Vandy's culture change now includes bowl trip

When he was hired last December as the Commodores' third head coach in five months, James Franklin spoke of changing the culture and building a winner. And most people said, in so many words, "At Vanderbilt?"

   Yes, that Vanderbilt, the one which on Dec. 31 will play just the fifth bowl game in its history when it meets Big East Conference co-champion Cincinnati at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis.
   That Franklin has guided the Commodores from back-to-back 2-10 seasons to a 6-6 record is amazing enough. How he's done it -- mostly with players he didn't recruit -- is the real stunner.
   "They play fast and physical, and have some tremendous playmakers on both sides of the ball," Liberty Bowl executive director Steve Ehrhart said.
   A team which for years and years has been average at best and mostly awful on offense now passes the eye test. It has an identity and real weapons to threaten most defenses not named Alabama or LSU.
   It has a stop unit which is ranked in the top 20 nationally and special teams which for the first time in years are capable of making game-changing plays that help a team win.
   Most of all, it makes opponents uncomfortable. It plays with a swagger on offense and an edge on defense. No longer is it the Southeastern Conference's Mr. Nice Guy. It's now the team which coaches hate to see on the schedule.
   Changes in the offensive line during the meat of SEC play turned Vandy into an abrasive, more athletic bunch. Putting Jordan Rodgers at quarterback gave the team a better passer, allowing it to fully use big, athletic receivers like Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.
   Rodgers' throwing ability kept defenses from packing the tackle box, opening more room for Zac Stacy. Ticketed to back up two-year starter Warren Norman, Stacy became the starter when Norman sustained a season-ending injury in preseason and set the school's single-season rushing record with more than 1,100 yards.  
   Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop put more of an emphasis on attacking and it paid off. The front four made the most plays it's made in years and its ability to get after the passer led to a spate of turnovers. The Commodores returned four interceptions for touchdowns.
   With recruiting keeping pace with success on the field, Vandy might just become a bowl regular under Franklin. School administration moved to keep him in the fold for a while by giving him a contract extension and raise.     
   --QB Jordan Rodgers is the biggest reason the offense is no longer, well, offensive. Taking over for Larry Smith after five games, Rodgers gradually improved his accuracy and was able to make plays with his feet. That allowed the offense to establish an identity as a tough, physical running team which could strike for big plays in the air. 
   --RB Zac Stacy rewrote the school record book this year, breaking a 20-year-old record for most rushing yards in a season with 1,136. Stacy wasn't even supposed to start, but RB Warren Norman sustained a season-ending injury in August and that opened the door for Stacy. He finished with five 100-yard games and was the offense's bread-and-butter.
   --MLB Chris Marve has been a model of consistency from the moment he arrived on Nashville's West End, starting for four years and crafting a career which will leave him as one of the school's all-time leading tacklers. Marve is one of nine seniors who can claim to have played in multiple bowl games, something no one else in school history has accomplished.
   --CB Casey Hayward is arguably the team's top player, capable of locking down one side of the field and forcing opponents to look elsewhere for their passing yardage. Hayward is good enough to help out in run support and has enough skills to have helped out briefly on offense at the season's start while it searched for its identity.
   BOWL HISTORY: The Commodores are 2-1-1 with their last appearance in 2008, a 16-14 upset of Boston College at the Music City Bowl in Nashville. Smith started the game and turned in a mistake-free outing as Vanderbilt finished 7-6, its only winning record in the last 30 years.
   QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm extremely proud of what this group of young men has accomplished and I see better days ahead for the Vanderbilt football program." -- Vice Chancellor of Student Athletics David Williams, after giving coach James Franklin a raise, contract extension and commitment for facility improvement.
   Scouting the running game: Changes in the offensive line at midseason made the difference between an inconsistent outfit and the unit's identity. The insertion of C Logan Stewart gave the line an abrasive reputation and also allowed Wesley Johnson to move to left tackle, making the line more athletic. Getting into a weekly rhythm because of the line's ability to create seams, RB Zac Stacy set a single-season school record for rushing yardage and.
   Scouting the passing game: QB Jordan Rodgers has become more accurate as the season's progressed and is also hitting deep throws down the field. WRs Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd are tough covers, adept at making plays on back-shoulder throws or going into the air to outfight opposing corners, while TE Brandon Barden is a reliable target over the middle. Rodgers must guard against forcing throws into multiple defenders, which cost the team at Tennessee in a bitter OT loss on Nov. 19.
   Scouting the run defense: One of the team's top improvements came here as the line held its ground much better, even though there was some slippage in November. DE Tim Fugger played at an All-SEC level most of the year, while Rob Lohr became a playmaker. MLB Chris Marve played at the standard which marked his first two years after struggling with injury and poor D-line play as a junior.
   Scouting the pass defense: With the line managing to create a consistent pass rush without requiring constant blitzes, the secondary made a spate of plays, returning four interceptions for TDs. Casey Hayward is the leader of the defensive backfield, although opponents can't recklessly pick on Trey Wilson with impunity.
   Scouting the special teams: Fake punts, onside kicks, 11-man rushes to block punts -- there's nothing the coaches won't try to stir the pot. Opponents must constantly be vigilant or else risk allowing a game-altering play. P Richard Kent has been solid for a second straight year, but placekicking cost this team wins against Arkansas and Tennessee.
   Intangibles: Logic would suggest the Commodores will be eager for their rare bowl appearance. The chance for only their second winning season since 1982 also has to appeal to them, particularly seniors who suffered through consecutive 2-10 seasons since a 2008 bowl win. Playing just 200 miles from home should provide them with a crowd advantage over Cincinnati.

   --DT Barron Dixon (knee) left the regular-season finale at Wake Forest Nov. 26 on crutches after going down in the fourth quarter. His status for the Liberty Bowl isn't known.
   --LG Ryan Seymour returned to the lineup at Wake Forest, helping beef up the offensive line, and should be at 100 percent for the bowl game. Seymour adds experience to the unit.
   --S Andre Simmons has been indefinitely suspended from the program for his alleged role in an armed robbery last month. Simmons has been charged with aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary. Top Stories