James Franklin hasn't backed down from anything since taking over the Vanderbilt head coaching job some 12 months ago. The guy who had inherited such a hapless pile of mediocrity when he arrived in Nashville has withstood some body blows of his own along the way too.
Remember that Franklin was the head coach-in-waiting at Maryland but was passed over when they canned his boss Ralph Friedgen after earning ACC Coach of the Year honors. Franklin also was involved in quite an entertaining back-and-forth with the coach from the big-boy program over in Knoxville following Tennessee's 27-21 overtime win over the Commodores. Video surfaced of an exuberant Derek Dooley telling his his players moments later that "the one thing Tennessee always does is kick the [expletive] out of Vandy." For that, Franklin responded with a haymaker of his own, saying he took Dooley's comments as a sign of respect:
"Some people act like they won the Super Bowl, and they beat a team that the two previous years had won four games total," Franklin said. "Obviously, we are closing the gap and threatening some people and making some people uncomfortable. We'll see. We'll leave it at that. We'll move on."
So you couldn't have blamed Franklin if he'd have gone for the dagger Saturday night while sitting on the team plane. He's fresh off watching his team blast a decent Wake Forest squad 41-7 for their first road win of the season to become bowl eligible. When he was asked if the day was made just a little bit sweeter because Dooley's Vols lost to Kentucky for the first time since 1984 to miss out on a bowl game?
"Oh, I don't know about all of that. I'm just really happy for our kids," said Franklin after a little pause, then noting how well his team has battled through a five-point loss to Georgia, a three-point loss to Arkansas and a five-point loss at Florida and only gained more confidence and grit. "We just keep bouncing back every week."
OK, but isn't it just a tad bit ironic that Franklin's taken a team that had won just four games the previous two seasons and they're going bowling. Meanwhile, the place he was supposed to coach -- Maryland -- just blew a 27-point second half lead to lose to N.C. State and finish the season 2-10?
"Once again, my focus is really on Vanderbilt and these kids," Franklin responded. "I'm just appreciative for the opportunities I have."
Truth is, Franklin doesn't need to say any more. The statement these results make are deafening. Compare what Franklin has done in his first year to what Dooley has done in his second year at UT: Granted, Dooley inherited a mess, but he didn't take over a program in the shape Vandy was in. The Commodores have been to four bowl games in the previous 138 years.
Think Dooley's 0-17 career record against ranked teams looked bad to Vol fans before. His team losing to a 4-7 Kentucky team that was quarterbacked by a wideout looks three times as bad, especially with what Franklin has done.
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The Commodores also got bowl eligible despite losing arguably their best player -- former SEC Freshman of the Year running back Warren Norman -- to a knee injury on the eve of this season. No matter, Franklin just kept stoking their fire, preaching his message and Zac Stacy has run for a school-record 1,136 yards and more than six yards a pop. Jordan Rodgers, Aaron's kid brother, has blossomed into a play-making triggerman while an unheralded, anonymous group of defenders have Vandy 19th in the nation in total defense and 29th in scoring. Yeah, this team has experience, but it also has a lot of bad experience and learning how to win isn't easy. This is essentially the same group that notched back-to-back 10 loss seasons.
How's Franklin done it? By, as the coach put it, "bombarding" his team over and over again with the same consistent message that they will be physical, relentless and focused on just what is in front of them -- not being that same old Vandy from the past. "We have a great staff and we have great kids who are really, really hungry," Franklin said. "They do anything we ask and they stay true to who we are."
Asked how Franklin has avoided some of the mistakes other first-year head coaches often get tripped up by, he said, "one of the biggest mistakes new head coaches make is acting like what you think a head coach is supposed to act like. I'm may not be this or that, but I am real.
"Coming up the hard way through the profession, I've had everyone tell us what we can and can't do, and because of that, we probably have got a chip on our shoulder."
Still, that chip has manifested itself in a very positive way for his team. And that's not often an easy balance for anyone to achieve, especially when pressure mounts. Franklin credits his time around some really good coaches and working with some very good ones on his staff now for his mindset, which is wired to stressing the preparation aspect, attention to detail and only trying to control the things you can control, he says.
Not worrying about the past or others around him has worked wonders for Vandy this year. Perhaps the best part is Franklin used to be regarded primarily for his recruiting skills, and that had been where his program made waves in the early part of his tenure. They'd beaten out bigger programs for some blue-chip recruits. Of course, it seemed logical that Vandy would lose some of those kids once the season got going and the losses started to mount. That's usually the way it works when a rookie head coach takes over and comes out with guns blazing. Only the losses didn't pile up and the recruits haven't bailed. Vandy's going bowling and the program and its rookie coach have never been hotter.
When I spoke to him Saturday night, he said he probably had received "about a thousand" text messages. No doubt a bunch were from recruits. He's got a lot to sell as he said, slipping into recruiter mode for a moment: "We play in the greatest football conference in the country, we're in a great town and we have a great education to offer," he said. "We were selling a dream, a plan and a vision."
- After 2,926 days, Michigan finally beat arch-rival Ohio State, punctuating the nightmare year for the Buckeyes. As I've said numerous times before, the best move Brady Hoke made after getting hired was landing Greg Mattison to run his defense. Denard Robinson hasn't been as spectacular as he was last season but he was superb Saturday, slicing up OSU's defense in what proved to be one of the few really competitive games in the top 25 this week. It was a perfect time for him to have his best game of the year. He'd gone six games in a row with at least one INT before playing nearly a flawless (14-17, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 170 yards rushing and two more TDs) game.
