July 15, 2011

Mailbag: Can Franklin win at Vandy?

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Summer generally is a wonderful time in college football.

The much-anticipated season is drawing closer and even the most downtrodden programs can find reasons for optimism, especially those with new coaches.

Vanderbilt, the traditional patsy in the powerful SEC, has a new coach in James Franklin, who has already created a buzz in Nashville with a slew of early commitments for the 2012 recruiting class. But extending that excitement to the field is unlikely. The Commodores have managed just one winning season since 1983. The idea that Vanderbilt could ever contend for an SEC football championship is unrealistic.

Of course, that was the thought at Northwestern before it won the Big Ten in 1995. That was also the thought at Wake Forest before it won the ACC in 2006. Duke even won an ACC championship, in 1989. Buffalo won a MAC championship in '08 after posting just seven wins in five seasons from 2002-2006, and Stanford emerged as a national championship contender in 2010 just four years after finishing 1-11.

Could Vanderbilt actually make a similar rise? That's a question for this week's mailbag.

Stuck on bottom?

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin has fared well in recruiting so far and seems incredibly optimistic about Vandy's future. What do you think is an attainable goal for the team this season? Or do you even think the program can be turned around at all?

Franklin definitely has made a quick and immediate splash in Nashville. He already has commitments from 10 three-star prospects and a four-star prospect, running back Brian Kimbrow of Memphis, for the 2012 class.

Of course, those players and those arriving this year as part of the 2011 class aren't likely to make a major impact right away. True freshman occasionally have made big differences for their teams in the SEC, but it's rather rare.

Franklin's success does offer hope that Vanderbilt can turn around its fortunes, though. The question, then, becomes what would be considered a "turnaround" at Vandy.

The Commodores have slogged through consecutive 2-10 finishes and have managed just one winning record in the past 28 seasons.

A ton of starters from last season's team return. With that playing experience, a little help from this year's recruiting class and the added enthusiasm that often comes with the arrival of a new coach, the Commodores figure to improve. But setting high goals - like reaching a bowl game - seems too ambitious for this season.

Still, if Franklin can get that atrocious offense moving, the Commodores could pull off an upset or two in the SEC East. If that happens, they could have a shot at a postseason appearance, though a four- or five-win season would seem a more realistic goal. That would foster optimism for future success under Franklin.

That brings us back to what would be considered "successful" at Vanderbilt. Vandy might be in a tougher spot than any other Big Six football program in the country. It has higher academic requirements than its cousins in the powerful SEC, and its fan support and facilities aren't really comparable to those of conference rivals.

Vanderbilt won't ever win the SEC East, much less the SEC title, but a charismatic coach (such as Franklin) could make the program respectable.

The Commodores have played decent defense in the past. If it can find an effective offense and upgrade the overall talent level, Vandy could become a program that has a chance to reach a bowl on a fairly consistent basis.

Of course, if that happens, Franklin would be pursued by higher profile programs and probably would leave Vanderbilt.

Out of their depth?

With all the returning talent at Utah, including QB Jordan Wynn, a top-25 ranking at the end of last season and a great coaching staff, why so little press about the Utes? Is it because of the unknown factor of the Pac-12? They seemed to have held their own playing Pac-10 schools while in the Mountain West.
Salt Lake City

Three consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins and recent bowl victories over California and Alabama show that Utah is a program that cannot be ignored. But with the move to the Pac-12 this season, some may not know exactly what to make of the Utes.

I see Utah as a top-30 team entering the season, but I'll admit that has more to do with coach Kyle Whittingham and the Utes' recent success than anything else.

Actually, on paper, the Utes have a lot of flaws. They have no proven running back and two new starters at guard, and there are doubts about Wynn's durability. The defensive line could not provide a pass rush last season and the secondary has been rebuilt. Kicker Coleman Petersen hasn't appeared in a game in five years.

Additionally, the Utes are stepping up in competition. Utah was 2-1 against Pac-10 teams over the past three seasons, but the weekly league grind will be much more challenging than it was in the Mountain West. The Utes will be playing USC, Washington, Arizona State, etc., rather than New Mexico, Wyoming and UNLV. Depth could become a major issue.

