NASHVILLE A steady and chilling rain fell straight down Friday afternoon on the Vanderbilt football team. The Commodores were prepping in their own stadium for a bowl game just a short cab uh, bus ride away.
As practice closed, a sense of exuberance mixed with confidence seemed to possess these Commodores. Call it history already made and even more possibly to come for a team that is about to play in back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history.
Beat North Carolina State (7-5) on Monday in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl at nearby LP Field, and Vandy (8-4) will have won nine games in a season for the first time since 1915.
U.S. President in 1915 for 100, please Alex. The question is, who is Woodrow Wilson? Vanderbilt football coach in 1915 for Fort Knox, please Alex? The question is, who is Dan McGugin, for whom the Vanderbilt athletic complex is named?
Yes, these could well be the best of times for Vanderbilt football under second-year coach James Franklin, whose flirtation from other schools earlier this month was headed off at the pass by a quick contract extension and program improvement concessions from Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams. It came soon after the 8-4 regular-season that included a 5-3 record in Southeastern Conference play with wins over Ole Miss, Auburn and Tennessee.
"Nine wins possible for a season playing in (the Southeastern Conference) and the type of schedule that we play," Franklin said, "I think that is going to raise some eyebrows and get some heads turning more than what we already have done."
This season follows last year's 6-7 campaign that included a disappointing loss to Cincinnati and, ironically, future Tennessee coach Butch Jones in the Liberty Bowl. This time around, just being there albeit, the local venue means you are already there, right? doesn't seem to fit the Commodores' approach.
"It's one thing to go to a bowl game when you have won six games, and it's another thing with seven games (won)," Franklin said Thursday. "But when you have the chance to win eight, nine or 10 wins in a year, especially in (the Southeastern Conference), it puts you in a different category where you truly have an opportunity to really demand national respect for what you are doing with the program and what your kids are doing."
Franklin, an avowed quarterback tutor who came to Vanderbilt after being snubbed as Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen's heir apparent, has found a converted follower in fifth-year senior quarterback Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
"At first, I didn't know what to think," Rodgers said of when Franklin first arrived on the scene in 2011 at a program that had been to only one bowl game since 1982. "But the more I started believing in him, the better I played."
It has been a rocky road for Rodgers, who took over the starting job during mid-season last year from incumbent Larry Smith. Rodgers helped guide the Commodores to key wins down the stretch last year, including a season-finale at Wake Forest that got Vandy bowl eligible. But he struggled against Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl. This season, he was the starter from the get-go, got benched for a game following a sub-par performance at Northwestern, and returned to the lineup to lead Vandy to key wins down the stretch.
"If you just look at Jordan last year compared to this year, he is a completely different player," Franklin said. "He is so much more mature. He is so much more comfortable with his role.
"All of this past year the regular-season games, the bowl game, the practices, the off-season workouts all those things went into making Jordan a much more mature, a much more polished, a much more developed quarterback."
Rodgers has passed for 2,431 yards and completed 59.5 percent of his passes this season. He also has the luxury of handing the ball to running back Zac Stacy, the program's all-time leading rusher; or hooking up with first-team All-SEC receiver Jordan Matthews, whose 1,262 receiving yards in a season is a team record. His 82 catches were second-best ever for Vandy.
Conversely, the Commodores will face one of the top pro quarterback prospects in North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon, a rangy prototypical pocket quarterback whose 62 career touchdown passes are third-best in program history behind current NFL QBs Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson.
Franklin is familiar with Glennon after recruiting him while still at Maryland out of Centreville, Va.
"He is a legitimate 6-6 guy who can fling it all over the field," Franklin said. "For a guy that tall, he does have a quick release and can get it out fast.
" From a historical perspective, he does fit that mold (of prototypical NFL quarterback)," Franklin said. "We have played better against pocket quarterbacks than those who can run around and beat you in different ways."
Franklin figures the teams to be fairly even and in store for a tight and highly competitive game, although the Commodores have been installed as a touchdown favorite.
"I think this is a pretty good matchup," he said. "We are at a point in our program where we don't match up very well in terms of size. And they are a little bigger than I expected.
"It has the opportunity to be an exciting game for the fans and those people watching the game at home. I think it's going to be a great game, I really do."