Last December, I noted that it seemed like Vanderbilt was actually trying to be a player in the SEC. It extended James Franklin's contract and decided to spend some money on upgrading facilities for once. VU's ceiling is probably the same as that of the Rich Brooks era at Kentucky, but those teams went to bowls annually and one even beat the eventual national champion in 2007. It's good living for a school like Vandy (or Kentucky).
It looks like the effort to make bowls more often did not just end with the announcements of last winter.
Yesterday, Vanderbilt announced its full 2013 slate concurrently with the entire SEC conference schedule. The four non-conference opponents on it are I-AA Austin Peay, brand new I-A program UMass, UAB, and Wake Forest. OK, so what? That's not out of line with many SEC schools' policy of a single BCS opponent and three cupcakes.
Well, it's notable given what next year's schedule was looking like previously. Here is what the indispensable NationalChamps.net had as the future schedule for Vandy prior to the announcement.
Now, no one can play five non-conference games (if one isn't at Hawaii) and eight SEC games. However, Vandy chose to pull out of both the series with Northwestern and the game with Ohio State. That means this wasn't just a move to get the 2013 slate in line. It was a choice to remove Big Ten teams in favor of cupcakes.
VU also didn't handle it well, only sending letters in the mail to cancel the games rather than doing it via a phone call (or in person in Northwestern's case, when the teams played earlier this year). Ohio State AD Gene Smith said he had an idea this might happen, but Northwestern was apparently blindsided by the cancellation.
James Franklin talked on the weekly SEC coaches teleconference yesterday about how he didn't want his school to play a particularly tough schedule:
"I think the best thing that you can do to teach your team how to win is by winning, and that's why when you look across this league and across the country, that's why you see people scheduling the way they do early in the season, to try to get some success." ...
"This whole strength of schedule thing only matters if you are playing for the national championship," Franklin said. "At the end of the season, if you are 12-0, people are not going to say, 'Well, this was an ugly win or this was against this team or this was against that team.' They say you are undefeated."
Franklin's comments here go a bit higher than Vandy's ceiling, but he is right. Teams schedule cupcakes in September to get their seasons off to a good start. He knows the difference well, having started quickly last season and slowly this year.
I don't think anyone should blame Vanderbilt for going this route. It is not a high profile football factory, and no one really does care about its strength of schedule. When a program has single digit bowl appearances, it's perfectly fine for it to line up some empty calories to chase some marginal postseason match ups. The school just chose a really crappy way to go about employing this kind of strategy.
This development is just further proof of the school becoming more of a real SEC program. First it spends some money on coaches and facilities, and now it tries to make some with more body bag games and bowl appearances. Maybe next time, go about it with a little more grace.
Vanderbilt is officially blaming the new SEC schedule for having to back out of these games. OK, but I don't know of any other league schools that had to back out of non-conference games to make this thing work. Either Vandy drew the short straw, or they didn't fight too hard to keep these games.