"It's now hip for the smart-kid schools to get their football act together. Jim Harbaugh laid out the blueprint at Stanford -- basically: bring in as many tough, smart kids as possible and teach them to be even tougher -- and in his first season as Vandy head coach, James Franklin followed that script rather well. I'm not sure what the Commodores' ceiling is with Franklin in charge, but it's higher than it once was, that's for sure.
That is from a Vanderbilt history piece I wrote last week at Rock M Nation. It is intentionally broad, intentionally over-generalized … but really, it isn't that far from the truth, is it? James Franklin did not turn his first squad of Commodores into a particularly strong team in 2011 -- in terms of F/+ rankings, they were 59th on offense, 28th on defense and 73rd on special teams -- but he made them physical, mean, sound, opportunistic and, most importantly, competitive. Salty, even. They beat the teams they were supposed to beat (6-1 versus teams that finished with a losing record) and were generally competitive against the teams that were supposed to beat them (five-point loss to Georgia, three-point loss to Arkansas, five-point loss to Florida). Things occasionally got out of hand (Alabama and South Carolina 55, Vandy 3), but that's going to happen when you inherit a team that went 2-10 and ranked 97th in F/+ in 2010. The job Franklin did in simply making Vandy competitive through a "cultural resurgence" in his first year was magnificent. And then he went and signed one of Vandy's best-ever recruiting classes.
So that begs an obvious question: how far can Franklin (or anybody) take Vanderbilt? Pretend for a moment that James Franklin is indeed the second coming of Jim Harbaugh. Consider that he leaves for an NFL job (like Harbaugh) having taken the Vanderbilt program to a historical peak (like Harbaugh, who led Stanford to its first top-five finish since 1940 in 2010). What does that mean exactly? For all of its recent struggles (the Cardinal had gone 1-11 and ranked 105th in F/+ the year before Harbaugh took over), Stanford has had at least some level of historical success -- 11 Rose Bowls, 13 ranked finishes pre-Harbaugh (now 15), John Elway, et cetera. Harbaugh raised the bar for Stanford, but he didn't take it to a new atmosphere. The bar at Vandy, though, has been historically set at Duke levels instead of Stanford levels: two bowls in 36 years (four all-time) pre-Franklin, one ranked finish, no conference titles since the Southern Conference in 1923, and just four eight-win seasons in the entire existence of the Southeastern Conference.
Winning at Vanderbilt is really, really difficult. If Franklin leads the 'Dores to an all-time peak in his fourth season, a la Harbaugh, what does that mean? A 9-3 season? SEC East title? Top-15 finish?
And are we making too much of a 6-7 season?
Whatever Vanderbilt's ceiling actually is, Franklin's first year in Nashville told us that we might actually find out soon.
Bobby Johnson seemingly did everything well in Nashville, putting solid athletes on the field and showing some strong in-game coaching chops, and the reward for his solid efforts was a single bowl bit, the 2008 Music City Bowl in their backyard. That whole season was something rather special. ESPN Gameday came to town when they knocked off No. 13 Auburn (before anybody realized, apparently, that Auburn was actually trying to win games without gaining a single positive yard that season), they rose to No. 13 in the polls themselves, they won a bowl ... it was a great step forward.
A year later, they went 2-10 and Johnson retired.
Johnson gameplanned well, his teams executed, his defenses were usually salty, and in eight seasons he went 29-66. After a year of ridiculously entertaining turkey-inseminator Robbie Caldwell running the show as interim coach, and another 2-10 season, Vandy brings in former Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin. Can he raise the program's ceiling, or is it pretty much set at this point? Can the Commodores not only play unconventional, successful football, but sustain it for more than three months? […]
A couple of "turnaround" factors jump off the page -- Vandy returns 19 starters, and their +4.2 YPP margin suggests they were quite unlucky in how efficiently their and their opponents' yards were turned into points. That's good. Now the bad: look at how far away they are from the "average" SEC team. What will decent improvement actually do for them? Now look at how much worse their turnover margin would have been had they recovered a normal number of fumbles. I'm optimistic that the Vandy defense will continue to play at an average-or-better level, but I just have no faith that the offense is going to be effective enough to steal a couple of SEC games.
