HOOVER, Ala. — The Wynfrey Hotel’s main entrance opens to a glamorous lobby with a soaring ceiling. Escalators sit to the left, running to and from the media stations on the second floor.
Walking through the lobby, there’s radio row, where dozens of sports personalities broadcast their voices around the country. Past radio row, there’s an exit door that leads to a mall.
Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin walked through all of this last year. No one noticed.
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“I guess it was just because he was the new guy on campus or whatnot,” said running back Zac Stacy, who mentioned that Franklin, naturally, had passed along the story to the team a few times.
But Franklin had a different theory. Newcomers always get lost in the presence of hometown rockstars.
“Last year, I walked in with coach [Nick] Saban. People were throwing babies to him to autograph and everything else,” Franklin said laughing.
Following a bowl appearance and multiple instances of calling into radio shows unannounced, times have changed for Vanderbilt’s head coach and his program.
With different results come varying expectations. Is Vanderbilt — with its returning backfield of Jordan Rodgers and Stacy — truly here to stay under Franklin? Or will the team regress back to a three- or four-win season, leaving the memories of bowl games dancing into dusty history books?
Most believe the former, crediting Franklin as a top-notch coach and recruiter. It’s hard to imagine much complacency under such a dynamic personality, especially after coming off a 6-7 season.
“With the success we had last year, you know we had some success, but people fail to realize that last year was also a losing season for us,” Stacy said. “He has expectations for us and we know those expectations [are taken] to another level as well.”
The offense should be able to achieve those goals. Rodgers returns after a steady redshirt junior season in which he passed for a modest 1,500 yards and nine touchdowns. Stacy broke the school’s rushing record. That offensive firepower should keep points on the board, but the real strides have been made through the attitude on defense.
“We gotta get all 11 people on the field to do their job the right way. We’re not gonna put any pressure on one position,” safety Trey Wilson said. “Defensive linemen make the linebackers look good. Linebackers make us [secondary] look good. When the front seven gets pressure, we gotta do our job on the back end and make plays on the ball. It’s a team effort.”
A collective effort will be needed across the board — players, coaches, administrators, the Nashville community — for the Commodores to change a culture of losing records and redheaded stepchild syndrome.
James Franklin is in the midst of that process.
“Everybody has to be pulling the rope in the same direction so we can create and put a product on the field that people can be really excited about and embrace and take a lot of pride in the black and gold, in the ‘Star V,’ who we are, what we represent,” Franklin said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to build traditions, a program.”
With any luck, some folks might even recognize it.
South Carolina seems primed and ready to make another run back to the SEC Championship. Though they’re still bitter about Georgia’s easier schedule — the Bulldogs play Ole Miss from the West while the Gamecocks take on the LSU Tigers — South Carolina seems to be a team with all the pieces.
For starters, their star running back Marcus Lattimore appears to be on track to start the season. Teammates estimated Lattimore to be at 90 percent right now after watching him “shake linebackers out of their shoes” in workouts earlier in the week. Head coach Steve Spurrier added that he expected Lattimore to be ready to go around August 3rd.
South Carolina’s defense has made a strong commitment to be the No. 1 defense in the country. Though the goal may seem lofty, particularly for a Spurrier-led team, the Gamecocks came in harping the same message with the same enthusiasm. They also couldn’t stop raving about the size and speed of Jadeveon Clowney, who enters his second year on the defensive line for the Gamecocks. The scariest part? Spurrier said there were times the coaching staff was holding their freshman back last season.
Of course, Spurrier has been known to blow smoke every now and then. But if South Carolina comes anywhere close to the high expectations they’ve set for themselves, a trip to Atlanta in December is well within reach.
The Missouri Tigers will fare much better in their first year than Texas A&M. They seem much more prepared and focused for the rigors of the SEC schedule. They also have much more stability within their program, a returning quarterback who’s also pretty good, and they’re playing in the SEC East.
In the long run, the Aggies may be better off simply due to the recruits they can pull in. But in Year 1, while the Aggies undergo a coaching change, league change and quarterback change, they’ll be in for a rude awakening no matter how excited their fans are to be a part of the SEC.