A RENAISSANCE OF RESILIENCE:
VANDERBILT’S GOLDEN DAYS
It can indeed be difficult to describe what’s going on within the walls of Vanderbilt football these days. People in and around the Southeastern Conference might have different reasons for being speechless in the face of these decidedly novel autumnal occurrences.
Critics will say that Vanderbilt is playing badly injured opponents, that the Commodores have not beaten the SEC’s elite under quote-unquote “normal” circumstances. Yet, the obvious counter to that argument is that Vanderbilt has been playing with a backup quarterback, Patton Robinette, for much of the 2013 season. It was Robinette whose fake jump-pass vexed the Tennessee Volunteers inside Neyland Stadium, propelling Vanderbilt to an immensely delicious and important triumph over the Big Orange in their own lair.
VU head coach James Franklin wasn’t operating with a full complement of resources this past Saturday. Yet, his team defeated Butch Jones’s Vols, enabling Franklin to say on the recruiting trail that even though Tennessee his switched (and clearly upgraded) coaches, the Commodores still rule the roost in the state, by any reasonable measure. Tennessee hasn’t normally missed bowl games in its history, while Vanderbilt hasn’t normally reached college football’s postseason. However, for the third straight season, VU’s the team preparing for a bowl bash while UT will be sitting at home for the holidays.
Three years don’t serve as an adequate basis for the claim that a generational transformation of the Vanderbilt-Tennessee rivalry is occurring. However, a three-year period of success for Vanderbilt – when combined with three years of misery in Knoxville – certainly changes the calculus in the recruiting world and in these schools’ battle for bragging rights. The Commodores can now lay claim to the notion that they are calling the shots against Tennessee, that they are now the ascendant side in their in-state rivalry.
It is all so wildly intoxicating and mind-blowingly wondrous to behold: For once, Vanderbilt fans don’t just have one win over Tennessee to point to; no, they can now cite a two-game winning streak in the series, the consolidation of both momentum and superiority over and against the Vols. Winning this past Saturday in Neyland Stadium didn’t just bolster Vanderbilt’s standing and reputation in the SEC. The victory made it that much harder for Jones to say that his Tennessee project – for all the gains it appears to be making on the recruiting trail – is on schedule. Pulling off one upset in one season can be viewed as an aberrational event. When a team manages to defeat its foremost foe in consecutive years, perceptions and realities will change. Vanderbilt’s image has never been stronger since 1982 than it is right now. That’s not hyperbole – not when one realizes that this is the first time in over 30 years that VU has been able to back up one good season with another.
When VU won in Knoxville in 2005, the Commodore program didn’t reach a bowl game. Moreover, Vanderbilt wasn’t able to back up its 2005 season with something special in 2006. When Vanderbilt then made a bowl game in 2008, the program wasn’t able to reinforce that season with an equally impressive (or superior) showing in 2009 and 2010. However, VU has now been able to stack together three straight bowl-bearing seasons, two straight winning seasons, and two straight seasons with a win over Tennessee. The Commodores can also say that they are regularly beating Kentucky (formerly a nemesis during the Bobby Johnson days) and Wake Forest, meaning that they’re cleaning up in the month of November, the month that left this program at the altar over many decades.
The more one reflects on Saturday’s win in Knoxville, the more it becomes clear that the value of this takedown of Tennessee does not exist in relationship to the 2013 season – not entirely, at any rate. This victory is particularly significant because of the nature of its relationship to the 2012 campaign. Verily, this triumph over the Vols is so substantial because it has communicated a powerful truth to Vanderbilt and the rest of the SEC: Yes, this program can stack together strong performances against the same opponents, year after year after year.
A lapse-cum-regression into the realm of “Same Ol’ Vandy” – in terms of methods, attitudes, and results – is not happening. It doesn’t seem likely to happen, either. Kentucky and Tennessee appear likely to continue to struggle. Florida lives in very uncertain times. South Carolina will miss Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney next year. Georgia will deal with life in a post-Aaron Murray world. If Vanderbilt could go 7-4 (with a chance for nine wins) while not having all of its own resources available throughout a full regular season, this program should certainly be able to continue to make bowl games in the near future, given the unsettled state of the SEC as a whole.
It can be hard to find words for Vanderbilt’s rebirth for other reasons, too. Fans at rival programs will say that what James Franklin is doing is unsustainable. The argument will be that the SEC – which has been down this year – will be much less forgiving toward the Dores in future seasons. There’s a certain degree of logic behind this assertion, but it also owns a few holes. In particular, such a line of reasoning fails to realize that the Commodores – when they weren’t winning – still played other SEC teams well. Georgia and Florida might have won consistently in prior seasons against Vanderbilt, but the Bulldogs and Gators hardly coasted past the Commodores with an easy, almost mechanical, regularity. It’s understandable to argue that Vanderbilt’s present (and prosperous) course is unsustainable, but such a belief downplays the extent to which VU had competed against bigger brand names in the world of Southern college football.
What Franklin has done at Vanderbilt – after years of striving – is to get his teams to dig out the close wins that so regularly evaded the program for decades upon decades. The way in which VU turned the odds – and the weight of history – against Georgia earlier this season represented a classic “James Franklin” win. Without the energy and passion of Franklin, it’s doubtful that VU would have been able to defeat Georgia and then take down Florida as well, thereby drawing the lines of power in ways that are different from a history that seemed so intractable and immutable at one point in time.
If you felt that Vanderbilt had changed its identity in 2008, these past three seasons (including 2013) have re-ordered your idea of what’s truly possible for this program on the gridiron. The Commodores might not be a 10-win program just yet, but they have arrived at that point where they just don’t leave money on the table during a regular season. It might not be acceptable for certain programs to beat bad teams and fail to conquer the elite ones, en route to a seven- or eight-win campaign on a repeated basis. For Vanderbilt, though, such a place in the college football world represents substantial progress. It might seem that the SEC wasn’t as tough this season as it has been in previous years. However, the emergence of Missouri and Texas A&M has not exactly eroded the league’s depth. VU has won against a deeper SEC, and it has done so without a healthy No. 1 starting quarterback.
That’s not what this program once was, not too many moons ago.
It’s different now in Nashville, and the change in identity couldn’t really be any better for Vanderbilt University Football.