So far, the best case scenario has played itself out. Three winnable games, three Commodore wins.
Now, James Franklin can prove he's for real Saturday night in Columbia.
Vanderbilt will face their first road game of 2011 when they travel to Williams-Brice Stadium and face the undefeated Gamecocks. South Carolina has won their first three games, most recently squeezing by Georgia and Navy in their past two matchups by a combined six points. Vandy, on the other hand, is coming off their largest SEC win since 1971 after pasting Ole Miss 30-7.
While the momentum may be in the Commodores' favor, they're still facing a steep challenge. They're more than a two-touchdown underdog according to most sportsbooks. While their undefeated record is a nice story, it will take more than a pair of wins against teams that won't be sniffing a bowl game in 2011 to convince the general public that this team is for real.
In Vanderbilt country, the phrase "moral victory" has been worn down to the point where it doesn't carry much meaning anymore. While some losses can inspire a team to new heights, some of Vandy's most painful defeats have been notable for just hanging over a season. In Nashville, heartbreaking losses aren't just tough on the fans - they seem to break the players as well. Tough defeats in 2010 to Northwestern and UConn set the tone for a dismal season under Robbie Caldwell. Letdown losses to Tennessee have paved the way for listless defeats to Wake Forest in 2007 and 2008.
The 'Dores are facing a similarly steep test against the Gamecocks. They have an all-world running back and an offensive line the likes of which Vandy hasn't seen in 2011. Vanderbilt and his team can win this game, but the odds suggest that they won't. And that's fine. Because we may learn more about James Franklin's abilities as head coach in a loss than in a win.
Part of the Vanderbilt culture that Franklin is working so hard to change is dealing with these defeats. Players and fans alike appear content to accept their beatings and lower their expectations for the next time out. By the time the season is wrapping up, the only matchup that the Commodore faithful can seem to muster any hope for is the Tennessee game.
If the 'Dores lose Saturday, it will put Franklin's motivation and commitment to the test. He'll have to keep morale high and refuse to allow anyone - redshirt freshmen, season ticket holders, local talk radio producers - to drop their expectations for this team. He'll have to maintain that level of intensity that has risen steadily at Dudley Field all the way until January.
Losses are going to happen with this team - that's unavoidable - but to truly turn things around in Nashville, he'll have to have this team and their fans as excited after a three-game losing streak as they were during a three-game winning streak. If that can't happen, then he'll lose a big part of what he's built so far in nine short months at Vandy.
James Franklin can prove this weekend that there is such a thing as a moral victory for Vanderbilt. If he has his way, he won't have to.
Predictions are after the jump...
Train Island: South Carolina has been tested the past two weeks against a pair of underrated opponents. Coach Ken's teams at Navy have proven to be a perennial top 50 squad, while the Georgia Bulldogs aren't nearly as bad as their 1-2 record suggest. It's likely that both squads will end up in the top 25 this season, boosting SC's profile for the computers to note.
Vanderbilt's early slate is working in the opposite direction. Ole Miss looks like they could end up with the worst record in the SEC this year, and UConn is destined to struggle while Paul Pasqualoni continues to exclusively use the "Ask Corso" button to call his plays this season. The combination of these two factors may mean that Vandy's shot at an upset could be overblown - but if that's the case, no one said anything about it to the bookmakers. They seem convinced that the 'Dores are going to get rocked in their first road game of 2011.
South Carolina should have a simple game plan built up for this matchup - pound the ball with Marcus Lattimore and limit the stupid mistakes that Stephen Garcia can make. If Lattimore continues his Heisman-esque pace, then the Gamecocks should win this game. If they're forced to throw the ball and the 2011 version of Garcia shovels more dirt on the 2008-2010 version that we came to know and love (he's like a big drunk moose out there!), then Vanderbilt is going to have a very real chance to win this game. South Carolina fans must be looking at Garcia's recent performances, then glancing at Vandy's 10 interceptions this season and sweating.
However, it won't all be on the defense Saturday night. Vandy's offense will have to play mistake-free - something that can be tricky when 50 percent of your playbook relies on gimmicks. Franklin and his crew will have to continue to pull illusions out of their bag in order to keep SC on their toes. If they can string together three touchdowns on offense, they can win this game. If not, then it will take a monumental effort from the team's heralded D to make this work.
My head says South Carolina, but after watching this defense last week, I can't deny my gut...
TI's Pick: Vanderbilt 27, South Carolina 22
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Florida Atlantic over Auburn. HOWARD SCHNELLENBERGER ISN'T GOING OUT LIKE THAT.
Or West Virginia over LSU. Tough week for upset picks in the SEC.
KingJamesIV: So apparently picking Vanderbilt to win every single game is a thing now. And a legitimate one at that (at least at this point). The Commodore secondary is clearly in early-season beastmode form, which is enabling DC Bob Shoop to commit more heavily to stopping the run. South Carolina kind of likes to use Marcus Lattimore heavily for some reason. If the Commodores can limit Lattimore, a tall task, it will tempt Spurrier to turn to the arm of Stephen Garcia. Though Garcia has had some success against the Commodores in the past, he has a history of making mistakes that could play to one of the Commodores nation-leading strengths.
I definitely agree with TI on this. South Carolina is the much better team on paper. Clearly. The Gamecocks aren't ranked tenth in the nation by chance. But...
KJIV's Pick: Vanderbilt 31, South Carolina 28
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Ole Miss over Georgia or Arkansas over Bama? Ole Miss over Georgia. Until proven wrong, Bama and LSU are the cream of the crop. Arkansas is good, but beating the tide at home is a tall task. I have no idea how good or bad Georgia is at this point, so Ole Miss at home is the pick.
SectFRow1Seat30: Opening Line: 18.5. Current Line: 15.5. O/U: 49. Indictions: NO RESPECT.
If you haven't already bet this game, you aren't paying attention. If you're looking for a parlay, though it is no fun, I'd go with Commies and the Under. Also, we're going bowling this year. Don't believe? Watch this.
SectFRow1Seat30's Pick: Commies 24 Cocks 21.
Upset Pick of the Week: Rebels over the Dawgs. It's a war for their coaches' jobs, but I like Nutt over Richt.