SEC's Biggest Stories in 2011 No. 8: Vanderbilt Goes Bowling

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 17: Casey Hayward #19, Larry Smith #10 and Andre Hal #23 of the Vanderbilt Commodores celebrate after a win against the Ole Miss Rebels at Vanderbilt Stadium on September 17, 2011 in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanderbilt won 30-7. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

When Vanderbilt made a bowl in 2008, it was the culmination of years of building by Bobby Johnson. It was a long climb out of the rut the program had been in since at least the prosperous Gerry DiNardo era where the team won five games in three of four seasons. Of course, it had been since 1982 that the team actually played a postseason game.

When the bottom fell out from under the program, first on offense in 2009 then everything in 2010, it didn't make complete sense to me. Losing Chris Nickson hurt the offense after 2008, but he wasn't a miracle worker. In fact, he was some degree of a step down from his predecessor Jay Cutler. The best explanation might be awful injury luck, something Vandy is the least equipped of any SEC outfit to overcome. Johnson's sudden retirement just before the 2010 SEC Media Days probably didn't help things that fall either, though he had certainly earned the right to hang up his whistle whenever he wanted to.

When James Franklin took over, I was very skeptical of what he would be able to do there. His record at Maryland didn't wow me, and I didn't even pick the team to win a single conference game in the preseason. Boy, was I wrong.

Franklin led the Commodores to their fifth bowl game in school history. If something significant happens for the fifth time since 1890, you can bet that it's going to make our list of top 10 stories. I would argue that this bowl is even bigger for the program than the streak-snapping '08 appearance.

That 2008 Vandy team won four of its six regular season victories by no more than eight points. It made the postseason on a wing and a prayer and some spectacular heroics by D.J. Moore.

In 2011, only one of Vandy's six regular season wins was by just one score. Its two SEC wins over Ole Miss and Kentucky were certifiable blowouts. Its losses to Georgia, Arkansas and Florida were by a combined 13 points, and it took Tennessee to overtime. With bowl eligibility on the line in the final game, the Commodores hammered Wake Forest (who went 5-3 in ACC play) to the tune of 41-7 for their largest margin of victory of the season.

Vandy has a tough test with Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl. Even if the 'Dores don't win that game, it still looks more like a launchpad than mountain top like the '08 Music City Bowl did. Franklin committed to the school and the school committed to him in a big way. Plus if the commitments hold, the 2012 recruiting class will be the best in school history.

I don't know if this will lead to anything more than a few more December bowl appearances in the coming years, but we'll be able to point at this year's bowl trip as the sign that they were coming.

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