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THIS WAS NOT A FAMILIAR SITUATION FOR JAMES FRANKLIN. The month was February, and the brash second-year coach of Vanderbilt had just hauled in the highest-rated recruiting class in the program's history. Franklin stood on a stage in front of hordes of Vanderbilt supporters at the team's signing day celebration and hailed what he believes is a new era. These were no longer your father's Commodores. "Since we got here," Franklin told the crowd, "people have been telling us what we can't do. Even now, people are just waiting for something to go wrong. Let it go."
Last year, Franklin's first in Nashville, the coach pledged to change the culture of the longtime SEC underdogs and garner respect. He delivered, leading Vandy to a 6--7 season (up from 2--10). It included losses to Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee by a combined 14 points, as well as only the school's second bowl berth since 1982. This season's signing class, in which every player holds a three-star rating or higher for the first time in school history, symbolizes the new standard for Franklin's program.
"Coaching counts," says Franklin, who drew fire in the off-season for saying in a radio interview that he only hired assistants with attractive wives. "But this is a player-driven business. Our margin of error is not big. The more impact players we get, the easier this will be for everybody."
Vanderbilt could use impact players to continue the program's transformation, especially for a defense that must replace key components. Gone are starters Chris Marve, an All-SEC linebacker who led the Commodores with 91 tackles in 2011, and corner Casey Hayward, with his 15 career interceptions. Junior Chase Garnham moves into Marve's spot at middle linebacker, while corner Trey Wilson leads the secondary. Franklin expects defensive tackle Rob Lohr and safety Javon Marshall, who nursed injuries this off-season, to become bigger names this fall.
Most of the skill players return on offense, including QB Jordan Rodgers, who threw for 1,524 yards in seven starts; breakout tailback Zac Stacy; and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, who combined for 13 of the team's 15 receiving TDs in 2011. Meanwhile, Franklin roped in six O-line recruits ranked among the top 75 at their positions.
So, are Vanderbilt's days as conference doormat over? "There's been a lot of positives," Franklin says. "But we've still got a ways to go."
COACH James Franklin (2nd year) 6--7 (2--6 in SEC)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR John Donovan