Vanderbilt preps for bowl as Franklin draws interest

James Franklin has led the Commodores to three straight bowl games for the first time in program history.

Jim Brown/Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As his name swirls as a possible candidate to fill various college football and NFL coaching vacancies, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin and the Commodores have stayed the course.

It comes with the rarefied air of playing in a bowl game three consecutive seasons when Vanderbilt (8-4) faces Houston (8-4) on Saturday at noon in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. In guiding the program to an unprecedented three straight postseason games, Franklin has surfaced as a possible candidate for college vacancies at Texas and Penn State, as well as reportedly getting looks from the NFL.

Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams confirmed Wednesday that he has been approached by people seeking permission to talk with Franklin. But Williams wouldn’t say whether they were from the college and/or NFL ranks, whether permission had been granted, and that any of those conversations had taken place.

When asked directly earlier this week about any contact concerning other job openings, Franklin quickly deflected and answered how excited he was about the Vanderbilt program and its opportunity to win bowl games in consecutive years for the first time. But he did acknowledge today that all the attention he is receiving as a possible coaching candidate at other schools is nothing new.

"This isn’t the first year," Franklin said of how the team, his staff and himself handle his being mentioned as a candidate for job openings during the days leading up to the bowl games. "For three years, we’ve been going through this. So, I think they kind of understand that now."

According to Franklin, there is a reason he feels the team is not distracted as it prepares to play the Cougars.

"It’s the consistency in our message," said Franklin, who with a win Saturday can guide the Commodores to consecutive nine-win seasons for the first time. "We don’t talk about any of the things that are outside of our control. We don’t talk about anything outside of what our goal and objective is, which is to win our next game.

"Every single person in this organization, that’s what their focus is on. And the fact that we do that throughout the year just trains us for whatever situation may come up"

Like him being so attractive to other schools. Then again, Franklin confirmed this week that five assistant coaches have been contacted about being potential candidates for other head coaching vacancies. Featuring offensive coordinator John Donovan and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, Vanderbilt’s staff was one of only nine in the country to return intact this season from 2012.

"If that’s their goal, and that’s what they want to do, we want that for them," Franklin said of his approach with his coaches who might interview elsewhere, while also possibly allowing a glimpse into his personal philosophy as well.

"We want guys to have a chance to go on and be coordinators," he added. "We have guys who have chances to go on and be head coaches. I think that is very, very important. "I think that speaks volumes about what we are doing, and people are noticing that. So, (I’m) very, very proud of those guys. So far, we have been able to sustain and keep our staff together."

There are several reasons Franklin has remained as Commodores coach despite opportunities to move elsewhere. He got a new contract with pay raises and extensions after each of the last two seasons, there are plans for a complete renovation and expansion of Vanderbilt Stadium, and a new $31 million indoor practice facility opened in early November. In fact, the indoor facility came in handy for recent practice sessions for the bowl game while temperatures fell below freezing in Nashville. Senior wide receiver Jordan Matthews appreciated going indoors a time or two.

"Keeping us outside the whole time and going against the elements," he said, "sometimes guys can lose a little bit of focus. Changing the scenery, changing the atmosphere, guys are going to go in there and fly around subconsciously, so I thought it was a really good idea."

Already named to five All-America teams, Matthews closes a college career Saturday that has him leaving as the most prolific receiver in SEC history. Among league records are career leader in receptions (257) and receiving yardage (3,616) as well as being the league’s only receiver to have more than 100 catches in a season (107).

"I’m looking forward to it," Matthews said of playing his final college game. "I’m not sad about anything. I have no regrets. I have enjoyed every moment playing with these guys."

But one of those guys won’t be able to play Saturday. Senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels is out after undergoing knee surgery in early December. He will be replaced by redshirt freshman Patton Robinette, who played extensively this season and helped the team win at Florida on Oct. 13 in his second career start.

While Carta-Samuels is more of a traditional drop-back passer, Robinette can run as well as pass out of the read option. The team also uses wildcat formations in the backfield where the ball is directly snapped to a running back.

"We are going to try to get the ball to our playmakers like we always do on offense," Franklin said of the offensive approach with Robinette at the lead. "We are going to need to establish the running game. And we’re still going to run the quarterback, because that’s a big part of Patton’s game. So, it won’t change anything from that perspective."

Defensively, the Commodores face a Houston offense led by quarterback John O’Korn, the AAC Rookie of the Year after his 26 touchdown passes were the most among true freshmen in the country. His favorite target is sophomore wide receiver Deontay Greenberry, who was first-team all-league after topping the AAC at 100.5 receiving yards per game.

"They have a solid passing attack as well as a running attack," Commodores senior linebacker Karl Butler said. "Like we have been saying all season, we feel like we have the best secondary in the nation. (Defensive) line is going to get pressure, linebackers are going to do what they have to do, and our secondary is going to rise to the occasion."

Franklin said he wasn’t concerned that it will be 45 days between games when the Commodores play Saturday. They beat Wake Forest 23-21 in Nov. 30 to finish the regular season on a five-game winning streak.

The down time allowed for one week of no practices as the players took final exams, followed by a week of practice, another week off for Christmas and a return to practice last Friday. The team traveled to Birmingham on Tuesday.

"The Jan. 4 bowl, for a lot of people, you look at that and you don’t know how that is going to work out," Franklin said. "For us from a scheduling perspective, it was unbelievable. It was nothing else but practice and food and resting and treatment."