- I'm late to the Montee Ball bandwagon but I'm on it now. Since October, the junior running back has been fantastic, averaging over 150 rushing yards per game and scoring 20 TDs on the ground. On Saturday, he and the Badgers had little trouble with Penn State and what had been a pretty formidable defense. MoneyBall went for 156 yards and four touchdowns in the 45-7 drubbing of the Nittany Lions. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry. For comparison's sake, Trent Richardson went for 111 rushing yards and had one more carry doing it, averaging 4.3 yards per run. More Ball: He scored as many TDs as Ohio State did this season and scored four more touchdowns than Florida and only six fewer than Kentucky and Ole Miss scored combined.
- My Heisman ballot got a little murkier after a Saturday. Robert Griffin III, my frontrunner, played well before taking a shot to the head against Texas Tech. The blow initially knocked RGIII from the game. He returned briefly to score a rushing TD, but then was held out the rest of the night. Baylor still rolled over the Red Raiders, scoring 66 points. Meanwhile, Trent Richardson ran for over 200 yards against a young, shaky Auburn defense in the Iron Bowl; Andrew Luck threw four TDs in a 28-14 win over Notre Dame and Matt Barkley threw six TDs in a 50-0 demolition of arch-rival UCLA. Oh, and Case Keenum put up more eye-popping stats as Houston remained undefeated.
- Speaking of USC, I suspect the only thing that burns Vols fans more than seeing their team miss out on a bowl is knowing that Lane Kiffin -- whose team also won't be playing in a bowl game -- is going to win Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Kiffin led his team to a 10-2 mark as the Trojans emerge from their two-year post-season ban on a big high. If Matt Barkley opts to stay for one more season, and it wouldn't surprise anyone around the USC program if he did, they'd likely come into the 2012 season No. 1.
- He didn't have a preseason billboard like Dan Persa, a cool nickname like Shoelace or a website like RussellMania XVI, but Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins has quietly put together a stellar senior season. Since mid-October, Cousins had a 15-2 TD-INT ratio.
- It's a good week to be Hugh Freeze. The first-year Arkansas State head coach led his program to a 9-2 mark and his timing couldn't be much better. Ole Miss, the program where he worked for three seasons, is looking for a head coach. And now, so too is Memphis, which is the city where Freeze was a very successful high school coach. It's not a stretch to think the Memphis brass may scramble to try and lock Freeze up before Ole Miss can decide what they're going to do. On top of all that, Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora is in play at several bigger coaching jobs, including Ole Miss. Freeze' alma mater: Southern Miss.
- I've heard from a source that Baylor coach Art Briles is in play for the Ole Miss vacancy. That surprised me that the Texas native would be tempted to leave Baylor, which has upgraded facilities for Ole Miss, but the question is will Baylor step up to show Briles more of a financial committment?
- Stat of the Day: Boston College's Superman, Luke Kuechly, the best player since Doug Flutie, only had nine tackles against Miami. It was his first single-digit tackle game in his last 35 games, or as my pal John Walters noted, since September of Kuechly's freshman year. Oh, but don't think the linebacker had a bad game. He burned Miami for a pick-6 and was all over the field, running with speedy wideouts 30 yards downfield and running sideline-to-sideline, as usual.
- Stat of the Day, Take II: Only one team in the top 17 in turnover margin has a losing record: 2-10 Memphis, which just canned Larry Porter. The Tigers were No. 7 in the often key stat.
- Stat of the Day, Take III: Only one of the five fewest penalized teams in the country has a winning record. That's 11-1 Alabama, third in the nation in that category. Incidentally, four of the eight most penalized teams in the nation are from the state of Florida.
- Ron Zook's out at Illinois. The biggest reason was the way Illini fell apart down the stretch, losing six in a row after a 6-0 start. It's rare to see a team fall apart in such stunning fashion after a start like that. The Illini were walloped 27-7 by a Minnesota team that came into the game 2-9 and had lost to New Mexico State and North Dakota State. And it gets worse: the Zookers were held to seven points by the country's No. 102 defense. Illinois averaged under 12 ppg in their six-game losing streak.
- Best outcome of the weekend was seeing Howard Schnellenberger, a great coach who built three programs -- including saving Miami football over 30 years ago -- finally get a win this season as FAU beat UAB, 38-35.
As much as this year has had to sting for Buckeye fans, seeing the emergence of Braxton Miller has to be exciting, especially knowing just how much more dynamic he can be once Urban Meyer is coaching him. (I'll have a lot more on that subject in my blog in a day or so.)
Is that good enough to get Ball to New York for the Heisman ceremony? I think it'll depend on whether they invite three, four or five candidates to the Big Apple. I still think the RussellMania XVI factor will cost him some with the voters, especially in the light of the fact that he really didn't break out till almost mid season.
I'll go with Richardson, RGIII, Luck, Barkley, Ball and Keenum as my top six. Much of the work is done for most of these guys. Keep an eye on Griffin III against Texas this week. The Longhorns are a very good defensive team, ranking seventh nationally in run defense, eighth in pass efficiency and ninth in scoring.
One final Barkley note: Since looking kinda sluggish winning at Cal, Barkley has completed over 73%; he has 23 TDs to just three picks and USC averaged 42 ppg, despite playing the tougher half of their schedule.
The parting shot on the USC-UCLA rivalry came from Trojan senior RB Marc Tyler, who according to Pedro Moura said this: "I wish their next coach much success."