Vanderbilt first-year coach James Franklin is fully aware what the skeptics are saying about him.
“Probably the most criticism I’ve gotten since I’ve arrived here is that I’ve done a lot of talking,” Franklin said. “My point is that all I’ve really done is sold our kids and sold our program and sold what this university has to offer.
“If there’s something wrong with that, then they’re just going to have to keep on criticizing me.”
It’s a massive sales job, indeed.
Vanderbilt has had just one winning season in the past 28 years and finished with three wins or fewer 11 times in the past 16 seasons.
The Commodores’ reputation as the SEC’s perennial doormat has almost become ingrained throughout the conference.
That would be a tough history for any coach to overcome.
But a big part of what Franklin is selling is that he doesn’t care about history. All he cares about is what’s right in front of him, and on the heels of a 2-0 start, the Commodores like what they see heading into Saturday’s home game with Ole Miss.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence. Coach Franklin and his staff are confident guys, and that’s rubbed off on all the players,” said Vanderbilt senior cornerback Casey Hayward, who returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown to turn last week’s Connecticut game in the Commodores’ favor.
“We like it that coach Franklin is out there selling us and not afraid to tell people that he wants to compete for championships. This is not the same old Vanderbilt, and we plan on going out there and backing up coach Franklin with our play. The way you do that is to win one game at a time.”
The atmosphere around campus for Saturday’s game against Ole Miss might not rise to the fever pitch it did back in 2008 when the Commodores were 4-0 and hosting No. 13-ranked Auburn with the ESPN GameDay crew on hand.
Still, there’s a real buzz on the West End about football, and it’s a buzz that will only grow louder if Vanderbilt can take down Ole Miss for the third time in the past four seasons and go to 3-0.
We’re back on that history thing again, which isn’t one of Franklin’s favorite topics, but it’s worth noting that the Commodores have started a season 3-0 only four times in the past 60 years.
Don’t look for that tidbit to be a part of Franklin’s pregame speech to his players Saturday.
Rather, his message will be that there’s nothing different about this game than the previous two.
“We’re not at a point in our program where we start thinking about the significance of this game compared to another,” Franklin said. “I want our kids staying in the moment and focusing on six seconds. I don’t ask them to play great for three hours. I want them to give me their entire focus, effort, attitude and passion for six seconds at a time and then let’s do it again and again and again.
“Let’s focus on this game this week. I don’t care what the future holds, and I don’t care what we have or haven’t accomplished here in the past.”
The Commodores have hardly been dominant through two games. But what they have been is resourceful, and they’ve shown a penchant for doing something they’ve rarely done in the past.
Vanderbilt led Elon 21-14 in the third quarter of the season opener, but scored 24 unanswered points to pull away and win easily.
Last week, the Commodores led 14-3 early, then fell behind 21-14 when Connecticut returned a fumble for a touchdown, but had the presence to regain the lead thanks to Hayward’s pick-six and some key defensive stops in the fourth quarter.
It’s a veteran defense with just about everybody back from last season, and the Commodores are playing that way right now.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has also done a nice job of mixing things up and bringing pressure at key times. Vanderbilt leads the SEC in turnover margin at plus-4, which includes seven forced turnovers.
“When you look on the defensive side of the ball, we have more senior leadership and more seniors that have played and been productive,” Franklin said.
The Commodores are still searching for some consistency on offense, although their issues in the offensive line aren’t likely to go away any time soon. They lost starting left guard Jabo Burrow last week after he gave up football because of concussion concerns, moving redshirt freshman Chase White into the starting lineup.
Connecticut sacked Vanderbilt quarterback Larry Smith seven times last week.
“We knew the offensive line was going to be a challenge coming into this year,” Franklin said. “Then we lose a starting guard and had to move guys around. Until we’re able to get that group working for a couple of weeks together and build up some rapport between them and cohesion, that’s going to be an issue.”
In the meantime, this is a team that’s going to have to win with defense.
“We’ve got each other’s backs,” Hayward said. “That’s the way it is with this team and the way it’s going to be all season.”