down to it and put together big statement wins. It was there in close shaves against Georgia and Arkansas, a pair of games where luck deserted the team but failed to affect this team's confidence levels.
His staff turned a patchwork offensive line that seemingly only existed in Larry Smith's nightmares and turned them into a unit that can go multiple games in SEC play without giving up a sack. They helped develop the trio of Zac Stacy, Jordan Matthews, and Jordan Rodgers from platoon players to potential All-SEC candidates on offense. They inserted no fewer than three inexperienced linebackers alongside Chris Marve yet still made the position one of the team's strengths on defense.
In fact, Franklin was able to take a team with one real asset - a strong secondary - and turn them into a well-rounded unit who has had the chance to realistically win all but two games this season. If the Commodores can defeat Tennessee in Knoxville this Saturday, Franklin's stock will climb to new heights. He'll probably get his own DVD and t-shirts commemorating the season. However, his work, if truly successful, won't be in how many wins the 'Dores finish with in 2011, but in how far this team's players and fans have gone to reverse Vanderbilt's apathetic football culture.
So far, the team has been all-in. If they beat UT, the fans will follow.
(Good/Bad Analysis and the PiBB ICE Player of the Week are coming in a separate piece this week, so hold tight.)