Music City Bowl: Win Arguments Without Stress

The 2012 Music City Bowl, it must be said, could provide something of a trap for the Vanderbilt football program and its fan base. It's important to try to shoot for the moon against North Carolina State, yet not get depressed or worried if things don't work out.

Having a conversation about Vanderbilt football these days is a wonderfully strange, disorienting experience. It's trippy, giddy, and full of what could be viewed as a football collection of "first-world problems." Here we are, looking at an eight-win Vanderbilt team, the first in 30 years to pull off such a feat. Here we are, looking at a VU crew that has reached back-to-back bowl games for the first time ever, a program that has made bowl games in three of five seasons for the first time ever. Here we are, looking at a team that thrashed Tennessee at home by 23 points and beat SEC newcomer Missouri – the same program that came within one win of playing for the 2007 season's national championship – on the road. Here we are in this brave new world of Vanderbilt football…

… and we're arguing about the Commodores and James Franklin somehow not being good enough. Yes, this is a first-world football problem if there ever was one.

Sure, Vanderbilt didn't beat an FBS team with a winning record in 2012. Of course, Vanderbilt benefited from the implosion of Auburn and the impotence of Derek Dooley. Yes, there's little question that Vanderbilt's 2008 and 2011 seasons would not have produced bowl bids in 1982, when the bowl market was tighter and six losses meant a losing season. Yet, for all of those realities, what a blessed thing it is for such arguments about Vanderbilt's quality to even occur in the first place! What a sign of improvement, an indicator of relevance, it must be for the Commodore Nation to get into tussles with football commentators, defending the merits of their head coach on a national level.

On this point, every member of the national college football community can agree: By merely getting Vanderbilt to win and win decisively against bad teams, James Franklin has changed the equation in Nashville. By merely lifting Vanderbilt to a place where it takes care of business against inferior foes, Franklin has substantially elevated the Dores' place on the college football food chain. Even though one is free to advance the (very debatable) opinion that an SEC record of 5-3 against none of the SEC West's top three teams is not very special (at least on an absolute scale), one is most assuredly NOT free to opine that a 5-3 SEC record is nothing to write home about for Vanderbilt football.

Nothing to write home about?!?! Vanderbilt football players have written so many letters to Mom and Grandma over the past few weeks that it's impossible to keep track of how much work the postal service has done. The matter was expressed succinctly and elegantly by a Vanderbilt tweep on Twitter a few weeks ago. This "Anchor Down" advocate said that while national writers might be inclined to pick apart and minimize Vanderbilt's SEC record and – by extension – the enormity of Franklin's achievements as head coach, "For us long-suffering Vanderbilt fans, he has earned our fawning."

Indeed, Franklin has. This program has so many more miles to go in order to reach the second tier of the SEC (the one below Alabama and LSU, with the SEC East experiencing annual shifts) and a more central place in the college football realm, but the growth in Vanderbilt football over the past few years has been pronounced and unmistakable. This brings us to the backdrop of the Music City Bowl against North Carolina State. It's a backdrop finely poised between competing appearances, between competing sets of expectations. With the presidential race still a relatively fresh memory, it's important to tap into a core piece of presidential politics, especially before the first presidential debate: Don't inflate expectations. Don't crank up the hype machine so much that your morale takes a hit when the target isn't reached.

Yes, it's obviously true that in order to make a more ringing and resounding statement about its legitimacy on a national level (and NOT in relationship to its own snake-bitten football history, which it has already lapped several times…), Vanderbilt needs to blow the doors off a decent team, a winning team, a team that's capable of appreciable quality. North Carolina State is not a colossus by any stretch, but the Wolfpack did beat Florida State earlier this year, and they generally play at least one or two games every season in which they look like world-beaters. Smacking an under-resourced Wake Forest team is one thing. Beating N.C. State by a 55-21 score would open a lot of eyes around the country and create the well-founded belief that Vanderbilt could produce a 10-2 season in the near future. A blowout of the Pack would enable Franklin to sell his team (and would-be recruits) on the continued meteoric rise of Vanderbilt football. The five wins against mediocre SEC teams would fade in significance; the pronounced upward trajectory of the program would be too sexy, too impossible to ignore.

BUT… (you knew that was coming, right?) for all the ways in which Vanderbilt should INTERNALLY expect a lot more of itself, the program needs to keep the big picture in mind in terms of the national version of the expectations game, the way in which the non-VU public sees the Dores from the outside.

If this Music City Bowl does not create a sick, slick, make-everything-click masterpiece, the Commodores need to realize that they have still produced an entirely successful 2012 season. This edition of the Music City Bowl does not involve the pressure attached to the 2008 edition against Boston College. That was a day when Vanderbilt needed to acquit itself well; a loss would have popped the balloon and left something unachieved. (This is pure armchair speculation, of course, but maybe – just maybe – Bobby Johnson wouldn't have stepped down before the 2010 season if he had lost that bowl game, setting in motion the chain of events that eventually brought Franklin to Nashville. Think about THAT for a bit…)

No, this is not a high-pressure game for Vanderbilt. It should be seen as a reward for a quality season and a chance to add to something that's already quite substantial. Knowing that it did not beat any of the SEC's six 10-win teams, Vanderbilt – while rightly reveling in its success and savoring the satisfactions of its newfound place in the college football pecking order – does not have to acquire an inflated sense of achievement. Going for the downs in this game and trying to make a statement is great – moreover, it's exactly what these players should aim for. However, if the mark is missed, there should not be the slightest sense that anything truly meaningful has been lost. Building, growing, developing – these are the goals the Dores put in front of themselves when the 2012 season began, and they're the goals that have been fully achieved. Next year is a time to make even more progress, but this bowl game sits on something of an island, as an opportunity… but one without a downside if left unclaimed.

Do you see how the expectations game should work in this Music City Bowl? Vanderbilt should try to win the argument concerning its legitimacy, stature and heft in a brave new college football world. Yet, the Dores should try to win that argument without worrying about any negative fallout that might emerge in the event that they lose.

Such negative fallout should not exist. Not now. Not yet. Not for this Vanderbilt team in the place it currently inhabits.

If, two years from now, Vanderbilt is 9-3 and playing in this same kind of game, a win would be a non-negotiable "must" for the program… but of course, we haven't gotten there yet. We haven't arrived at the point where even bigger "first-world problems" exist in the happy new place known as Vanderbilt University football.

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