Vanderbilt's 40-0 vanquishing of Kentucky last Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium confirmed what Wildcats football coach Joker Phillips had professed days earlier.
This is the most complete Commodores team he can remember.
"If you look at the Vanderbilt roster, they've done a good job of keeping kids in their program," Phillips said. "We're playing against a veteran team with a lot of juniors and seniors, and that's the one thing you haven't seen from them in the past. They're one of the more athletic Vanderbilt teams that you've seen.
"They're doing what you have to do in this league to win, which is stop the run and run the football."
In racking up their largest victory over an SEC foe since a 48-7 thrashing of LSU in 1948, the Commodores improved to 5-4 overall and 3-3 in league play. The four teams to defeat them -- South Carolina, Northwestern, Georgia and Florida -- are a combined 30-6.
The Commodores this week travel to face another 5-4 team, Ole Miss, with the opportunity to clinch a second consecutive bowl bid for the first time in program history.
"This season has gone exactly like we thought it would," Vandy second-year coach James Franklin said. "We're playing well, and we're peaking at the right time. I do think we are getting better, but I don't think it's as significant as people would like to think. We opened the season against some really good teams from the SEC and played them tough."
Franklin is 11-11 since arriving in Nashville, having energized a program that went 2-10 under Bobby Johnson in 2009 and again under Robbie Caldwell the next year.
The Commodores had the element of surprise last year in going 6-6 in the regular season before dropping the Liberty Bowl to Cincinnati, but the sequel has been even more impressive. They have averaged 58.4 more yards per game compared to this time last year, while holding opponents to 24.4 fewer yards per contest.
Vanderbilt's average of 17.1 points per game allowed is the best since the 1974 Commodores yielded 16.6.
"We've made extraordinary progress the last few years, and I think the biggest difference is just discipline and execution," senior defensive tackle Rob Lohr said. "We have a mindset of 11 players functioning as one, and we have really taken that to heart. All the great teams run the ball and stop the run, and we're doing a decent job of that right now."
Lohr redshirted in 2008, so he could be in the first fifth-year senior class at Vanderbilt to experience more seasons with a bowl than seasons without. He already is among the few Commodores to play in two bowl games in his career, as the '08 Music City Bowl was just the fourth postseason appearance by the school and the first since 1982.
Franklin doesn't focus on bowl eligibility, rather "wanting to be 1-0 this week," a mantra that has been adopted by the players.
"When Coach Franklin got here, we didn't know who he was, and we thought he was kind of crazy," Lohr said. "We still think that, but through all the offseason workouts we've kind of developed the mentality of six seconds at a time. It's the mentality of playing every moment, and that has carried over into our mentality each season.
"It has shown in our play, so why would we want to get away from that?"
Especially when the Commodores have won four of their last five games, including two shutouts in the same season for the first time since 1964. They also overcame a minus-3 turnover ratio to defeat Auburn 17-13, a victory highlighted by senior tailback Zac Stacy becoming Vanderbilt's all-time rushing leader.
These are different days for the Commodores, something Phillips was pointing out before the 40-point shellacking.
"They've always played great defense, but the thing I think that Coach Franklin has come in there and done is found a way to run the football," Phillips said. "They've done a really good job of playing physical up front, and they have a good running back. They've done a good job with the [Jordan] Rodgers kid at quarterback, and they're making plays down the field.
"They're making big plays and they're playing with attitude, and that's the biggest thing you can see that Coach Franklin has brought to Vanderbilt. They play to win and they expect to win."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...
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