Vanderbilt's bowl season of last year did and did not come as a complete surprise.
It was a surprise because, well, it's hard to overstate just how bad the Commodores' offense had been in the previous two seasons. The "attack" was literally off-the-charts bad, unless one adjusted the scale of the chart specifically to include VU on it. The defense wasn't much better, particularly in 2010. It was just regular-type bad, not soul-hauntingly bad like the offense was.
Then again, Bobby Johnson's teams got better every single year leading up to the bowl run in 2008. The outright collapse across 2009-10 never fully made sense because the program should have been in better shape. Perhaps Johnson just lost the fire in 2009 after hitting the mountaintop, though the plague of injuries and lack of a bye week didn't help things. Certainly his abrupt July retirement didn't help the 2010 team. The 2009-10 Vanderbilt teams underachieved in the true sense of the word. The bounce back in 2011 was something of a correction, to use an economic term.
I say it was only something of a correction because the season went far beyond the realm of a mere reversion to the mean, and no one can say they saw it coming. James Franklin didn't really stand out at Maryland, and most folks probably would have recognized only two members of his coaching staff. One is DC Bob Shoop, who's known as much as anything for having a milquetoast offensive coordinator as a brother, and the other is O-line coach Herb Hand, a RichRod spread-to-run disciple who has a famously low opinion of safeties. Franklin's enthusiasm did shine through at SEC Media Days, but if that's all it took to win games, Ron Zook and Ed Orgeron would have national titles by now.
A simple correction would have been about four or five wins while getting outscored by a noticeable margin. Instead, Franklin took the team to the fifth bowl in school history. Not only that, but it was a far safer bowl team than the previous one was.
The 2008 bowl squad made it to the postseason by just about every football MacGyver trick in the book. The team was net +3 in close games and, at +9, it had the second-highest turnover margin in the conference. D.J. Moore personally gutted out a couple of the wins, it seemed, with his heroics pulling making up for the team being outscored and well outgained on the season. It was exactly the kind of season you'd expect to see when Vandy finally made a bowl.
Franklin's 2011 team outscored and outgained its opponents. By Pythagorean expectation, the team should have won eight games instead of six. It was net -4 in close games, a mark Phil Steele would be quick to tell you is a sign of bad luck and of likely improvement in record the following year. At a margin of +1 on the season, turnover luck was not a factor. The team won both of its SEC games by blowouts, and the last four conference losses were very competitive.
Boosted by that season and great (for Vandy) recent recruiting, the team is aiming to do something that has never happened in school history: attend back-to-back bowls. For reasons we'll go over this week, it won't be an easy task. Even so, it's hard for me to outright bet against James Franklin. Last year's team was literally the best Commodores team in my lifetime (vintage '85), and it was no fluke.
Brace yourself, SEC fans. We might just have to start calling Vandy a "perennial marginal bowl team" like we did for Kentucky for a while. It feels weird, but that could be part of life in the new SEC.