Vandy program on upswing as it faces Houston
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP)
Vanderbilt is changing its reputation.
Just ask Houston coach Tony Levine, who said Friday, ''Vanderbilt football has got a great name,'' even in football-crazed Texas.
A traditional also-ran in the Southeastern Conference, Vanderbilt will be playing for consecutive nine-win seasons for the first time in school history when the Commodores play Houston on Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Vandy is appearing in a bowl game for the third straight season - another first for the program.
Vanderbilt set yet another first by beating Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season. The emergence of the Commodores has made another ''great name'' in coach James Franklin, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate in several openings, including Penn State, Texas and with the NFL Browns.
Franklin has tried to keep the focus on the game Saturday and on Friday wouldn't confirm or deny reports that he will interview with Penn State on Sunday.
''I am more than happy to talk to you guys and answer any question you guys might have about Houston or Vanderbilt or these two unbelievable institutions or these two unbelievable football programs,'' Franklin said. ''... That is our focus guys, I'm telling you.''
Vanderbilt (8-4) closed the regular season with four straight wins. Houston (8-4) snapped a three-game losing streak by beating SMU to close its regular season.
Redshirt freshman Patton Robinette will start at quarterback for the Commodores after senior Austyn Carta-Samuels had season-ending surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee. Carta-Samuels played three games with the injury before finally having the surgery.
''It really is a tribute to the type of warrior and the type of competitor and teammate he is,'' said Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who set an SEC record this season with 107 catches.
Robinette started two games, including the win over Florida, and came off the bench to play a major role in the win over Georgia.
''The thing about coach Franklin and his coaches and his scheme, it's about being plugged in and doing your job,'' Matthews said. ''So no matter who the person is - yeah, they might bring different attributes to the table, but once they're plugged into the system, everybody goes through the process. I didn't have a difficult time in the transition from Austyn to Patton.
''Patton is extremely mobile. I think people got to see that in the first couple of games. Now I think it's going to be a chance for him to showcase his throwing ability also.''
Franklin is 23-15 in three seasons. Vanderbilt had back-to-back 2-10 seasons before Franklin's arrival.
That turnaround at a school not known for having a rich football tradition has made Franklin an attractive candidate for other jobs. He insists interest in him as a possible job candidate elsewhere won't be a distraction against Houston.
''We focus on the things we can control,'' Franklin said. ''We focus on our preparation. We've been dealing with this stuff for three years, we really have. These guys do an unbelievable job in trusting the process and focusing on the things that are important to us, our preparation, our hard work, our attention to detail, things like that. We're just excited to go play another game together as a family and that's where our focus is completely.''
Robinette won't be the only freshman quarterback on the field. Houston's John O'Korn threw 26 touchdown passes, the most of any true freshman in the nation.
Houston will be playing in its 22nd bowl game. This will be Vanderbilt's seventh bowl game.
Levine said Houston's edge in bowl appearances won't matter on Saturday.
''To say Houston has (22) bowl games and Vanderbilt has seven really has no bearing on what is going to be the outcome of this football game tomorrow,'' Levine said. ''We've got a tremendous amount of respect for coach Franklin and his staff. When you talk about Vanderbilt and the season they had, some victories that come to mind are Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Even the four they've come up short on were very close games.''
The Cougars, who joined the American Athletic Conference in 2013 after 17 years in Conference USA, are making their eighth postseason trip in the past 11 seasons.