There have been a ton of surprises this SEC season, but perhaps the biggest happened at the bottom.
By STEVE EUBANKS FS South
There are six SEC teams ranked in the top 10 in the BCS standings. And Texas A&M is still riding high after upsetting Alabama.
But those aren't the biggest surprises in the conference. That award goes to the perennial bottom-dwellers, the homecoming opponents, the teams that coaches and fans once chalked up as an automatic W's.
Not anymore. While no one was looking, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss climbed out of the cellar and went from lap dogs to pit bulls. And every team they play is taking them seriously now.
Rebels played each other last week with bowl eligibility on the line. Vandy won, and in so doing played itself into bowl contention for the second consecutive year. If it seems like a long time since that happened, it's because it had never happened, ever. In 112 years of Vandy football, this is the first time the ‘Dores will play in back-to-back bowl games.
They are understandably thrilled, but they also aren't looking too far ahead.
"Our goal is to be 1-0 after this week," coach James Franklin told Fox Sports South. "That's the way we approach every game."
They have a very good shot at being 1-0 this week when they play in-state rival Tennessee and 1-0 again next week after playing Wake Forest. Add all those up, and the Commodores could very well finish the season with eight wins.
"We're playing to our strengths, we're playing to our personnel and we're finding ways to win," Franklin said.
There will be lots of talk about Vandy's defense, which ranks 16th in the country in points allowed, and quarterback Jordan Rodgers, whose brother Aaron was on the sideline to see the Commodores pick up their sixth win of the year.
But those are tangential reasons for Vandy's success. The real difference is Franklin.
"After every game, I go over the different firsts with the team and some of the things we've accomplished," the dynamic coach said in his usually intense way. "But we plan on getting to a point with our program where we move past all of these firsts and there's a culture of winning here at Vanderbilt that everyone expects.
"That's why all the talk about making it to a bowl game doesn't really register with me. Our goals are to win a national championship and an SEC championship. We're not going to limit ourselves by settling for anything less."
A few years ago, such talk would have been laughable. Nobody is laughing now.
Nor is anyone taking the comments of Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze lightly these days. Just like Franklin, Freeze took a disheveled program with few athletes and fewer realistic goals and turned it into a contender.
The Rebs are one win away from bowl eligibility less than 12 months after going 2-10 and winless in the SEC. And while Ole Miss is a massive underdog against LSU, you only have to listen to Freeze for a minute or two to realize that he has his team believing it can not only win this game, but also the next and the next, and eventually a championship.
Take, for example, his comments about Randall Mackey, the former quarterback who was suspended for three games last year for all sorts of nefarious conduct. No one, including Freeze, knew how Mackey would fit into the new system or how he would get along with the new coach.
Now, Freeze speaks of him like the Prodigal Son.
"Randall Mackey is one of my favorite kids on my team," Freeze said during his Wednesday media teleconference. "I've fallen in love with him as a young man and a kid. When I first got here, I didn't know if he would make it in what we were going to ask him to do. I could not be more pleased with his turnaround both academically, socially and athletically.
"Some kids, going into their senior year being asked to change positions and do some different things, could have a sour attitude. Randall has been nothing but a great young man to coach, and I couldn't be more proud of him."
Freeze demands a lot from his players, but he heaps praise on those who follow. And they are following him with all their heart in Oxford.
Leadership matters. Vanderbilt and Ole Miss didn't move campuses, they didn't substantially upgrade their facilities and they didn't suddenly become the place every four-star recruit had to see. What they did was hire men whose charisma and force of will turned loses into winners.