An emphatic finish capped the best football season at Vanderbilt football since World War I.
Coach James Franklin shook off early signs of a sophomore slump and ended 2012 on a seven-game win streak — the program’s longest since 1948. The Commodores’ second Music City Bowl victory in five years — 38-24 over North Carolina State — was the ninth win of the season. That tied the single-season record for wins, last achieved in 1915.
The most balanced Vanderbilt squad in recent memory stormed through the last half of its schedule, trouncing Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest. Scoring, often an issue in the past, came in bunches. The defense rarely buckled, especially in SEC play, where the Commodores won five games for the first time since 1935.
These were the 2012 Vanderbilt Commodores.
Offensive MVP: Jordan Matthews. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, the junior was quarterback Jordan Rodgers’ favorite target and a nightmare for opposing defenses. The dynamic, sure-handed wide receiver set a school record with 1,323 receiving yards on 94 catches and scored eight touchdowns. With each game of 100-plus yards — there were a school-record seven — his draft stock rose as he showcased ideal NFL size and strength. His consistency opened up the field for others, including all-time rushing leader Zac Stacy — a close second in this category.
Defensive MVP: Secondary. Absent a bona fide superstar there were many playmakers, especially on the last line of defense. The Commodores allowed just seven passing touchdowns. Only two teams gave up fewer — Boise State (four) and Florida (five). Shutdown corner Trey Wilson paced the secondary with three picks and finished his career with a school-record 285 interception return yards. Cornerback Andre Hal and safeties Javon Marshall and Kenny Ladler — all rising seniors — locked down on a defense that flourished late, with 10 takeaways in the last three games.
Top newcomer: Redshirt freshman Jake Bernstein. Perhaps a surprising pick, but the versatile offensive lineman was the only freshman — true or redshirt — to start this year. When right guard Josh Jelesky went out against Auburn with an injury, Bernstein stepped in and didn’t miss a beat. He started the last six games, allowing Stacy and the wildcat formation to excel. When Jelesky returned, Bernstein moved to the left guard where he started the last three games. He helped Stacy rush for more than 1,100 yards for the second straight season, and his presence allowed the coaching staff to keep from using any true freshmen offensive linemen.
Best performance: Vanderbilt exorcised some demons with a dominating 41-18
victory against in-state rival Tennessee (Nov. 17). After Volunteers quarterback Tyler Bray stared down the Commodores’ sideline in the second quarter, the secondary stared down his passes. Bray was intercepted three times, and Rodgers countered with two touchdown passes as Vanderbilt whipped the Vols in every facet.
It was a monumental win for the Commodores, who hadn’t defeated UT in Nashville in 30 years. The next day, Tennessee fired coach Derek Dooley — marking the second time in three weeks a coach had been ousted immediately following a loss to Vanderbilt.
Worst performance: Fifth-ranked Georgia flexed its muscles and easily bounced the Commodores 48-3 (Sept. 22). Vanderbilt was overmatched and suffered its worst loss in nine years. Out of it by halftime, the Commodores had no answer for quarterback Aaron Murray and freshman running back Todd Gurley. Despite 100-yard receiving performances from Matthews and Chris Boyd, the offense never found the end zone.
Turning point: When Missouri quarterback James Franklin went out with a knee injury, a door opened and Vanderbilt walked through for its first SEC road win in two years, 19-15 (Oct. 6). With a mobile quarterback sidelined, the defense breathed easier and bottled up the Tigers. The Commodores rode Stacy, who sealed the win with a physical 13-yard run on third-and-9 late in the game. A loss would have dropped Vanderbilt to 1-4 going into a game with No. 4 Florida. Instead, winning on the road provided confidence and momentum that spilled over into the second half of the season.
Coach’s call: At the time, it seemed like a bold move, benching your starting quarterback, Rodgers, after two games only to bring him back one game later. But maybe it hit home with fifth-year senior. After four turnovers in his first two games, Rodgers took better care of the ball and threw just three interceptions the rest of the way. He also sparked a consistent aerial attack with 15 touchdown passes.
Highlight reel: Tennessee cornerback Marsalis Teague made a good play, but Boyd made a great play. Teague knocked away a pass from Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers, but before it could hit the ground, Boyd made a sensational catch. He followed the ball back into his hands and got not one but two feet down in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown in the second quarter that put the Commodores ahead to stay.
Just a sophomore, Boyd was a human highlight reel, with two other big catches — his 26-yard game-winning touchdown against Ole Miss and his remarkable one-handed, one toe down catch against N.C. State in the Music City Bowl.
Do over? Franklin shows no qualms about wanting to roll the dice on fourth downs, but a fake punt attempt from their own 43 against Auburn left many scratching their heads. The Commodores led 7-0 when running back Wesley Tate took a direct snap and threw a pitch to Stacy. The ball never made it, and Auburn recovered the fumble. Luckily for Franklin and the Commodores, the Tigers settled for a field goal, and Vanderbilt persevered for a 17-13 victory.
7 — straight wins to cap the season. The longest active win streak in the SEC.
15:5 — Rodgers’ touchdown-to-interception ratio. The best ratio by a Vanderbilt quarterback since Mike Healy threw 10 touchdowns and just one interception in 1990.
30 — points per game. The most by a Vanderbilt team since World War I.
Next season: While 2012 was back-loaded with weaker opponents, 2013 offers winnable games right from the start. Vanderbilt ventures out of the SEC for three of its first five contests.
The Commodores, who dropped Ohio State and Northwestern from their non-conference slate, play Austin Peay, Massachusetts and UAB before ending the season with Wake Forest. The four teams combined for an 11-36 record this year. Aside from an early road game against South Carolina, Vanderbilt’s toughest stretch figures to be when it hosts Georgia followed by consecutive trips to Texas A&M and Florida.
One to watch: Darreon Herring. He might have been the least heralded of the three true freshman expected to make an immediate impact — running back Brian Kimbrow and defensive Caleb Azubike the others. But Herring showed he belongs on the field. The linebacker led all freshmen with 33 tackles, two forced fumbles and one interception. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Herring is big and physical and should start at weak-side linebacker next year with the graduation of Archibald Barnes.
THE FINAL WORD
This will be remembered as the season Franklin took Vanderbilt into uncharted territory.
Yes, Stacy and Matthews set records, but their coach stole the spotlight by winning at the smallest and only private institution in the SEC.
Franklin, rewarded with his second contract extension in as many years, proved lightning can strike twice and raised the bar for expectations for the once dormant Commodores. No longer will a .500 season be considered success, and Franklin craves for more.
With a top 15 recruiting class on the way, 2012 could be just the start — but it will always be remembered as the springboard that signaled a new era for Vanderbilt football.