Despite being outgained in lopsided fashion against N.C. State on Monday, there's really not much mystery about how Vanderbilt won easily in the Music City Bowl: Turnovers. The Commodores took the ball away from the Wolfpack five times -- including three interceptions, which are arguably less subject to luck than fumble recoveries -- and didn't cough it up once.
Aside from that, it was Zac Stacy's day. Frequently operating from the Wildcat, or whatever it's called at Vanderbilt, Stacy carried the ball 25 times for 107 yards and a touchdown. At one point early in the game, the Commodores were running plays almost exclusively with Stacy lining up under center. Jordan Rodgers once again had a Jordan Rodgers kind of day, going 16-of-25 passing for 108 yards and two touchdowns.
This year, that's all Vanderbilt has needed. Skeptics will point out (and already are on Twitter) that Vanderbilt didn't face any of the Big Three in the SEC West -- and in fact, they didn't play any of the top four, missing Mississippi State in the interdivision rotation. It's a fair point. If the Commodores continue to go 5-0 against the weaker teams in the SEC and 0-3 against Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, they're not going to make any real progress in the division standings.
But even for Vanderbilt, going 5-3 in the SEC against any schedule combination is progress. And these kind of dynamics don't change overnight. It took Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier more than a decade to turn South Carolina into a player in the SEC East, and the Gamecocks had a far shorter distance to travel (though South Carolina also suffered plenty of self-inflicted wounds at the end of the Holtz era). If James Franklin is really going to make Vanderbilt more than a Rich Brooks-vintage Kentucky, it's going to take time.
Though the Commodores will soon get a chance to prove -- once again, as if they needed to -- that the New Vanderbilt is for real. They open up 2013 against an increasingly dangerous Ole Miss and travel to College Station to take on Texas A&M. The rest of the conference road slate includes South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee. An eight-win season next year might be as impressive as a nine-win season this year.
That's life in the SEC. If James Franklin really is building the kind of program he says he's building -- and for the moment, his focus looks to be remaining in Nashville -- then he's going to have to start winning some of those tougher games.
After all, doing something that hasn't been done at Vanderbilt in 97 years is big enough to build some momentum. But capitalizing on that is where the reward lies -- and that's the harder task, as Vanderbilt and its fans are about to find out.