All of the sudden, the sand runs though the hourglass a little bit quicker. The clock tictocks slightly louder. Time is running short for the Vanderbilt football program to get it right.
If James Franklin and his staff don’t make the Commodores a consistent and competitive factor in college football’s best conference soon, it is not likely going to happen. Ever.
The sense of urgency increased in the past two weeks, when Texas A&M made it known that it would like to join the SEC. What school wouldn’t?
University presidents and chancellors deferred any decision on a formal invitation, but there was every reason to believe it would happen eventually.
It won’t be just the Aggies, either. Early speculation includes the likes of Missouri, Clemson and Florida State as well.
Regardless of whether those are the schools that eventually push membership to 16, expansion is going to strengthen the overall power of a league that has won the last five BCS championships. That means more teams Vanderbilt must overcome in its quest for championships and postseason appearances.
The flirtation with Texas A&M (with its appealing ties to two of the Top 10 media markets in the country) makes it clear that expansion, which will be part of an overall seismic shift in the major college landscape, will happen sooner rather than later. The question now is whether Vanderbilt will hold up or get swallowed up by the sweeping changes.
Franklin and his assistants find themselves on more solid footing than any of their recent predecessors. The era of Bobby Johnson (capped by one season with Robbie Caldwell) provided the type of stability and success the program had not known for decades.
Given enough time and improved resources, Johnson beat Tennessee — once. He took the Commodores to a bowl game — once. He recruited a handful of players drafted in the first round led by quarterback Jay Cutler and Chris Williams.
That was a far cry from the revolving door and ideologies of Watson Brown, Gerry DiNardo, Rod Dowhower and Woody Widenhofer, who left the program consistently stuck in mud.
When Johnson and his crew were swept aside after back-to-back two-win seasons, the gaps in talent and performance between Vanderbilt and the rest of the SEC actually had decreased, even if the victory totals had not grown consistently.
Now is the time to build on that foundation. Vice Chancellor David Williams has expressed unfailing confidence in Franklin as the one to do exactly that, and Franklin has embraced those expectations in a way that has fueled real optimism in at least a portion of the fan base.
Let’s be real: It’s not necessary for the Commodores to win 10 games this fall. They’ll have to get close to it, though, and Franklin has to be the one to do it.
Gone are the days when progress can be measured in competitiveness. Near-misses — courtesy of ridiculous officials’ rulings — with Florida are not going to be enough to keep pace when SEC-worthy recruits have one-third more choices.
Between now and whenever the SEC adds to its roster of national powers, Vanderbilt has to prove it can win. If not, all will be lost.
Most believe that such a jump already has been too long in coming. All of the sudden, time is running short to actually make it happen.