That isn't meant to imply that Utah cannot be a factor in the Pac-12 South. Still, I wouldn't pick them any higher than third in the division, behind USC and Arizona State, and teams that don't project as leading championship contenders don't get a lot of preseason hype.

If the Utes prove stronger than anticipated and make a run at a division championship in their first year in the Pac-12, they will receive plenty of media attention during the season.

That's when you really want attention, anyway.


Why do pundits and ranking systems have USC so low when numerous articles show them as having the highest-ranked players at virtually every position? It really seems that there is this universal hatred or jealousy of USC. I have seen some preseason polls and USC should be a top-seven team. I just don't get it.
Newport Beach, Calif.

There are a lot of good reasons to project a strong season for USC. Matt Barkley is an outstanding quarterback. Wide receiver Robert Woods is an emerging star. The Trojans are deep and talented at running back. The defensive line should be good.

But there also are numerous reasons for apprehension. USC had all kinds of trouble against the pass last season, six opponents scored at least 30 points and the offensive line will have three new starters.

Most of the preseason projections I've seen include USC somewhere in the top 20. I have not seen the Trojans among the top seven, but that doesn't come as a surprise with them coming off an 8-5 record. My guess is the Trojans will be improved this season, and they'd be my pick to win the Pac-12 South if they were eligible.

There is a lot of talent on that team and USC is entering its second season under coach Lane Kiffin. It's been well-documented that teams often have big seasons in a coach's second season.

USC's success will be largely dependent on whether the Trojans make significant progress in pass defense, get good play from new starters along the offensive line and avoid injuries.

USC may finish in the top seven. But going into the season, I think the Trojans should be ranked about 15th or 16th.

On the field

If you think everyone always will think that USC was the national champion in 2004, even though the title was vacated, think again. Who was the SEC champion in 1984? Can't remember? Look in the record book; it was "vacated." The best team in the SEC in 1984 was Florida, which, circa 1981-84, was one of the worst cheaters of all time.
Palmetto, Fla

I very much remember the shenanigans of Florida coach Charlie Pell from that era. Florida was at the top of the SEC standings that season, but the championship later was vacated.

But obviously a national championship is much more memorable than a conference championship, even in the SEC (which wasn't nearly as good in '84 as it is now).

Besides, The Associated Press still recognizes USC as the 2004 national champion. So even though the BCS championship has been "vacated," USC is the only team listed by a major organization as the '04 champ.

Tall order

What do you think of the quarterback competition at Virginia? Do you think coach Mike London can bring the Cavaliers back to the status they enjoyed during the George Welsh era?

London hoped that someone would come out of the spring as a leading candidate to replace departed Marc Verica, but it didn't happen and that competition figures to extend well into August and maybe into the season.

The guess here is that sophomore Michael Rocco will emerge as the starter over Ross Metheny.

The Cavaliers have a lot of experienced players returning from a team that went 4-8 and upset Miami in its first season under London. If they get efficient quarterback play, they could make their first postseason appearance since 2007. That's a big "if," though.

The long-term future is looking up. London's 2011 recruiting class was ranked No. 25 in the nation and fourth in the ACC, and there are a lot of good football players in Virginia. If London can continue to coax his share to Charlottesville, the Cavs again will be a factor in the ACC, as they were when Welsh was coach.

Closer to home

I'm a big Louisiana Tech fan and understand who we are as an athletic program. But I feel if we could get in Conference USA, our recruiting would instantly become better, our crowds would get bigger and we would have much more alumni support. It's hard for a fan to have interest in us playing New Mexico State, Utah State, San Jose State, Idaho, etc., from the WAC. My question: What are the chances we could land a spot in Conference USA?
Shreveport, La

Louisiana Tech certainly doesn't fit in the WAC, where the closest conference team is 1,000 miles away at New Mexico State.

The WAC will be adding Texas-San Antonio and Texas State next season, so that will help cut Louisiana Tech's travel budget and create a more regional feel. Still, Louisiana Tech would be a better fit in another conference.

The problem is that Conference USA doesn't seem to have any plans to expand beyond its current 12. C-USA members East Carolina, UCF and Memphis are hoping for invitations to join the Big East, and if one or more do leave, that means C-USA would need some new members.

That's probably Louisiana Tech's best hope to get into that league.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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