Unprecedented third bowl appearance to cap careers of select Vanderbilt seniors

Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 10:19pm

Rob Lohr was spoiled.

What hadn’t happened since well before he was born, what class after class after class strived toward for the better part of three decades occurred in his first season.

Vanderbilt played in a bowl.

“Went to a bowl game and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m going to get five of these,' ” the defensive tackle recalls.

While that wasn’t the case, Lohr and seven other fifth-year seniors have accomplished a feat their predecessors never did. They’ve reached three bowl games.

In 2008, redshirting their freshman seasons, they watched on the sidelines as Vanderbilt won the Music City Bowl. After a two-year hiatus and a new coaching staff, they returned to the postseason and the Liberty Bowl in 2011. This year, they’re back in the Music City Bowl, which kicks off on Monday (11 a.m., ESPN).

“We’re excited. We get to end what we started,” linebacker Archibald Barnes said. “It is kind of a legacy. We did the older guys proud by being able to get back to the Music City Bowl.”

In a season with numerous fallen records, Vanderbilt (8-4) and its seniors can add one more to the list with a win over North Carolina State (7-5). It would be the third bowl victory in school history (in six attempts) and it would secure the program’s first nine-win season since 1915.

“You guys heard me throughout the year rattling off this has not been done since 1915, when you say those types of things that is a credit to the seniors,” second-year coach James Franklin said. “I think the staff has done a great job of helping these guys reach their goals. But these seniors’ leadership, their tenacity, their perseverance, I think is really what this is all about. And that has a trickledown effect to the whole team.”

Along with Lohr and Barnes, wide receiver John Cole, placekicker Ryan Fowler, offensive linemen Josh Jelesky and Ryan Seymour, defensive tackle Colt Nichter and defensive end Johnell Thomas have been on campus since 2008. Tight end Austin Monahan is in his sixth year. After redshirting the 2007 season, he used a medical redshirt in 2010 and is currently in graduate school.

After the high of reaching a bowl game in 2008, the group endured the painful low of consecutive 2-10 seasons. The coaches who recruited them got the ax and when Franklin arrived after the 2010 season he became their third different head coach in three years.

The upperclassmen didn’t sulk. They proved themselves to a new regime.

Of the team’s 22 starters, nine are seniors and six are in their fifth season — Lohr, Barnes, Jelesky, Nichter, Seymour and Thomas.

“We had those two bad seasons and I didn’t know what to expect,” Lohr said. “… When coach Franklin came on we didn’t know much about him. As you guys have witnessed we have bought into what coach Franklin had to offer and it has changed things around. We’re working harder now. We’re more motivated. We’re more confident. We expect to win every week.”

While they’ve set the bar for making bowl trips routine, the 15 seniors — whether they’re in their fourth, fifth or sixth years — expect their teammates and successors to take it one step further.

“The way we look at it making a bowl game is a minimum,” Lohr said. “You’re expected to do that. You have to do that in order to be a good team. Now it is a matter of winning the bowl game. That’s what we are looking forward to doing and we’re looking forward to getting that win.”