James Franklin and his Vanderbilt Commodores now face their biggest challenge yet: Following up on their first season together by winning in their second.
Vanderbilt has not won at least six games in consecutive seasons since 1974 and 1975 when the Commodores won seven games in back-to-back years. The Commodores went 6-7 and played in only the program's fifth bowl ever in Franklin's debut season, and he has 17 starters returning as they try to build on what they started together last year.
"Last year, we thought we could do some nice things," Franklin said. "This year, the team believes we're going to do some really good things."
Such talk has been heard repeatedly over the years at the Southeastern Conference's smallest and only private university. But Franklin's non-stop salesmanship, even if he had to apologize for comments about assistant coaches' wives, led to a revamped locker room a year ago with planning of an indoor practice field pushed up to break ground this fall.
Jordan Rodgers, younger brother of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, said they understand that the Commodores likely will be tagged as the SEC's little brother for a while.
"One bowl game is not going to change what people have perceived about us for decades," Rodgers said. "It's going to take winning and winning on a constant level for years. But we are changing that that's for sure."
Rodgers is among nine starters back on offense, which is key for a program that lost all seven games in 2011 by seven points or less, including a 31-24 loss to Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl where at least 30,000 Vanderbilt fans turned out in support. Rodgers was benched in that bowl loss, but the senior is expected to start ahead of Wyoming transfer Austin Carta-Samuels.
Franklin said being benched has been a positive for Rodgers, who threw for 1,524 yards and nine touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Rodgers also ran for four TDs as he started seven games.
"He's been so much more open, very coachable," Franklin said. "He's always been really driven and competitive ... What's amazing is he's watching film right now and getting frustrated because he's saying, 'I can't believe I did this. I can't believe I didn't see that.' The light has really gone on for him."
With Rodgers starting, Vanderbilt averaged 31.6 points per game and 413 yards total offense. The Commodores finished the season leading the SEC in explosive plays with more points per game (26.69) and total offense (339.08 yards) than the opponent for the first time in 28 years. They also scored 38 touchdowns — most at Vanderbilt since 1948.
Zac Stacy is the SEC's top returning rusher after setting a team record by running for 1,193 yards, and he also had 14 TDs. He averaged 121 yards over the final seven games. Receiver Jordan Matthews led the SEC averaging 19 yards per catch, clicking well with Rodgers down the stretch.
Vandy also will have four starters back on the offensive line with running back Warren Norman, the SEC freshman of the year in 2009 back from an injury that sidelined him all last season.
"The fact that we pretty much have everyone coming back on offense is definitely a confidence booster," Stacy said. "There is a lot of experience as well."
On defense, the Commodores must replace their top three leading tacklers led by linebacker Chris Marve, who's now in law school, defensive back Casey Hayward, a second-round draft pick by the NFL's Packers, and Sean Richardson, who also signed with Green Bay as a free agent.
They do have cornerback Trey Wilson returning, who tied for the SEC lead returning two of his interceptions for TDs, and defensive tackle Rob Lohr had 11.5 tackles for loss with five sacks. Junior Chase Garnham is in line to replace Marve, joining Archibald Barnes and Tristan Strong in the linebacking corps.
Vanderbilt ranked 18th nationally in total defense, allowing 322.8 yards per game.
The Commodores help open the season hosting South Carolina on Aug. 30 along with visits from Florida, Auburn and Tennessee. They hit the road to play at Northwestern, Georgia, Missouri, Kentucky and Mississippi. The stadium will feature new video boards and artificial grass as part of offseason renovations
Franklin has been working the Nashville area trying to fill up a stadium with black and gold in what might be his toughest task.
"We're trying to build traditions, a program," Franklin said. "That's why whenever we get an opportunity to brand, throw up the V-U, talk about 'anchor down,' which is something we talk about all the time as well, all these different things that we're trying to build it's all a part of it. It's all a part of it, every step."