The good news is, the schedule could be a lot worse. The 'Dores have seven home games -- including likely wins versus Elon and Army and you've-got-a-shot games against Ole Miss, Kentucky and UConn. Win all of those, and they just need one big upset to steal a bowl bid. But ... they probably won't win all of those.
With 11 seniors, Franklin has a decent base for building over multiple years if he has the chops and creativity. Just don't expect much noise in 2011.
Swing and a miss on my part, to some degree anyway. Vandy won all five of the winnable games listed above, took out Wake Forest on the road, and voila: six wins. They did indeed play solid defense again, and while the offense still wasn't very good, it improved more than I thought it would. The 'Dores were run-heavy and pace-light, slowed the game to a crawl, minimized possessions, and trusted their defense to keep games closer than they seemingly should have been. And it worked. With a 1-5 record in one-possession games, Vandy was as close to eight or nine wins as five.
Barring a confusing, iffy performance at Tennessee in November, the Commodores also improved significantly as the season progressed.
First Four Games: Opponents 23.2 Adj. Points per game, Vanderbilt 21.4 (minus-1.8)
Last Eight Games (Sans Tennessee): Vanderbilt 30.4 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 26.2 (plus-4.2)
The defense regressed, but the offense more than made up for it. And by "offense," I mean "Zac Stacy and Jordan Rodgers." Stacy took on a heavier load over the season's final two months, and Rodgers overtook incumbent starting quarterback Larry Smith in the fifth game of the year, and the Vandy offense at least moved toward average, often above average.
In expressing my largest concern with the Franklin hire, I was clearly underestimating the Harbaugh Effect. My theory was that you have to do something rather heavy on underdog tactics to win at a school like Vanderbilt -- funky offense, variable defense, et cetera. I was intrigued by Franklin's hire of William & Mary defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, but I saw little in Franklin's own background to suggest he was going to find creative ways to move the ball with inferior talent, and I was unsure what offensive coordinator John Donovan's and offensive line coach Herb Hand's collective influence would be. Donovan was Franklin's running backs coach at Maryland, while Hand was Tulsa's offensive coordinator during the Golden Hurricane's spread renaissance. But what we have learned from both Harbaugh and Franklin is that sometimes a staid, conservative offense is its own underdog strategy. Play tough, physical and strong, shrink the game as much as possible, and give yourself a chance to win in the fourth quarter.
Vandy's offensive goal in 2011 was to take from you whatever you were willing to give. If you couldn't stop the power running game (like Army, Kentucky and Wake Forest), you were going to get a heavy, devastating dose of Zac Stacy (vs. Army, Kentucky and Wake Forest: 77 carries, 517 yards). If you overplayed the running back, the quarterback would peck you to death with zone-read keepers (quarterback Jordan Rogers vs. Army, Arkansas and Wake Forest: 261 pre-sack rushing yards) and misdirection (i.e. play-fakes and screens). If you kept too many defenders close to the line of scrimmage to account for the run, they would try to burn you deep (receiver Jordan Matthews versus Arkansas, Florida and Kentucky: 31 targets, 21 catches, 452 yards, three touchdowns; astoundingly good). If you were too aggressive on passing downs, Vandy would pick you apart with draw plays and the like (despite ranking 80th in Passing S&P+, Vandy ranked 12th on passing downs).
