Those inside the Vanderbilt football program know it is easy for outsiders to discount them as a contender.
Consecutive 2-10 records, one bowl appearance in the last 29 years and the program’s third different head coach in as many seasons obviously don’t help.
But players and coaches caution fans, media and Southeastern Conference rivals that the league’s consistent cellar dweller ought not be overlooked.
That was the reoccurring theme when a trio of Vanderbilt players and first-year head coach James Franklin took the floor at SEC Media Days on Friday in Hoover, Ala.
“One of [Franklin’s] first statements was he doesn’t want to spend two or three years building the program to compete,” senior cornerback Casey Hayward said. “We have enough players to compete now. I think he’s right. We have a lot of returning starters on offense and defense. I feel like we can surprise a lot of people; not surprise ourselves because we know what we’re capable of.”
It was no shock when it was announced Friday that league media picked Vanderbilt to finish last in the SEC East. Though the Commodores return 19 of last year’s starters, they have struggled to prove they can stick with the SEC’s best.
“These kids are very, very hungry, as you can imagine,” Franklin said. “You're talking about kids that have been highly successful in everything they've done their entire life. They want to get back to that.”
However, Franklin also isn’t being naïve. He categorizes the uphill battle in the SEC as a “very, very big challenge.”
“We understand we're not going to come in here and flick a light switch and change everything overnight. This is going to be a process,” he said. “What I want people to do, when they watch us, see us play, I want people to be very comfortable and say, ‘They're doing it the right way, heading in the right direction, building this the right way. We’re about to do some very special things at Vanderbilt.”
Already that sales pitch has seemed to resonate on the recruiting trail.
Franklin and his staff had less than two months to hang onto recruits in order to make up a 21-member signing class in February. That group ranked as high as 45th in the country by some recruiting services.
With more time under his belt, the 2012 signing class has shown even more promise. Franklin recently received a verbal commitment from Memphis running back Brian Kimbrow, who is considered to be the state’s top prospect and the second overall high school running back in the country. In ESPN.com’s latest recruiting poll, VU was ranked 23rd.
Vanderbilt has a lot to offer an incoming student-athlete, Franklin said, that other programs might not be able to. He pointed to receiving a world-class education, playing in the best conference in the country, living in Nashville – what he sees as a culturally vibrant city – and the opportunity to play right away.
“I don’t see the ceiling [in recruiting],” he said. “You may see the ceiling. I can’t control how you see Vanderbilt right now. I want to make sure that we understand that there is no ceiling. We will go as high as we decide to go. The players will be as good as they decide to be and we are going to put them in position to be successful.”
“We’re all excited,” senior quarterback Larry Smith said. “The mindset is completely different than it has been in the past. We’re out there working out with more confidence and more competition. We’re really excited about the upcoming season. We’re just ready to get things started.”