Little did Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers know, but so many hotel reservations hung in the balance on that fourth down.
It was Nov. 10, and the Commodores were down 26-20 with 1:49 remaining on the road at Ole Miss, and facing a 4th-and-2 on their own 48-yard-line. Rodgers rolled right, made a quick check downfield and then fled the pocket to evade No. 33 E.J. Epperson (seen at left) and a disastrous sack. With some steam behind him, the Commodore quarterback dove for what would be ruled a first down after review.
Commodore fans exhaled. The Rebel faithful would later howl with contempt over the official’s spot. Four plays later Rodgers hit a wide-open Chris Boyd down the left sideline for a touchdown with just 52 seconds on the clock, and Vanderbilt would go on to win 27-26.
The win was Vandy’s third conference road win in a single year, a feat previously unthinkable before the arrival of head-coach-turned-resurrection-specialist James Franklin. Needless to say, nobody in Nashville or Oxford was thinking about hotel rooms, save for maybe Scott Ramsey, the CEO and president of the Nashville Sports Council and the man in charge of the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
If you think fantasy football confuses your Sunday rooting interests, it’s nothing on Ramsey’s partisan plight as a bowl CEO.
“My close buddies, they kind of look at me weird on Saturdays, because I’m watching games that aren’t necessarily the marquee games, and I’m watching how other games are impacting other conferences, and in the early part of the year I’m usually rooting for a team I end up rooting against,” he said.
Ramsey wouldn’t reveal whom he was pulling for that night, but he was certainly watching. The then 5-4 Commodores earned their sixth win of the year under James Franklin, thus clinching consecutive bowl berths for Vandy for the first time since polio was cured. Meanwhile, then 5-4 Ole Miss dropped to .500 under first-year head coach Hugh Freeze.
Both schools would finish strong — Vandy at a historic 8-4 (5-3 in the SEC) and the Rebels at 6-6 by breaking a three-year skid against rival Mississippi State, who also finished 8-4.
After some conjecture — Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl? Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Bowl? — Vanderbilt ended up making a date with the Music City to face North Carolina State out of the Atlantic Coast Conference. It’s Vandy’s second three-mile “trip” to downtown, following Bobby Johnson’s “miracle” 6-6 season of 2008 that ended with a win over Boston College at LP Field.
It’s not an ideal pairing. Bowls are designed to generate revenue for themselves first and their cities second. The grist of that mill? Blocs of energized out-of-town fans eager to spend money in hotels, restaurants and bars for a few days leading up to kickoff.
This year the bowl will move back from a prime-time slot pre-New Year’s Eve to an early kickoff on Dec. 31, allowing fans to make a holiday trip out of the event and stay through Jan. 1. But with the Commodores, the Music City Bowl gets only half the tourism power it expected. With the Music City Bowl, the Commodores don’t get the idyllic bowl trip to Florida or Texas that some 8-win clubs will enjoy.
Enter Franklin, a positive man in a profession of positive-minded men who still seems to earn notice for his unbridled optimism about heading down West End and over the Cumberland. He’s formulated a marketing strategy (a lofty public call for 55,000 Vanderbilt fans to attend the game) and flatly denies any feeling of a letdown among his players.
“Not one bit. Honestly, talking with our guys I never sensed [a letdown]. We’re still at a point in our program where we’re appreciative of going to play and participate in the postseason. More importantly, we get to stay together as a family and as a team,” Franklin said.
“A lot of times, that team that wins the bowl is the team that’s excited to play in the game. The only bad bowl is the one you’re not playing in.”
About Rodgers’ first down: Had the spot been a few inches back, or had he thrown an incompletion, Ole Miss would’ve almost certainly hung on and won, giving both teams a 7-5 record. That’s important here only because of an unwritten rule — the “gentlemen’s agreement” among bowls partnered with the SEC — that a team with two more wins will not be passed over in favor of a team with a worse record but a potentially stronger fan base to fill seats, bars and hotels.
Partially because they’d already honky-tonked here last year, 8-4 Mississippi State became an ideal candidate for the Gator Bowl. Vandy had a matching record, but the Gator was also lined up to select Northwestern from the Big 10, a team the Commodores had already faced this season (another unwritten rule of bowl selection). That left the ’Dores and Rebels, with Ole Miss being considered a hotter commodity because of their recent season-ending rivalry win and a return to the postseason for the first time since 2009. And with a 230-mile distance from Oxford to Music City, those fans would need a hotel room.
So while no one’s saying it, Vanderbilt and the Music City Bowl weren’t star-crossed over one another. One Vanderbilt official, speaking anonymously, would only say the pairing “isn’t ideal.”
“It’s a great event they put on, and we’re happy to be there, absolutely, but I think we both know each side would rather have had another situation,” said the official.
Bowls are a bizarre business, an impossible-to-determine structure of third parties that NCAA football lends out its biggest and best properties to. While the NCAA handles — and benefits from — the postseason for every other sport, the bowls are outside business entities with particular priorities.
