Two weeks into the season, Vanderbilt's James Franklin already feels like he needs to rally the troops a bit:
Stay positive & stick w/ the plan, we ARE building something special,stick 2gether,believe in urself & stay the course,I promise its coming!— James Franklin (@jamesfranklinvu) September 10, 2012
That was from this morning. He followed it up with a rather Saban-like, "Trust the Process!" a couple hours later. The AP went so far as to say that Franklin is "in spin mode" after expressing some positive thoughts after his team's 0-2 start. It's certainly a different feel through two weeks after he started out 2-0 in his debut season.
As far as I'm concerned, I don't think any spinning is required. The difference in the two years is entirely found in the schedule. The Commodores kicked off last season with Elon and an eventual 5-7 UConn team. This season, they began with SEC East co-favorite South Carolina and a decent Northwestern program that has won at least six games each of the past five seasons. If you think of Vandy as a marginal bowl team, then going 0-2 against those two is no more disappointing this year than going 2-0 was exciting last year. The expected outcome happened in the first game of each season, and the coin flip went for them last year and against them this year. That's life.
But, alas, that's not the kind of life Franklin wants to lead. He has been working feverishly since arriving in Nashville not just to turn the team around, but also to change the entire narrative around the program. "Same old Vandy" is the last thing he wants said about his work, and 0-2 starts are the kind of thing that leads to it being said by lazy pundits and casual fans.
This clearly is not the same old Vandy, though. They gave the Gamecocks all the could handle, and the box score with Northwestern is either even or tilted in Vandy's favor in just about every category except turnovers. It is worrying to see Franklin talking like there might be a quarterback controversy after Jordan Rodgers took control of the job last year, but such a development hasn't arrived just yet.
When looking at what Franklin did last year, I couldn't help but think about Steve Spurrier taking over at South Carolina. He came in looking to change the culture, and it looked like he did it fairly quickly. He went 7-5 his first year with a win over Florida and three losses of one score or less, and he nearly knocked off the eventual national champion en route to an 8-5 season the next year. The path to bigger winning seemed clear.
Except, it wasn't. The Gamecocks sunk back to 6-6 in 2007, closing out the year with five consecutive losses and
a brawl with Clemson that led to a declined bowl season no bowl. The team went 7-6 in each of the following two years, leaving Spurrier a record of no more than eight wins in a season and at least five losses every year in his first half decade. It wasn't until his sixth year that he broke through and won the East, and he took it up even further last year by winning 11 games. The project was harder and took longer than I think anyone, most of all Spurrier himself, believed.
If it took Spurrier, a national champion who even won the ACC at Duke, that long to change the culture at South Carolina, what are the odds that Franklin could turn Vanderbilt all the way around in just one year? Not great, for sure.
Facing an 0-2 start is only a small test of Franklin's change of attitude in Nashville. He'll pick up his first win of the year against I-AA Presbyterian College this weekend, but it gets really tough really quickly after that. VU has a road game at Georgia, a road game at Missouri, and home game against Florida to follow. A 1-5 start is far from out of the question, leaving him room for only one miscue the rest of the way to come through on historic back-to-back bowl bids. It's doable given how awful Auburn looks, but that's not much margin of error.
Yes, this season has a different feel to it for James Franklin. His message of optimism has been blunted by the team's 0-2 start, and that message is in danger of getting as many eye rolls as Dan Mullen does whenever the Bulldog boss talks about how he wants to win the conference. How well Franklin handles the coming rough patch will tell us a lot more about how he is as a coach and will speak a little more to what degree last year was real.