A past filled with bowl-less Decembers is no reason to accept mediocrity in the golden age of Commodore football. Vanderbilt fans can be angry with a BBVA Compass Bowl pairing at the same time they're grateful for a postseason appearance.
Birmingham is no college football fan's idea of a dream destination. Vanderbilt finished in a tie for the sixth best overall record in the SEC but ended up dead last when bowl suitors came calling this winter. The Commodores could have risen as high as the Gator or
Peach Chick-Fil-A Bowls after their second straight 8-4 regular season. They joined Auburn and South Carolina as the only teams in the SEC to rally through November without a loss. And yet, when bowl selection Sunday got underway this team was resigned to the Compass Bowl - better known to most as "that bowl that Pitt usually plays in."
The Gator Bowl chose Georgia, a team that this Commodore team beat earlier in the fall, but who also finished with one more conference win than Vanderbilt in 2013. The Chick-Fil-A Bowl chose Texas A&M, a team with the same record as Vandy but also with a decisive head-to-head victory over the 'Dores and one of the most electrifying players in college football behind center. Those were longshots for James Franklin's team, but they were still real opportunities. That's not the frustrating part.
With those prime landing spots filled, some familiar destinations - and familiar matchups - still loomed. The Music City Bowl decided it was sick of a fanbase that would sell seats but not hotel rooms. Administrators there chose a 7-5 Ole Miss team over the Commodores to play Georgia Tech on December 30th. Those same Rebels beat Vandy in one of the best football games of the 2013 season way back in August, so it's easy to forgive the MCB's decision to pass on bringing Franklin back to LP Field.
Then the Liberty Bowl, home of Vanderbilt's last postseason loss, decided that the 2011 crowd of 57,000 fans dressed mostly in black and gold wasn't the look they were going for in 2013. They chose 6-6 Mississippi State over an 8-4 Vandy team to face Rice on New Year's Eve. While the Bulldogs lost only to high-profile teams in 2013, they still finished a full two games behind the Commodores - and leapfrogged them in the bowl pecking order once their Egg Bowl upset of Ole Miss was complete.
Then, finally, the BBVA Compass Bowl was resigned to taking Vanderbilt by virtue of having the last pick of conference teams. But probably not before calling up Tennessee and Florida first, just to make sure they couldn't make it.
There's no doubt about it. The bowl selection committees viewed this team as the "Same Old Vandy" despite nine SEC wins over the past two seasons in Nashville. The stigma that this team's fans won't travel - even when the game in question is within driving distance - persists despite the team's track record of quickly selling out their allotted tickets in both 2011 and 2012. Whether its thanks to team's slow starts or the image of half-full stands for games against Wake Forest and Kentucky, there's very little belief outside of Nashville that this is now an upper-tier SEC program. And that's why Vanderbilt is headed to Birmingham for an afterthought bowl game that takes place after the bulk of the BCS games are finished.
Getting mad about that isn't being ungrateful. It's buying into the Brand New Vandy.
Vanderbilt is beyond the era of just being happy to be in a bowl. This team has grown exponentially since the days when Brett Upson was a credible postseason MVP candidate. This is a Commodore team that has turned the "almosts" and the "oh nos" of the past into wins in the SEC and beyond. Vandy has gone from doormat to contender and risen to the center of the country's toughest football conference in the process. Despite that progress - and despite a 9-7 record in SEC play since 2012 - this team has fallen in the bowl order from that exciting, unlikely 2008 MCB appearance.
Vanderbilt fans are grateful. We are indebted to James Franklin, who turned this team around. We are indebted to Bobby Johnson, who put the pieces in place for tremendous growth in Nashville. We are indebted to players like Jordan Matthews, Chase Garnham, Carey Spear, Zac Stacy, Casey Hayward, and everyone else who made being a Commodore fan fun again.
But we aren't indebted to the BBVA Compass Bowl. We owe nothing to the selection committees that overlooked the fire behind this fanbase or the venue that was essentially obligated to take Vanderbilt. And when Vandy fans descend on Birmingham, it's not because we're honored by the postseason process. It's because we want to see this team beat Houston. We want to send players like Matthews, Garnham, Spear, and Kenny Ladler out by reflecting the passion that they gave us on the field. We want to show every other bowl out there that any myths about Vanderbilt's fan base not traveling for the postseason were just that - myths.
So be mad about being shafted by the bowl committee. Embrace the fact that falling to the bottom of the pecking order was a total slight against this team and its fanbase. But don't let that overshadow this team's January 4th matchup or the work that's being done on the field in Nashville. Be grateful - but be angry, too.