Believe it or not, as good as Vanderbilt's season was last year, it could have been even better. As you know, the 'Dores were very close to beating South Carolina. They also lost a weird game to Northwestern, and they gave Florida a scare before the Gators put the game away late. Yes, Vanderbilt wasn't too far off of 11-1 (nothing could have changed the outcome of the Georgia game) and contention for a spot in the SEC Championship game. Of course, we could sing the same song given how our two losses went, and Vandy moreover could have just as easily gone 6-6 as 11-1. Still, this is Vanderbilt. That close to 11-1. Kind of crazy.
As it was, the 'Dores finished a respectable 9-4 and ranked in both polls. That finish got Vanderbilt its second-all-time spot in the final polls. The other was in 1948. Yeah, I think the 'Dores will take it. What's more, Vandy coach James Franklin has parlayed his success into improved finishes on the recruiting trail. Last year, the 'Dores finished a very respectable 26th in 247 Sports's recruiting rankings. Franklin has been able to do things like get Zach Cunningham to choose Vandy over Auburn and Oregon. That would have been unheard of a few years ago.
That said, as Steve Spurrier learned at South Carolina, even if you can help your program make the jump from bad to good quickly, it can take some time to make the jump from good to elite. That's particularly true in the SEC, which is so deep at the top that it had five teams (Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Florida) finish in the top ten last year, and another (LSU) right outside. Franklin has a task ahead of him that resembles what Spurrier struggled through in his early years at USC. Franklin has a team that looks set up well to continue winning ball games, but his team will likely be hard-pressed to win more than the occasional upset over elite teams. Franklin faces road dates with South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Florida, as well as a home game against Georgia. Do you see Vandy winning any of those? It's possible, but not likely. Beating the 8-4 regular-season record he earned last year will thus be tough for Franklin, and when you factor in games against Ole Miss, Missouri, and Tennessee, Vandy could more easily find itself taking a step back after the two steps forward its taken, much like South Carolina did in 2007.
Another way this Vandy program currently reminds me of South Carolina in Spurrier's early years is that it lacks talent in the trenches. Even without Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy, there's plenty of talent at the skills positions for Vandy. Tailback Brian Kimbrow was one of the first big-time recruits to sign with Franklin, and Kimbrow looked great as Stacy's backup last season. Jordan Matthews, of course, is possibly the league's best wideout. Both Austyn Carta-Samuels and Patton Robinette have potential at QB. But can Vandy's offensive line hang with Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida? There are even more question marks on the defensive line. The 'Dores have some excellent linebackers and defensive backs, but they're inexperienced up front. That's not a welcome thought for a team that struggled against the run in each of its losses last year.
In short, you have to be impressed with what Franklin is doing at Vanderbilt, but he's still a couple of years away, at best, from competing for a division title. The question long-term is whether he stays at Vandy long enough to bring them to that level; if he continues winning moderately there, eventually he'll start getting a lot of interest from prospective buyers. Of course, Vandy is paying him well, so maybe they'll be able to keep him. In any event, in the meantime, I feel confident in saying we should beat Vandy again this season.