James Franklin told you so.
Whom he told isn’t quite clear. But he appeared to be talking to the doubters and cynics who thought his Vanderbilt football program wasn’t improving in his second year as head coach. On Monday the media members gathered for his weekly press conference served as a great target audience.
“I know I throw some things out a lot of times and you guys say, ‘Here’s Franklin, selling us on some dream.’ But it’s reality,” he said. “It is reality. We’re getting better.”
Armed with statistics compiled by Vanderbilt’s sports information staff evaluating the first five games of 2011 and this season’s opening five contests, Franklin pointed out progress.
In 17 statistical categories listed in Vanderbilt’s weekly notes, the Commodores have improved in 10 areas. The most important stat, though, win-loss record, shows a decline.
Vanderbilt enters Saturday’s showdown against No. 4 Florida with a 2-3 record. But Franklin noted his team not far off last year’s pace. The Commodores started 3-2 a year ago and sit just one game back at that same point this season. Also, they’re once again 1-2 through their first three games in the Southeastern Conference.
Among the notable statistics, the numbers showed that Vanderbilt has improved in every offensive category. They’ve gained 121.8 yards more a game; 82.4 more passing yards; 38.4 more rushing yards and 5.4 more first downs. They’ve also made miniscule improvement in scoring, averaging 21.2 points, just up from 20.4 last year.
The most notable drop, which has been apparent to even those who don’t study the box scores, is a lack of takeaways. In 2011, the Commodores were among the best in the country with 16 forced turnovers through the first five games and had a turnover margin of plus-5. This year, they’ve forced just five and turned it over five times to stay even in turnover margin.
“The biggest difference between our team last year and this year is turnovers,” Franklin said. “We get turnovers and that gets our defense off our field. That provides more opportunities for our offense.”
Left off the list was touchdowns. The Commodores scored 13 and allowed 13 in the first five games last year. This season, they’ve scored 11 and given up 12.
Of course they padded their stats in week three with a 58-0 rout of Presbyterian, a Football Championship Subdivision foe just six years removed from Division II.
So for the sake of relevance, throw out Vanderbilt’s games against FCS opponents — Presbyterian this year and Elon in 2011 — and compare the Commodores’ numbers against Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Last year their first four FBS opponents were Connecticut, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Alabama, two of which were nationally ranked. This year they played South Carolina, Northwestern, Georgia and Missouri, again seeing two of them ranked.
In those games, of those same 17 statistical categories, the Commodores have improved in nine areas.
The two areas that flopped were scoring offense and rushing offense. In games against FBS opponents, Vanderbilt is scoring just 12 points, down from 14.5 a year ago. The Commodores are also picking up just 89.5 rushing yards a game, a sizable decrease from 111 a game in 2011. They’re also allowing 25.7 points a game — five more than last year.
But that hasn’t spilled over to more points. They’ve scored just four touchdowns against FBS opponents. Last year at this point they had seven. In fact, in all games, they’ve settled for more field goals this year, attempting 11 (and making nine). In 2011, they called upon placekicker Carey Spear just five times over the first five games.
Still, the numbers don’t lie. There is improvement — whether it is big or small — in a majority of areas. Thus, Franklin will continue to sell that change is happening at Vanderbilt to his supporters and critics. His most important audience remains the one in the locker room at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“I think we are” better, defensive tackle Rob Lohr said. “We come out and we prepare just as hard, if not harder. It is one of those things you don’t like to compare one season to the other because it is a completely different team. The 2011 Commodores are different than the 2012 Commodores. I think the way we prepare is better and the results will come.”
Here is a breakdown of Vanderbilt’s first five games in the last two years:
2012 2011 Difference
Record 2-3 3-2 -1
Scoring offense 21.2 20.4 +.8
Total offense 366.2 244.4 +121.8
Passing offense 212.6 129.2 +82.4
Rushing offense 153.6 115.2 +38.4
First downs 17.0 11.6 +5.4
Scoring defense 20.6 19.4 -1.2
Total defense 341.4 307.2 -34.2
Passing defense 162.4 199.0 +137.6
Rushing defense 179.0 108.2 -70.8
1st downs allowed 18.2 17.0 -1.2
Turnover margin 0 +5 -5
Time of poss. 29:45 26:52 +2:53
Off. 3rd down conv. 25% 19% +6%
Def. 3rd down conv. 36% 42% +6%
Sacks 9 10 -1
Sacks allowed 13 16 +3
Touchdowns 11 13 -2
Touchdowns allowed 12 13 +1
Field goals attempted 11 5 +6
Here is a look at the numbers in the Commodores’ first four games against FBS opponents:
2012 2011 Difference
Record 1-3 2-2 -1
Scoring off. 12.0 14.5 -2.5
Total offense 306.5 228.3 +78.2
Passing offen 217.0 117.25 +99.75
Rushing offense 89.5 111.0 -21.5
First downs 15.0 10.5 +4.5
Scoring defense 25.7 20.75 -5
Total defense 389.5 303.25 -86.25
Passing defense 177.5 188.75 +11.25
Rushing defense 212.0 114.5 -98.5
1st downs allowed 21.0 17.0 -4
Turnover margin -2 +2 -4
Time of poss. 29:32 27:27 +2:05
Off. 3rd down conv. 23% 16% +7%
Def. 3rd down conv. 40% 44% +4%
Sacks 6 8 -2
Sacks allowed 13 15 +2
Touchdowns 4 7 -3
Touchdowns allowed 12 11 -1
Field goals attempted 8 4 +4