Not only that, until the adoption of the maligned and soon-to-be-replaced BCS in 1998, every bowl was in competition with one other. That routinely created a sacrifice of game quality — the two best possible football teams available — for schools with strong track records of ticket buying and traveling.
“The entire process is illogical, so it’s impossible to try and apply logic to one particular area,” said Dan Wetzel, author of Death To The BCS: The Definitive Case Against The Bowl Championship Series.
“Bowls are subcontractors. Because the NCAA doesn’t control the system, because there is no centralized control, there’s no uniform opinion on what’s important or what’s best for a school like Vanderbilt. And one of your major fears if you’re Vanderbilt or Northwestern is that no matter if these schools are successful, any ‘big-time program’ could be put ahead of them without merit.”
In other words: Now that they’re a regular at this postseason thing, it’s imperative that Vandy not only win, but win more than anyone else in consideration, because in the current bowl format, any “traditional power” that would’ve finished 7-5 this season would likely have stolen the Commodores’ spot. Why? A still-lingering perception of “same old Vanderbilt,” only this time applying to thin numbers of lackluster fans.
Or to be blunt — that was a really important first down.
Ramsey doesn’t put up a front. The stated goal of the Sports Council and the bowl is to take a normally low-traffic tourism weekend in Nashville, create a match-up that generates ticket sales, local business and TV ratings to spotlight its title sponsor, Franklin American Mortgage. And to their second point, Vandy is a tough draw for local watering holes and restaurants already hurting from the NHL lockout. By the time NC State and Vandy kick off, downtown will have missed out on the revenue from 20 preseason and regular season Predators home games canceled by hockey’s labor dispute.
“Certainly we share that pain and frustration,” Ramsey said regarding the NHL lockout. “I think we all as a city are aware of the positive impact the Predators have had on and off the ice, and certainly filling up buildings downtown.”
Ramsey said the Nashville Sports Council doesn’t track specific reservations, but based on surveys and feedback, 10 to 12 area hotels are filled for at least two nights each year because of the game. He said no local businesses have aired any kind of frustration in the bowl not providing two out-of-town fan bases.
“Even though we’ve had [Vanderbilt] twice, that’s probably not the model that we set up to do year in, year out. However, occasionally it’s the right time to do it and the right thing to do. The selection process doesn’t really give you a lot of alternatives.”
Things could be considerably worse for both parties. To Wetzel’s point, big-time BCS bowls outside of the national championship game are struggling. As of press time, mighty Florida is set to face Louisville in the pretty-much-meaningless Sugar Bowl, and the Gators were being outsold 14,000 to 6,500 by the Cardinals, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Some rooms at Opryland might go unsold, but Vanderbilt has already sold 17,000 tickets. That’s still a stadium short of Franklin’s lofty 55K aim, but well past the Music City Bowl’s 12,000-ticket allotment for SEC teams.
Ramsey anticipates another late buying surge, as a stronger walkup from local Vandy fans and local curiosity from unaffiliated but curious residents are the less-publicized benefit to hosting a local school. And while the final score has little if any effect on VU football’s long-term plans, to Franklin it’s another crucial chance to win back — or maybe win for the first time — a distracted city filled with rival fans.
Blame the growth of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, but don’t look now if you’re a black-and-gold diehard, because this city is filling with rival SEC fan bases. That cohort of Mississippi State Bulldogs that occupied Lower Broad for the better part of three days? Among non-Mississippi alumni chapters, Nashville ranks sixth in the country for MSU, with 1,870 alumni in the area.
“It’s growing fast, too. We’re excited to have so many Bulldogs in the area; it’s going to continue to be a great city for MSU fans,” MSU alumni chapter coordinator Michael Richardson said.
Ole Miss — an annual Vandy opponent — might’ve been 6-6 on the field, but among non-Mississippi alumni chapters, Music City’s Rebels (2,935) rank behind only Atlanta, Houston and Birmingham for the most Ole Miss alumni nationwide.
Of the SEC schools that responded to requests for alumni statistics, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky all had Nashville alumni chapters they ranked in their top 5 to 10 in size for out-of-state groups nationwide, and Florida’s roughly 1,700 Music City alums is in their top 15. Plus, you can’t forget the estimated 22,111 Volunteer alumni in Davidson and Williamson counties alone.
Forget the old idea of Vanderbilt living in a Big Orange shadow — it’s the entire conference color palette washing over black-and-gold.
“That’s always going to be a challenge for us,” admitted Franklin. “For right now, I’m OK with this, but when I first got here I had to swallow the fact that we aren’t everybody’s No. 1, but we can be at least everybody’s No. 2. There are a lot of people that have moved to this city and have their allegiances, but they can support us 11 weeks a year rather than fly back to some other town every weekend.”
