HOOVER, Ala. -- It wasn't supposed to be like this. Vanderbilt was supposed to arrive at these SEC media days on the highest of highs.
After more than a century with only occasional joy in the football program, the Commodores and coach James Franklin were supposed to arrive here with the most impressive resume in school history:
• A seven-game winning streak, the longest current in the SEC.
• A nine-win season for the first time since 1915.
• Its second consecutive bowl appearance, the first time that has ever happened at Vanderbilt.
• A huge opening game with Ole Miss on Aug. 29.
But instead of focusing on those positives and one of the most anticipated seasons ever at Vanderbilt, Franklin reluctantly had to deal with the worst nightmare of a man trying to build something meaningful at one of the top academic institutions in the country.
On June 28 four Vanderbilt football players were suspended, and ultimately dismissed, from the team. Local police confirmed that the dismissals were related to an ongoing sex crimes investigation. The names of the four players were not known until the night before the start of SEC media days on Tuesday, when the school announced there had been some "roster adjustments" from the media guides that would be distributed in Hoover.
As a university, Vanderbilt has had little to say publicly on the matter as the legal process on the former players moves forward. Vanderbilt is very private and very proud of its academic reputation. This kind of episode cuts an institution like Vanderbilt to its very core. The powers that be have decided that the best course of action is a deafening silence.
James Franklin, who was hired to make Vanderbilt consistently competitive in the sport of football, did not have that option as SEC media days came to a close on Thursday.
With more than 1,200 media members in attendance tweeting out his comments in real time, Franklin had to deal with this issue before he could move on to what kind of team the Commodores will have in 2013. Before he could look to the future, he had to defend what he has already built.
In the large interview room Franklin was asked multiple times for his feelings about the episode only to say that he couldn't talk about it because "it was an ongoing matter."
But in a private interview, Franklin steadfastly maintained that the event would not negatively impact the future of the program.
"We have to keep our guys focused on what we have next," said Franklin. "We have a lot of work to do to get ready for next season. And that is what we're going to do."
When asked if he was confident that he and his staff would be able to keep this team focused, he said: "We don't have any choice. We have to."
Vanderbilt's players here in Hoover were unified in their belief that the dismissals and the subsequent media coverage surrounding them would not impact the season -- or the program.
"We have a great tradition at Vanderbilt," said wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who led the SEC in catches last season with 94. "Coach Matthews does a great job of teaching us how to act both on and off the field. We will move on and we're going to be great in the community and great on the field."
Offensive tackle Wesley Johnson is the quintessential Vanderbilt player. He came to school as an undersized 235 pounds. Now he is a preseason All-SEC tackle and has the distinction of never giving up a sack in his career.
"It really doesn't impact the team," said Johnson of the dismissals. "We're moving forward. We trust the guys on our team. We realize that one person is not more important than any other person on our team."
"Our morale is still great," said defensive back Andre Hal. "We still believe in each other."
On the field there is no doubt that things are picking up for Vanderbilt. On Thursday, the Commodores were picked to finish fourth in the SEC East behind Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. It has been a long time, if ever, that Vanderbilt has been picked ahead of state rival Tennessee at SEC media days.
"Our guys have embraced the success we've had and now we want to build on it," said Matthews, whose only Division I-A scholarship offer was by Vanderbilt. "We have accomplished a lot but we're not satisfied by any means."
A year ago Vanderbilt finished 5-3 in the SEC and beat NC State in the Music City Bowl. This season, the schedule gets a little tougher as Texas A&M (in College Station) comes on from the SEC West and Auburn comes off. The Commodores also have to go to South Carolina and Florida.
That's why the opening at home with Ole Miss on Aug. 29 is so huge. Both programs are on the way up as the Rebels went 7-6 last season under Hugh Freeze.
"We are so excited about this opportunity to play this kind of game on national television," said Franklin. "It is great exposure for our university and what we're trying to do as a football program. We've got a great product to sell at Vanderbilt and we're looking forward to a lot of people seeing that."
Vanderbilt is also looking forward to the start of practice and the turning of the page on what has been a very tough episode in Nashville.