Just what is this Vanderbilt program now?
Is it Rich Brooks' Kentucky? I don't know if that comparison quite fits. On the one hand, Brooks's Wildcats were more accomplished, with a number of good wins including one over eventual national champ LSU in 2007. Vanderbilt's only wins over bowl squads (in an admittedly shorter time frame) are over 6-7 Wake Forest in 2011 and 7-6 NC State in 2012. On the other, Vanderbilt is currently recruiting better on a recruiting service rankings basis than Brooks ever did, so its ceiling is higher. It's not the right analogy.
What about Stanford? It's a program that Vandy's leadership had in mind when it hired Franklin. Well, at least so far, Franklin doesn't seem to be Jim Harbaugh. However, almost no one has won like he has in a similar stage of a career in the history of football (which is kind of weird to say). It's hard to imagine Vanderbilt making a BCS bowl in 2014, which would be the same timeframe for when Stanford made one under Harbaugh. The SEC is a bit more stacked than the Pac-10 was in 2009-10. That's not quite it.
Maybe Northwestern? The Wildcats have bounced around between six and 10 wins over the past six seasons. Sometimes they've been relative pushovers and sometimes they've challenged the big boys, but always they've punched above their weight in terms of resources and tradition. No amount of good coaching and sheer enthusiasm can fully make up for the fact that Vandy's stadium is by far the smallest in the SEC, the team has fewer bowl appearances all-time than most people have fingers, and the amount of money the school can deploy is among the lowest in the league.
You don't need me to tell you that becoming Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern would be pretty good living for a program accustomed to being a doormat. Is that all it will be, or could more be in store?
It's hard to say if 2013 is going to be the season we will find that out in large part to key departures on offense. WR Jordan Matthews is a player who would start on most teams in the country, but he's lost his throwing buddy Jordan Rodgers. Is a guy who was merely OK at Wyoming before transferring to Nashville going to suffice as a replacement? Austyn Carta-Samuels will let us know this fall. Zac Stacy was a very productive back, but he's now a St. Louis Ram. Will Brian Kimbrow fulfill his recruiting ranking and be a big time back? His stats from 2012 look good for a freshman, but cupcake games pad them quite a bit.
Thanks to a non-conference schedule that Brooks would approve of, a third consecutive bowl is well within the grasp of this fall's team. Road games at South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Florida are probably games the team would lose anywhere anyway, so that clears up the home slate for key winnable matchups with schools like Ole Miss and a Missouri team it beat last year. The Commodores only need to knock off one of those in addition to not blowing it versus Kentucky and Wake Forest to hit the postseason. Given that coaches who experience a big second year pop (like Franklin did) usually see a down year in their third or fourth season, a 6-6 campaign that gives Vandy its first honest-to-goodness bowl streak would be a definite win.
So while one season can't tell you anything about the long term, 2013 can inform us of a few things. If the team can't become bowl eligible even with this soft a non-conference schedule (Austin Peay, UMass, UAB, and Wake), then it will show that Vanderbilt still has some distance to go to even being Brooks' Kentucky. If it can hit the eight-win plateau in the regular season again despite losing Rodgers and Stacy, then it might already be where Northwestern is.
I don't really know where Vandy is on the scale, and deep down, I wonder if those in charge of the program really know it either. Once the fall of 2013 has run its course, we'll all have a much better idea overall.