James Franklin is quick to deflect expectations for his team beyond the the matchup they'll deal with on Saturday. Should fans do the same, or is it time to invest heavily in this Commodore team?
A man's gotta have a code. James Franklin's, clearly, is "one game at a time."
It's a mantra that we've heard from the coach since he stepped foot in Nashville 20 months ago. Franklin and his crew have refused to look past any opponents or to let outside influences derail their rebuilding project on West End. This philosophy has helped the team bounce back from crushing defeats and rally for key wins during the increasingly optimistic opening years of the Franklin era.
It's a #BrandNewVandy, and that means taking things one game at a time.
That's great for the players and the staff - but what about the fans? Is it fair for Vanderbilt supporters to look at their team's schedule and start prognosticating? Will the optimism that accompanied last year's Liberty Bowl bid transform into a culture of higher expectations now that 2012 is upon us? Most importantly, does Franklin's instant success and work on the recruiting trail mean the end of carefully managed disappointment as a Commodore fan?
That last part has been a defining characteristic of the Vandy fanbase for so long that some of us wouldn't know what to do without it. Those tempered expectations are what keep us from falling apart when a fumble at midfield allows Georgia to escape Dudley Field with a win. That lingering sense of disappointment gives us the ability to laugh it off when game-tying field goals get shanked into the bleachers. For the past five decades, being a Commodore fan meant being able to shrug off the bad just to get by. It was a necessary evolution when Vanderbilt failed to grow with the SEC around it.
But it's also what keeps us from expecting greatness from this team - from our team.
Despite a six-win season, a lineup stocked with returning starters, and one of the most talented top-to-bottom rosters in school history, some fans are refusing to place expectations on this team. Between Franklin's measured approach and the overhanging spectre of crushing defeat that has followed this team for decades, black-and-gold diehards are caught in a trap when it comes to evaluating their own team. The risk of seeing this team go into the tank is still great enough to anchor those expectations to the lower tier of the SEC. After all, you can't be too disappointed if you don't expect more than four wins.
This creates a foreign problem for Vanderbilt football fans now that this staff is finally pulling it together; when can we actually be confident in this team? The past hasn't exactly been kind to supporters in that regard. When Bobby Johnson's 2008 team rode turnover margins to the Music City Bowl it took just one season to the 'Dores to return to their 2-10 roots. Even the Gerry DiNardo era, the high water mark of a 15-year span through the 90s, topped out at five wins per season and crashed back down to earth once DiNardo was poached by LSU.
If it happened then, it can happen again. Simply put, there is no era of sustained greatness for Vanderbilt football. Even sustained "averageness" would be a stretch. This team has been terrible for much longer in the modern era than they have been respectable.
2012 will be different.
This Commodore team finished 6-7 on the heels of decisive wins and tough losses. In 2008, this team rode excellent timing and some outright luck to earn a postseason bid. In 2011, that luck swung back in their faces and this team still managed to roll all the way to a bowl bid. That same team, minus a few key defensive players, will return in 2012. They'll be joined by some of the brightest prospects to ever wear a Vandy cap on Signing Day.
So Franklin will continue to keep preaching his one-game-at-a-time approach, and it will continue to work wonders for a team that had fragile levels of confidence when he got here less than two years ago. That method will work with the fans, too - especially in the midst of a tough season-opening schedule that is bound to incur a few losses. But it will also keep them from getting the most out of their team during a rare sunny patch in the tragic history of Vanderbilt football.
I'll write it now, and I'll write it because it's not anything that I thought I'd be writing about Vanderbilt football in 2012; anything less than a bowl bid this year will be a disappointment. You want all-in? There it is, plain and simple. I'll be behind this team no matter what, but a five-win season will ultimately be the mark of an underachieving squad. These players are better than that, and the fans that have been there through Pancoast and Widenhofer's reigns deserve more.
If this truly is a #BrandNewVandy, then we need to start treating it like one. That means throwing caution to the wind and buying in like never before. You know, like those fans in Tuscaloosa and Oxford and hell, even Knoxville do. This is a team unlike any other we've had at Dudley Field before; one that will compete in the SEC and turn heads while doing so. Nashville is finally getting its SEC football program. It's our duty to support that, and to enjoy the experience along the way, just like every other die-hard that has turned college football into a religion in the south.
As football fans, we've earned that. As Vanderbilt fans, it's about damn time.