Nov. 25, 2013
When a member of a league claims a national championship, it is only natural for the other members of a conference to increase their level of competitiveness. When a league is responsible for seven straight national championships by four different schools, a heightened degree of competitiveness isn't just expected by members of the league, it is often mandated.
Such has been the case with the Southeastern Conference, which is on the doorstep of vying for an eighth straight national championship.
As the competition has continued to improve in the league, more of a premium has been placed on wins in the conference. Because conference wins are so difficult to come by, there is an added importance to winning games in non-conference play.
Under Coach James Franklin, Vanderbilt has not just won non-conference games, it has done so convincingly. Add in consecutive seasons of finishing .500 or better in league play, and suddenly Vanderbilt is staring at the possibility of back-to-back eight-win regular seasons for the first time since 1927 and 1928.
On Saturday, Vanderbilt hosts Wake Forest in its final game of the regular season. The game will start at 11:21 a.m. and will be televised by SEC TV. The Commodores will be gunning for their eighth win of the season and also a 4-0 record in non-conference play.
In nearly three seasons under Franklin, Vanderbilt is 10-1 in non-conference regular season games. It is the fewest regular season losses over a three-year span since 1992, 1993 and 1994 when Vanderbilt went 8-1 in non-conference play.
To find the last time Vanderbilt went 10-1 over the course of 11 non-conference games, you have to go back to the 1973, 1974, 1975 and 1976 seasons when Vanderbilt was at one time 14-1 against non-SEC foes. The Commodores also won all 12 non-conference games played in 1973, 1974 and 1975.
Vanderbilt's recent success in non-conference play has helped pave the way to three straight bowl appearances - a first in school history.
In 2011, Vanderbilt went 4-0 in non-conference play and secured bowl eligibility by defeating Wake Forest in the final game of the regular season. In 2012, Vanderbilt won three of four non-league games and this year the Commodores are 3-0.
In the 11 non-conference games, Vanderbilt has outscored its opponents 443-158. Outside of Vanderbilt's loss at Northwestern in 2012, the team's only game closer than 17 points was a three-point win over Connecticut in 2011.
Included in the sample size are two meetings with Wake Forest. The Commodores have outscored the Demon Deacons 96-28 in the two games. Vanderbilt will hope to continue its success against the Demon Deacons Saturday in a matchup of two teams heading in opposite directions.
Vanderbilt has won three straight games and Wake Forest has dropped four in a row.
Senior Day Festivities
Vanderbilt will recognize 20 seniors before Saturday's game. The Senior Day ceremony will commence at 10:50 a.m. The group will depart Vanderbilt as the only senior class in school history to play in three bowl games.
"I'm really excited with this being Senior Day to be able to honor these seniors that have a chance to go down in Vanderbilt history as the most successful senior class," Franklin said. "I really think it is important that we send these guys out the right way and that is how we play out on the field. And that is also from a community and campus standpoint in supporting these guys, packing the stadium, and sending these guys out the right way."
Those participating in the festivities will be: Karl Butler, Austyn Carta-Samuels, Steven Clarke, Hasan Clayton, Chase Garnham, Andre Hal, Wesley Johnson, Jonathan Krause, Kenny Ladler, Fitz Lassing, Javon Marshall, Jordan Matthews, Walker May, Jared Morse, Warren Norman, Trent Pruitt, Carey Spear, Patrick Sutton, Wesley Tate and Chase White.
"I want to make sure everyone understands the hard work and sacrifice these seniors have made to lay a foundation for this program for year's to come," Franklin added. "I know myself, as well as the rest of the coaching staff, couldn't be more appreciative of the commitment these young men have made."
For the seniors, it will be their last opportunity to play at Vanderbilt Stadium, but the finality of it all is not something they want to spend a lot of time contemplating.
"I really don't sit and think about it," Jordan Matthews said. "I know we have a game to play against Wake Forest and my goal is going to be to help the team win. That stuff may hit me later on, but now I don't dwell on it."
Added Walker May: "You won't think about it until later. It is something that is a cool experience, but it will hit us later. When the applause comes, we will soak that moment in, but at the end of the day, you still have a game to play."
Vanderbilt will also honor the late Rajaan Bennett, a member of the 2010 signing class. Bennett was tragically killed two weeks after National Signing Day.
Franklin Showers Nikita Whitlock with Praise
In three years of attending press conferences with Coach Franklin, I can't recall a player who has received more praise from the Vanderbilt head coach than Wake Forest senior nose guard Nikita Whitlock did on Monday.
"Nikita Whitlock might be my favorite player in all of college football," Franklin said. "I love watching this guy play. He's 5-foot-11, 250 lbs. He is like the Tasmanian Devil."
Although undersized, Whitlock has recorded 17 tackles for a loss, including nine sacks. He also is fourth on the team in total tackles.
"He's unbelievably active," Franklin continued. "He's unbelievably strong and I enjoy watching him play. I've even mentioned it to some of our young players that he would be a good guy to watch and learn from."
Franklin Supportive of Targeting Rule
Vanderbilt received its second targeting penalty of the season Saturday against Tennessee when Kenny Ladler was hit with a 15-yard penalty and ejected for a helmet-to-helmet hit.
"The game has changed," Franklin said. "I'm not going to ever be a person that's going to complain because we are going to embrace the change. We need to protect our sport and the best thing that we can do is what we are doing and that is why we have come up with these rules. I'm in full support."