By Ron Wynn
When James Franklin took the job at Vanderbilt University as head football coach he promised things would change, and fans would notice the difference immediately. He far exceeded expectations in his first season, leading Vandy to a 6-6 season that included a 5-2 home record and bowl eligibility. Sunday Vanderbilt accepted a bid to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis Dec. 31. They will face Big East co-champion Cincinnati (9-3, 5-2 conference). The two teams had two common opponents. Both defeated the University of Connecticut and lost to Tennessee in Knoxville. Nine seniors on the Vanderbilt team were among the more than 1,000 people who gathered at Vanderbilt’s Student Life Center to watch the announcement.
“We’ll watch the film later,” Franklin said. “We will exchange all 12 games, so we’ll have the opportunity to pick those games which give us the best opportunity to get prepared. We don’t much yet in terms of their schemes and what they like to do on offense and defense.”
It also marked the end of a busy and fulfilling period for Franklin. Friday it was announced his old contract had been torn up, and Franklin was being rewarded with a new deal. This contract reportedly includes additional years and a substantial raise, though no terms were announced. With big jobs open at such places as North Carolina (in the ACC where Franklin used to coach) and Penn State, as well as Kansas, there was a lot of speculation Franklin might make the jump to a bigger place where football was more a part of the school’s plans. The new contract showed Vanderbilt recognized what they had and didn’t want to lose him.
They also announced plans for major improvements in the overall program. Vice chancellor of athletics David Williams announced Vanderbilt Stadium will be getting a new Jumbotron, new lighting and turf. Coach Franklin will make the determination on what type of turf will be installed. An indoor practice facility will also be built. This will become an addition to the current recreation center located behind the two practice fields along Natchez Trace.
“This will be an all-purpose, all-event center that will benefit not only our football team, but some other of our teams, Williams added. “We will have a track around a 120-yard football field with artificial turf – first class.” He didn’t divulge any fiscal figures on these improvements, but said a lead donor had been lined up and the university was already “committed to putting in as much as they need to.” The final component involved Coach Franklin retaining his entire staff. Williams said moves were already being made to ensure everyone would remain.
These decisions should ensure Vanderbilt’s newly gained competitiveness continues. Now the next step involves recruiting, and the issue of whether they can get the blue-chip types on both sides of the ball necessary to go against the top teams in the nation’s toughest college football conference. Nothing was mentioned about this during any of the discussions, but it is also hoped among his recruiting conquests Coach Franklin pursues a kicker. Deficiencies in the kicking game cost them dearly against Arkansas, and forced strategic changes in the game plan on other occasions.
Vanderbilt wasn’t the only SEC team making big news on the bowl front. Florida (6-6) meets Ohio State (6-6) in the Gator Bowl Jan. 2 in Jacksonville. This will provide a matchup between Urban Meyer’s past and present teams. Meyer won two national championships in six years at Florida, but departed last season citing health and family concerns. He spent one year as an ESPN commentator, then accepted the Ohio State coaching job last weekend after repeatedly denying there was any substance to the story.
“Based on what I know, Urban won’t coach the game,” current Florida coach Will Muschamp told the Associated Press Monday. “I don’t think it would be any distraction. We’ve moved on. Urban did a great job during his time at the University of Florida. I’m very appreciative of what he did, but we’ve moved on, and we’re looking forward to playing the game.”
The Mississippi State Bulldogs will be coming to Nashville for the Music City Bowl Dec. 30. The Bulldogs (6-6) will face Wake Forest (6-6), the team Vanderbilt shredded 41-7 to earn their bowl trip. It’s the first appearance for both schools in this game. Mississippi State had the SEC’s ninth-ranked defense, but boasts a 1,000-yard rusher in Vick Ballard. Wake Forest’s defensive problems were on display against the Commodores. They finished 10th in the ACC during the season in scoring defense (27.8). Their QB Tanner Price had a good passing year, finishing fourth in the conference (255.6 yards per game). Their leading rusher is Brandon Pendergrass (750 yards).
Other SEC bowl matchups include Auburn (7-5) against Virginia (8-4) in the Chic-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta Dec. 31; Georgia (10-3) against Michigan State (10-3) in the Outback Bowl in Tampa Jan. 2; South Carolina (10-2) against Nebraska (9-3) in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando Jan. 2; and Arkansas (10-2) against Kansas State (10-2) in the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas Jan. 6.
The BCS national championship game pits LSU (13-0) against Alabama (11-1) in a rematch of their 9-6 defensive battle in New Orleans Jan. 9. That game will be televised by ESPN at 7:30 p.m. Vanderbilt’s Liberty Bowl game begins at 2:30 p.m. and will be shown on WKRN-2. The Music City Bowl airs on ESPN at 5:40 p.m.