Such an admission is a rounding of sharp edges for Franklin, who from his first day as head coach at VU has lobbied strongly — and loudly — for Vanderbilt fans both on-campus and off to join with Nashville residents with or without affiliation with Vanderbilt to join in and support the ’Dores.
Look at any post-game press conference from Franklin, win or lose, and you’ll almost always find a comment in his opening remarks either commending the atmosphere at an opponent’s stadium or complimenting the number of fans a visiting SEC team has brought to Vanderbilt Stadium.
This year’s much publicized Thursday night home opener against South Carolina on ESPN served as the de facto inaugural game of the entire 2012 college football season, but it failed to sell out. So while
no one’s admitting any hesitation, you could see why the decidedly for-profit bowl structure would hesitate to grab the Commodores.
In essence, Franklin’s vision for the program gets one more crack this season at a chance to energize Nashville.
“This isn’t something that gets solved in six months to a year. We’re always going to be in a city that’s filled with people that have moved here from somewhere else. But you support your hometown teams, and there’s a group here that have done that their whole lives. I was the type of guy, growing up in Philly, that was an Eagles/Sixers/Phillies/Flyers guy. I’ve never understood bandwagon fans.”
If the Commodores are less than ideal on paper, Franklin’s public stumping to become “Nashville’s team” is certainly something the Sports Council has been able to rally around. Having already sold through their allotment, Vandy continues a perfect streak for SEC teams — according to Ramsey, the Music City Bowl is now 14-for-14 in 15 years for selling out the SEC allotment for teams (the 2005 game featured Virginia vs. Minnesota).
By comparison, only three non-SEC schools have sold out their ticket allotment in 15 years — the decidedly SEC-ish regional trio of Clemson, Virginia Tech and West Virginia. NC State enters the game after a lackluster year that moved them to fire head coach Tom O’Brien, and Ramsey said the Wolfpack have not yet sold their allotment.
There’s no question that the bowl is pinning its appeal at the box office and the remote control on the Commodores, and there’s no concern about it, said Ramsey:
“One of our key missions is to hopefully fill up our downtown and hotels with a lot of out-of-towners during the week, obviously that’s a different kind of challenge when you have a local team. I think Vanderbilt’s doing a great job reaching out to their national alumni base to help us meet that objective, which we realize is a little hard to achieve with a local team. However, the opportunity to fill the stadium up and create an unbelievable game day environment for the players? We’ve got a great chance to do that this year given what Vanderbilt has accomplished and created this year.”
Confused as to how the Commodores ended up in Nashville, or why your favorite team isn’t somewhere sunny and warm? Here’s our best explanation, in order of which bowls pick first.
A note on payouts: As you’ll notice, the ranking of each bowl does not align with the payout (all figures are published estimates) given to each SEC school participating. That’s considered a non-issue, because each school sends their payout to the SEC, which pools the total payout of all member bowl appearances and distributes it evenly to all 14 institutions.
1. The BCS Bowls: At least until 2014 when the playoff system arrives, the national championship and BCS bowls (the Rose, Sugar, Fiesta and Orange) get first crack at the SEC. In most years this includes not only the national title game ($18 million payout), but at least one other school as an at-large. For example, Alabama will play in the national title game this season, while Florida will face Louisville in the Sugar Bowl ($17 million payout).
2. Capital One Bowl (Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla. Payout: $4.55 million): Almost always the home for the loser of the SEC Championship game, as is the case this season with Georgia.
3a. AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic (Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas. Payout: $7.25 million)
3b. Outback Bowl (Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. Payout: $6.8 million): There’s a loose agreement between the Cotton and Outback to each take the highest available team from the SEC West and East divisions, respectively (Texas A&M and South Carolina this season). This isn’t always the case, but it makes the most sense for each bowl’s geography.
5. Chick-fil-A Bowl (Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga. Payout: $2.95 million)
6. TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl (Everbank Field, Jacksonville, Fla. Payout: $7 million)
7. Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (Nashville, Tenn., Payout: $3.5 million): Considered to be the last pick of the “good bowls,” the Music City routinely gets SEC schools with 6-8 win records, usually on the upswing. While the bowl’s not at the top of the pecking order, this position often produces larger ticket sales because of excitement. The Commodores fell to the Music City slot after LSU and Mississippi State were chosen, in that order.
8a. BBVA Compass Bowl (Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala. Payout: $900K)
8b. AutoZone Liberty Bowl (Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn., Payout: $1.7 million): The SEC considers the Compass and Liberty to be unofficially “equal.” Because the Compass Bowl hasn’t featured a SEC team in two seasons, they got priority over the Liberty this season. The Compass took Ole Miss, while the Liberty took Iowa State from the Big 12.
10. Advocare V100 Independence Bowl (Independence Stadium, Shreveport, La. Payout: 1.1 million): The famous dead-last destination once sponsored by Poulan Weedeater gets whatever’s left over in the SEC. This season the conference only produced nine teams (two in the BCS, seven in partnered bowls), so the Independence will feature nearby Louisiana-Monroe taking on Ohio.