For decades, Vanderbilt was a football lightweight.
Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin has changed the attitude surrounding the program. Last year, the Commodores had their first nine-win season in nearly a century.
The Commodores were the whipping boys of the Southeast and frequently found themselves on the wrong side of brutal beat downs. A charter member of the Southeastern Conference, Vanderbilt had a hard time competing with the big kids in the neighborhood and only had four winning seasons between 1960 and 2000.
It was an accepted fact among college football fans: Southern schools like Vanderbilt and Duke would produce high-caliber graduates and patiently wait until basketball season to make an impression. Football was for the state schools, which had more fans, resources and recruiting clout. The smart kids could come by on Saturday, but most of the time they left with a black eye and without their lunch money.
James Franklin has taught Vanderbilt how to punch back.
The Commodores had their first nine-win season since 1915 last year, and they did so behind one of the best defenses in the country. After suffering a 31-17 loss at the hands of Florida, Vanderbilt won seven games in a row and crushed several opponents – including UMass – on their unprecedented path.
Recruits have been paying attention, and Vanderbilt's 2013 class was one of the top 30 in the country. Zach Cunningham, a four-star outside linebacker from Alabama, chose Vandy over offers from Auburn, Oregon and the Crimson Tide. That's right: Vanderbilt out-recruited 'Bama in its own backyard.
The Commodores quite literally had the best 12 months in school history. It was going to be a tough act to follow.
Franklin's gang has had a slow start to the 2013 season and suffered losses to Ole Miss and South Carolina. The 39-35 loss to Mississippi was tough to swallow. It was Vandy's home opener, and the visitors scored the game winner on a 75-yard run with a little more than a minute remaining.
After the game, Franklin made an impassioned speech, which showed the college football world why his players would run through walls for him.
There's no doubt that Vanderbilt is still a team of underdogs – relatively speaking, of course. The Commodores don't yet have the same blue-chip athletes as their conference mates, and they still make a living by playing tough, or “Anchoring Down,” as Franklin likes to say.
Vandy's offense is led by Jordan Matthews, who is on the cusp of being the program's all-time leading receiver. As a junior, Matthews had a school-record 1,323 yards and eight touchdowns. He is on pace to have another spectacular season with nearly 400 yards in just three games. There were concerns that he and quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels wouldn't be on the same page in their first year together. That hasn't been a problem.
Franklin is using Wesley Tate and Jerron Seymour to pace Vanderbilt's two-man rushing attack. Both have been adequate, but the Commodores are going to need more on the ground if they want to expose SEC defenses. The offensive line has done its job, and star left tackle Wesley Johnson looks poised for a big senior year.
The defense has gotten pushed around a bit, but with six returning starters it should start to jell. The secondary is Vandy's strength, and Kenny Ladler is the unit's leader. Ladley led the team with 90 tackles and had two interceptions. UMass fans will be happy to hear that Tre Wilson graduated. He had a pick-six against the Minutemen in Vandy's lopsided 49-7 victory.
At linebacker, the Commodores bring back Chase Garnham, who led the deam with seven sacks in 2012. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound athlete is a handful for opposing defenses and plays linebacker the way Mike Alstott used to play running back. Walker May has the most experience on the line and plays tough off the edge.
Senior Casey Spear is an adequate kicker, and Taylor Hudson won the fall camp punting competition.
Things seem to be going in the right direction down in Nashville. With Franklin at the helm, the Commodores are no longer a doormat in the SEC.
However, in an area still dominated by state schools bankrolled by good-'ole-boys, repeating last year's performance will be tough.