A Sign of Future Fulfillment

It's true that the Army Black Knights lost their starting quarterback late in the first half of Saturday night's game in Nashville, but the Vanderbilt Commodores still had to do something about the situation. They responded magnificently, showing yet again that a different vibe is entering the lungs of this program.

You can feel it now, and you've been able to feel it over the past eight weekends. There really is a different air about the Vanderbilt football family. The pieces aren't all in place. The progressions of players are still unfolding as these student athletes learn a new system. Problems have not been eliminated. Moreover, it has to be said that Vandy is moving upward in the SEC pecking order more because Kentucky and Tennessee have regressed, not (entirely) because VU has gotten better. Yet, it's definitely clear: Vanderbilt is indeed improving – do not discount or diminish that truth. The competitive subculture of the program, which was decent and entirely respectable under Bobby Johnson, has found a noticeably higher ceiling under James Franklin (with more room for growth in the years to come.

In many ways, the summation of Vanderbilt football through week eight of the season is that the team is taking on the personality of its head coach. Given the considerable impact Franklin has had on the VU crew in his recruiting, circuit speaking, and locker room presence, it's unquestionably positive that the team is following Franklin's lead on the field as well. This team, in a word, is feisty. It punches back harder and more quickly than past VU incarnations. Bobby Johnson-coached Commodore clubs were resolute, determined accumulations of athletes with a clear lunch-pail mentality. Franklin's teams work just as hard as Johnson's teams did, but the key is that while playing just as hard, they compete better. This might seem like a purely semantic distinction, but it's quite germane to understanding the progress Franklin has made, evident in Saturday's comfortable win over an undermanned opponent from the United States Military Academy.

Let's appreciate what Vanderbilt did on Saturday. Sure, Army quarterback Trent Steelman – the anchor of the Black Knights' offense in realms tactical and emotional – left the game with an injury just before the two-minute mark of the second quarter. Naturally, Vanderbilt was able to fatten up on some of its stats in the second half because Army lacked a reliable field general and was therefore unable to control the ball for any prolonged amount of time. The Commodores, in a game of attrition, had more manpower than an opponent, a scenario which doesn't ordinarily unfold. The dynamics of this particular confrontation favored Vanderbilt, it's true. Yet, one still has to look at what the Dores did when handed this opportunity.

Vanderbilt's starting quarterback, Jordan Rodgers, completed only 10 of 27 passes for under 200 yards. He threw two interceptions. On most gamedays when Vandy's starting quarterback completes well below 50 percent of his passes and tosses two picks, the Dores would get blasted. Instead, they rolled up over 500 yards of total offense and hung up a "44" spot against an Army defense that contained San Diego State (not a bad offense) and Northwestern (not a great offense, but a respectable one to be sure). Rodgers, for his part, ran for 96 yards and did not allow his manifestly inconsistent passing to affect the way he attacked the game: with passion, vigor, and an insistence on making the next play better than his last one. Rodgers and the rest of the VU crew simply compete better than past VU teams did. It's not word-splitting; it's a real part of coaching.

Competing hard is one thing; competing well is another. "Competing hard" means giving an honest effort on every snap, finishing every play to its full conclusion and not taking anything for granted in any sequence of actions. "Competing well" is not quite the same thing – this greater virtue in big-ticket athletics is more a matter of finding higher levels of both inspiration and ingenuity within the crucible of gameday jousting. Competing well is not just the effort level in isolation, but the companion ability to summon extra ounces of it in meaningful moments while also finding the solutions needed to maximize one's strengths. This is also called – to use a clichéd but very relevant phrase in the sporting lexicon – "winning without your best stuff." It's what Vanderbilt did against Connecticut early in the season – that win is so huge right now in terms of VU's bowl prospects – and it's definitely what Rodgers and Company did against Army. Bobby Johnson did a really good job of lifting VU to a higher level (especially in 2008) precisely because he got his team to compete hard on a relentlessly and admirably consistent basis. Franklin is taking that competitive standard and elevating it by any reasonable measurement.

Let's realize that two years ago, Vanderbilt went to Army to play the very same Black Knights at West Point. Warren Norman had a great game as a kick returner, but he fumbled on the Army 1 late in the contest. He faltered precisely when he needed to be better, not worse. Vanderbilt's defense limited Army to just 16 points in an overtime game, but because the offense committed so many crucial errors, a lot of sweat and elbow grease were wasted. The levels of vigor and exertion were high for VU that day in West Point, but the quality of the team's response to pressure was lower than low. Pitting that Army game against this Army encounter illustrates the difference between merely competing hard and – on another plateau – competing well. It also shows how Bobby Johnson's best qualities are being improved and added to by Mr. Franklin and the current VU coaching staff.

As long as Vanderbilt can continue to compete well in 2011, the presence of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Wake Forest on the schedule will give this team a very legitimate chance of making a bowl game far sooner than most pundits – but not James Franklin – ever imagined.

Feels different, doesn't it?

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