And, of course, if you played disciplined, fast defense, Vandy couldn't do much of anything. An underrated Cincinnati defense held Rogers to 4-for-14 passing and allowed just 57 yards on 18 Zac Stacy carries. The South Carolina and Alabama defenses allowed a combined 267 yards to the 'Dores. As mentioned above, this wasn't a particularly impressive, athletic offense, but it improved significantly with Rodgers behind center, and Vandy gameplanned well and prepared itself to take whatever you gave it. This is not an offensive approach with high margin for error, but because the defense was solid, that was okay.
Everything Vanderbilt's offense was in 2011, it should be double in 2012. First, assuming full health, you get an entire year of Zac Stacy. The senior from Centreville, Alabama, came on incredibly strong after Vandy's loss to Alabama on October 8. He had gained just 22 yards on 11 carries versus South Carolina and Alabama, but over the next three games (Georgia, Army, Arkansas) he gained 423 yards on 57 carries (7.4 per carry). He gained another 184 in the bowl-clinching win over Wake Forest. He is low to the ground and awfully powerful. Just ask Kentucky and Wake Forest. But Stacy isn't the only reason for optimism in the backfield. Junior Warren Norman (459 yards in 2010; missed 2011 with injury) and four-star scatback Brian Kimbrow (the star of the 2012 recruiting class) join the fray, while sophomore Jerron Seymour attempts to reestablish himself in the rotation after a bit of a fade in 2011. Plus, if the spring is any indication, we will quite possibly see a decent dose of a Wildcat formation led by converted quarterback Josh Grady. Vandy leaned on the run in 2011, and if they choose to do so again in 2012, they will absolutely have the backfield personnel to do so. (They've also got a pretty good fullback leading the way.)
Of course, you need a solid line for a solid running game. Vandy ranked 44th in Adj. Line Yards last year, and while five players return with starting experience (60 career starts), only two (junior tackle Wesley Johnson, senior guard Ryan Seymour) have started more than five games. Beyond Johnson, Seymour and senior guard Josh Jelesky, youth will play a significant role on this line, with a host of sophomores, redshirt freshmen and, potentially, highly-touted (for Vandy) true freshmen filling out the two-deep. This could mean great things for 2013 and beyond, but it might mean minimal improvement in 2012.
Vandy will almost certainly be run-first, run-second again this fall (no matter what the pass-heavy spring game suggests), but the Commodores were at their best in 2011 when successfully mixing in the deep ball. Jordan Rodgers took over the starting role a month into the season (we'll assume he is going to hold off Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels for the No. 1 spot this time around), and while he has plenty to work on in the efficiency department (50 percent completion rate, 5.3 percent sack rate), he often made up for it last year with big plays. And he'll have Jordan Matthews at his disposal. Matthews (778 yards, 9.3 per target, 49 percent catch rate) returns after his second-half explosion last year; he will get full attention from teams' No. 1 corners in 2012, and his consistency could be an issue (half of his 2011 catches came in the three games referenced above), but he is intriguing, to say the least.
Matthews is joined by another all-or-nothing threat, sophomore Chris Boyd (473 yards, 8.6 per target, 56 percent catch rate). The question for 2012, however, is who else might emerge as a legitimate threat. The next two leading returning receivers (Jonathan Krause and Wesley Tate) combined for just a 52 percent catch rate and 8.0 yards per catch. That is, to put it lightly, not very good.
When you are not guaranteed to hold an advantage on a per-play basis, it makes sense to minimize the number of plays. On offense, you run the ball a lot, take your time between plays, and minimize possessions. On defense, meanwhile, you attempt to force opponents to run as many plays as possible to score. This both shrinks the game down and offers more opportunities for offensive mistakes. This is what Bob Shoop's 4-3 defense attempted in 2011, and it will attempt to do so again in 2012 with more experience and less known play-making ability.
