James Franklin looked on in amazement as more than 800 jubilant Vanderbilt fans packed the Student Life Center on campus on Sunday night for the school’s bowl announcement.
The Commodores’ first-year coach hopes a similar, albeit much bigger, crowd will join him and his team in Memphis for New Year’s Eve.
Vanderbilt is headed to the Liberty Bowl to play co-Big East champ Cincinnati at 2:30 p.m. (ABC) on Dec. 31.
“It is overwhelming to think about in 11 months how far we’ve come, the support we have tonight and the excitement,” Franklin said. “I think it is going to be unbelievable, being a great city like Memphis and on Beale Street. You can go watch an unbelievable football game, go out and get the ‘W,’ then go out and enjoy Memphis and have an unbelievable New Year’s Eve. To me it is a perfect scenario.”
The Commodores (6-6), in a bowl game for the fifth time, never have played in the Liberty Bowl. They last were in the postseason in 2008 when they defeated Boston College 16-14 in the Music City Bowl.
Safety Sean Richardson and eight other seniors will make history when they become the only Vanderbilt players to play in two bowls.
“It means a lot,” Richardson said. “This year seems a little different. We’re the seniors and we have all the pressure on our shoulders. We just have more of role than we did than our freshman year. It is great. We are just excited. We knew it was possible. We work tremendously hard day in and day out and it is finally paying off.”
Cincinnati (9-3) finished in a three-way tie for the Big East championship with West Virginia and Louisville. The Bearcats, like Vanderbilt, were one of the most improved teams in the country this fall.
They won just four games in 2010 but had six straight this season under second-year head coach Butch Jones. They lead the nation in sacks and tackles for loss. Senior running back Isaiah Pead has a Big East-best 14 rushing touchdowns and has totaled more than 3,000 rushing yards in his career.
The teams share two common opponents — Connecticut and Tennessee. Both defeated the Huskies and lost on the road to the Volunteers.
Cincinnati held on for a 35-27 victory against UConn on Saturday. Vanderbilt rallied against the Huskies for a 24-21 victory in the second week of September. That same day, the Bearcats fell to the Volunteers 45-23. Tennessee edged Vanderbilt 27-21 in overtime three weeks ago.
The Commodores also have a couple ties to the Bearcats. Franklin worked with Cincinnati defensive coordinator Tim Banks at Maryland from 2003-04. Jones was the wide receivers coach at West Virginia from 2005-06 with Vanderbilt offensive line coach Herb Hand, who mentored the tight ends.
Vanderbilt holds a 4-3 advantage in the series, which dates back to 1898. The Commodores have won the last three meetings, including the most recent — a 34-24 victory at Cincinnati on Oct. 8, 1994.
“What Butch Jones is doing up there is very similar to what James Franklin is doing here in Nashville,” Liberty Bowl associate executive director Harold Graeter said. “A lot of excitement, high-octane football, he has gotten the fan base fired up. They are as excited as the Vanderbilt folks are. For us, you can’t ask for anything better than that.
“We think it is going to be a great matchup.”
Tickets may be purchased by calling (615) 322-4653 or at www.vanderbilt.edu/bowl/tickets . The ticket office at the McGugin Center will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday.