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"We're going to play like a big-time program," Franklin says. "We're going to act like a big-time program. They're going to be treated like [they play for] a big-time program."
The Commodores beat the reigning Big East champion 24--21 to improve to 2--0—matching their win total from each of the last two seasons. Franklin said it would have been more fun to blow out the Huskies, but winning at the end, largely with defense, might have been better. "I actually think we'll get a lot more out of winning that way than we would the other way," he said. "That was the kind of game that in the past, Vanderbilt didn't find a way to win."
Winning SEC football games at Vanderbilt may be the toughest task in any of the major American sports. It is like managing a major league baseball team with the Cubs' history, the Royals' resources and the Rays' fan base in a division with the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Or as former Vanderbilt safety and NFL Pro Bowler Corey Chavous puts it, "It's like trying to climb a mountain with a truck on your back."
Vanderbilt is in the SEC, but it is not of the SEC. Its undergraduate enrollment is 6,800; the other 11 schools average more than 20,000. Vanderbilt is 17th in the most recent U.S. News & World Report college rankings. The next SEC school is Florida, at No. 53.
Since 1987, 11 of the conference's 12 schools have been found guilty of a major NCAA violation in football. The 12th is Vanderbilt. In 2002, commissioner Mike Slive announced that he wanted every school off probation. The conference almost achieved that goal in 2008, but before everyone could take a group picture, a new wave of scandals hit. The SEC may or may not be out of control, but it certainly seems way out of Vanderbilt's control.
Franklin knew this when he took the job last winter after serving as offensive coordinator at Maryland (2008--10) and Kansas State ('06 and '07). He understood that before he could install his offense, he had to instill hope.
"The biggest battle," he says, "is getting [players and fans] to believe."
Franklin's recruiting has been extraordinary by Vanderbilt standards. The Commodores have the 35th-best 2012 class, according to Rivals.com—nowhere near Alabama or Florida, of course, but unprecedented success for the only private school in the SEC.
Vice chancellor David Williams II, who oversees athletics, hired Franklin for his energy, coaching ability, desire to recruit nationally and belief in both himself and the possibilities at Vanderbilt. Now Williams says, "We're even amazed at the level [of excitement] he has brought.... I watch how the kids respond. They really are getting after it. We've had [former] players come back and say, 'Vice chancellor Williams, I wish I was still here now.'"