Vandy ranked just 50th in Success Rate+ (efficiency), but it was a healthy 20th in PPP+ (big-play prevention), playing the bend-don't-break routine with aplomb. The 'Dores did not rush the quarterback very well (which led to some inefficiencies on passing downs), but they were aggressive once the ball was in the air, picking off 19 passes and breaking up another 51. They were also above average in forcing 15 fumbles. Shoop returns seven starters and most key backups in 2012, but it is certainly worth pointing out the fact that all four lost starters were among the team's best playmakers. End Tim Fugger, linebacker Chris Marve, corner Casey Hayward and safety Sean Richardson combined for 43 percent of Vandy's tackles for loss, 48 percent of sacks, 47 percent of interceptions and 39 percent of passes broken up. The experience level is quite high -- eight of the top 10 tacklers on the line return, as do four of the top six linebackers and every defensive back not named Hayward or Richardson -- and there are some intriguing freshmen coming in, but that is quite a bit of play-making ability to lose without at least a temporary drop-off.
Despite the losses, there are still quite a few reasons to be intrigued about the Vandy front seven. Senior tackle Rob Lohr (11.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, two forced fumbles) is all-conference caliber (at least in a conference other than the SEC), while two returning linebackers, Archibald Barnes and Chase Garnham, combined for 10.0 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions, five passes broken up and four forced fumbles. Throw in some exciting freshmen -- end Caleb Azubike and linebackers Darreon Herring and Jacob Sealand are easily the most highly-rated recruits at their positions on this squad -- and you've got the makings of an improved unit. Vandy ranked 33rd in Adj. Line Yards, and they should move up in 2012. The problem, of course, is that there is no guarantee that a below-average pass rush will improve, especially not without Fugger.
Improvement in the pass rush would be a very good thing considering how much of an impact Hayward made in the secondary. He intercepted seven passes and broke up 10 more last year; the top three returning corners, meanwhile, combined for just four picks and 10 PBUs. Senior Trey Wilson had three and eight of those, respectively. He should make for a solid No. 1, but a) he was not nearly as good in an attacking role as Hayward (even as a corner, Hayward was fourth on the team in tackles for loss), and b) after Wilson, the pickings might be slim. Juniors Andre Hal and Steven Clarke each had their moments last year, but it is probably best to assume a dropoff. Richardson's loss, however, could be accounted for more easily. Kenny Ladler, Javon Marshall and Eric Samuels should be perfectly fine at safety. Vandy is going to continue its aggressiveness when the ball is in the air, but it remains to be seen whether they will be as successful at it, or whether they will leak a few more big plays this time around.
James Franklin has pretty quickly raised the bar in Nashville, and with his recruiting successes, bigger things might be expected of the Commodores in the future. But after a surge, it is typically best to aim for consolidation of gains the next season. Bowl eligibility would equal major success for Vandy in 2012, especially considering the 'Dores have never actually been to bowls in back-to-back seasons.
That said, the schedule is friendly. Two of Vandy's four in-conference road trips are to Kentucky and Ole Miss (both beatable, to say the least), and South Carolina, Florida, Auburn and Tennessee must all visit Dudley Field, and it is worth pointing out that Vandy went 5-2 with two tight losses to Georgia and Arkansas at home last year. So you'll forgive Vandy fans for dreaming big.
It's amazing how much can change in one season. James Franklin changed the culture and mentality of Vanderbilt football, he is winning recruiting battles, and he won six games with a pretty inexperienced team a year ago. Honestly, nothing between about four and nine wins would surprise me in 2012, in part because the schedule is favorable and in part because, among other things, Franklin wiped the slate clean last fall. I officially have no idea what to expect from, or where to set the bar for Vandy football moving forward. That, in and of itself, is an amazing vote of confidence for a man by whose hire I was quite underwhelmed a couple of winters ago. Vanderbilt has quickly gone from the Homecoming opponent of choice for much of the SEC East to, at worst, a really tough out. We will see how quickly the young, talented recruits can earn playing time, but in the meantime Vanderbilt is going to simply go about life playing tough, smart football, ready to take advantage of any weaknesses you show along the way.
For more on Commodores football, visit Vandy blog Anchor Of Gold.
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