Vanderbilt Wakes From Its Nightmare // SEC 2011

LEXINGTON KY - NOVEMBER 13: Larry Smith #10 of the Vanderbilt Commodores runs with the ball during the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Commonwealth Stadium on November 13 2010 in Lexington Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The last nine months for Vanderbilt football seem like a bad dream. I have a hard time putting it any other way.

It began when Bobby Johnson abruptly retired right before the 2010 SEC Media Days, an odd choice of timing that put the school in a really bad spot. It's difficult enough for the school to find good head coaches, and it's impossible for just about anyone to find a good one weeks before fall practice. Johnson did enough there to earn the right to step aside whenever he wanted, but he didn't do the program any favors doing it that way.

Vanderbilt quickly named charismatic assistant Robbie Caldwell the interim coach, and getting him out in the spotlight was probably the best thing about the program's last year or so. It took away the interim tag shortly after for who knows what reason, and the team soldiered on the best it could.

The 2010 season was about as unfair as it gets when you talk about the Vanderbilt team. It's always going to be an underdog in the conference, and upheaval in the coaching staff didn't help. Injuries began to mount on top of all of that, and really the team had no shot. After gaining their second win over lowly Eastern Michigan, the Commodores lost their last seven games by at least 14 points each. Statistically, the team wasn't close to the rest of the conference.

Caldwell stepped down after the season, allowing the school to perform a proper head coaching search. It ended up with former Maryland coach-in-waiting James Franklin, who immediately made an impact in recruiting. He actually flipped Virginia Beach QB Lafonte Thourogood from Virginia Tech. You read that correctly: Vanderbilt stole a committed quarterback from the backyard of the reigning ACC champ. It's such an improbable occurrence, it makes me wonder if previous coaching staffs even attempted such feats.

That alone suggests that the arrow should be pointed up for VU, though how much can change in one year is up for debate. What is not debatable is that the program is on much more solid ground going into 2011 than it was in 2010, with a fresh head coach and set of coordinators who will be around for a number of years. The uncertainty that marked last year is gone.

If the injury demons that plagued the program also get exorcised, then the Commodores could make some headway. The schedule doesn't do many favors with Alabama and Arkansas from the West along with road trips to South Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee, but this team probably couldn't reach a bowl anyway.

What is within reach is progress, and that would certainly be welcome after the nightmare of 2010.

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