James Franklin continues to rewrite history for a resurgent Vanderbilt football program.
Whether he’ll etch his name into the Southeastern Conference record books is up to his coaching peers.
Franklin could become just the sixth Vanderbilt coach to earn SEC’s Coach of the Year award, which will be announced later this week after a vote of the league’s 14 coaches.
While Franklin’s work guiding the Commodores to consecutive bowls for the first time in school history and five SEC wins for the first time since 1935 can’t be overlooked, recent history signals the award is unpredictable.
Take the past five years.
In 2007, the honor was bestowed upon Mississippi State’s Sylvester Croom, who lost five games. But the Bulldogs also won just one SEC game the year before.
In 2008, the coaches were divided and the honor was shared for the first time. Some liked the story of Bobby Johnson — the last Vanderbilt coach to win the award — getting the Commodores to a bowl for the first time in 26 years with a 6-6 record. Others commended Houston Nutt for winning nine games in his first year at Ole Miss. The rest chose Nick Saban, who began his restoration project of leading Alabama back to the top.
In 2009, Saban won again as the Crimson Tide won the national championship. In 2010, Steve Spurrier impressed his counterparts by leading South Carolina to nine wins for the third time and into the program’s first SEC championship game. Last year, LSU’s Les Miles was awarded for rolling through the rugged SEC West and finishing the regular season undefeated.
In review, there aren’t strict, consistent criteria.
The coaches of the best teams often are admired, as was the case with Saban and Miles. But in 2010, that approach didn’t hold true. Auburn went 14-0 and won a national championship in Gene Chizik’s second year. With Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton leading the way, though, voters thought Spurrier was more deserving.
Overachievement is often rewarded even if the record isn’t perfect. Croom went 7-5 in 2007 but showed winning was possible in Starkville. Nutt did the same in Oxford and proved he can win at multiple SEC schools. He also won the award two years before at Arkansas.
Still, that does nothing to guarantee the award. Mark Richt’s job was in jeopardy after the 2010 season and his future looked bleak after Georgia started 2011 with two losses. But he pulled the Bulldogs together to win their next 10 games and reach the SEC championship game. The dominance of Miles and LSU ultimately was more appealing to his peers.
Thus Franklin’s chances are as good as those of Kevin Sumlin or Will Muschamp or Richt.
Sumlin, in his first year at Texas A&M, is the frontrunner. The Aggies overachieved in their first season of SEC play with nine wins — and counting — and a stunning upset of top-ranked Alabama on the road. Muschamp, in his second season, has Florida ranked fourth in the latest BCS standings. Richt once again proved his consistency, leading one of his more talented Georgia teams — ranked third — back into the SEC title game.
Vanderbilt is aiming for its first eight-win season since 1982. Under Franklin, the Commodores have won four SEC games by more than 23 points. In the 53 years before 2010, Vanderbilt won just four SEC games by that same margin.
The improvement is undeniable, but one can make the argument that the groundwork was set by the previous regime. Johnson and his staff recruited a majority of these players. Perhaps he deserves some of the credit.
But this group includes many of the same players who suffered through consecutive 10-loss seasons in 2009 and 2010. With different coaches, they are a different team and reached the final week of the regular season with the potential to match the school record for wins in a season (nine). Vanderbilt has reached that mark just twice before — in 1904 and 1915.
“It is a compliment to our staff because we’re developing our guys,” Franklin said. “Our guys are being developed. You look at the improvements in the play from the beginning of the season until now. You look at the improvements in the players from before we got here until now.”
If that improvement is deemed significant enough in the eyes of his peers, Franklin will join elite Vanderbilt company. Only Johnson (2008), George MacIntyre (1982), Art Guepe (1955), Red Sanders (1941) and Ray Morrison (1937) have been named the league’s top coach.
James Franklin Vanderbilt
Tied the school record with five SEC wins — first time since 1935. Commodores are bowl-eligible for consecutive years for the first time in school history and locked up first winning regular season since 1982.
Will Muschamp Florida
In his second year, Muschamp took a talented Gators team, infused with youth, to a 7-0 start, including a win over No. 2 LSU. With the third-best scoring defense in the nation — behind Alabama and Notre Dame — Florida is surprisingly ranked fourth in the BCS.
Mark Richt Georgia
He has the Bulldogs in the SEC title game for second straight year and is in position to reach national championship game if Alabama falters.
Kevin Sumlin Texas A&M
In his first year, the Aggies surprised many in their initial SEC go-round. They won nine games and counting, and upset top-ranked Alabama on the road. The Aggies could finish second in the tough SEC West after being picked to place fifth.