There is no doubt James Franklin and his young coaching staff have breathed new optimism into the Vanderbilt football program since arriving 20 months ago.
Beyond West End, though, the Commodores are still viewed as the underdog, especially in the Southeastern Conference, where this fall they were picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in the East Division. Even defensive line coach Sean Spencer wore a Vanderbilt T-shirt during practice last week with the word “chip” printed on the right shoulder.
“We like playing as the underdog,” quarterback Jordan Rodgers said. “We like people taking us for granted. We like that aspect of having a chip on our shoulder, because people will overlook us.
“In a game like Presbyterian, it’s the opposite.”
Indeed, when Vanderbilt welcomes Football Championship Subdivision foe Presbyterian College to Nashville on Saturday, the Commodores will be the overwhelming favorites.
Vanderbilt is 15-1 against teams from the FCS, formerly known as Division I-AA. The only loss came to the Citadel in 1979 — one year after I-AA was created. Since then the Commodores have rattled off 14 straight victories, the most recent a 45-24 drubbing of Elon in the 2011 opener.
In eight years (2002-09) under coach Bobby Johnson, the Commodores won all seven FCS games they played and did so by an average of 30 points. Johnson’s teams finished with two wins four times, and half of the victories in those seasons were against FCS schools.
Brian Reese spent eight years at Vanderbilt before becoming Presbyterian’s athletic director in 2010. He served as Johnson’s director of operations his first two years before moving up the administrative ladder.
“We were considered the favorites,” Reese said. “But at that time, when we were there, we were building the thing. So we were just getting our recruiting classes in. ... So those games always worry you, because you really have nothing to gain by beating them. But if you lose, boy, that will get you in hot water pretty quick.”
Just one week into 2012, several Football Bowl Subdivision teams knew exactly what Reese meant.
Paul Chryst’s debut as Pittsburgh’s head coach was spoiled with a stunning loss to Youngstown State. Goodlettsville native and University of Tennessee-Martin kicker Cody Sandlin drilled a 43-yard field goal with four seconds left to hand Memphis its first loss to an FCS team in 23 years. And Middle Tennessee State was overwhelmed in a 27-21 loss to McNeese State.
“It is like a Super Bowl to those guys,” said Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who has coached at six FCS schools. “A lot of those guys, probably hardly any of those guys were probably actually recruited by FBS schools, and it is a tremendous motivator. Football is a funny game, man. It is a funny game. Meaning on any Saturday, anybody can go out and beat anybody. It’s not like it is a seven-game series where one team’s dominance or superiority take over the course of the deal. It can happen.”
On paper, games against FCS foes are supposed to offer a reprieve and, in theory, an easy opportunity to secure one of the six wins needed for bowl eligibility.
This year, in addition to its grueling eight SEC games, Vanderbilt is playing two more BCS schools — Northwestern and Wake Forest (both on the road). Missouri is the only other SEC team to have two non-conference games against teams from BCS leagues. The Tigers host both Arizona State and Syracuse.
“Especially in the middle of the season, if you get a non-big school program, one of the cupcake teams per se, that you should win, you prepare differently, and I think midseason that can really put you in a funk,” Rodgers said.
Luckily for Rodgers and the Commodores, they’ll get their FCS opponent out of the way early — in just their third game. In the process, they hope to keep one of their rare football streaks going.
“We don’t have to do anything special,” Rodgers said. “We just got to be who we are, and we’ll come out with a win there. ... You can’t take them lightly, and you can’t take it for granted. You got to prepare like it is an SEC game, but you have a little more confidence.”