The eighth BBVA Compass Bowl will receive national attention like never before, thanks entirely to James Franklin.
Houston and Vanderbilt will collide this afternoon at Birmingham's Legion Field in a pairing of 8-4 programs, but the microscope clearly will be on the third-year Commodores coach. Franklin has been mentioned as a candidate at college football's two most prominent openings, Penn State and Texas, after guiding Vanderbilt to a 17-8 record the past two seasons.
The Commodores are 15-4 in their last 19 games, a feat topped within the SEC by only Alabama.
"I'm very proud," Franklin said at a news conference earlier this week. "Going around Christmas shopping, you hear more buzz. Going to the airport, you see more black and gold. You see everything that's going on, and it's a great testament to all the hard work that's been put in by everybody."
When pressed about speculation of his future, Franklin said, "I love the Vandy fans. I love the Vandy nation. I love everything that we're doing, and I'm extremely excited to play Houston."
Franklin has been mentioned by multiple media outlets as the top candidate at Penn State to succeed Bill O'Brien, who was introduced Friday morning as the new head coach of the Houston Texans. Franklin is a native of Pennsylvania, and he recruited that state when he was a Maryland assistant before coming to Nashville.
There were reports Friday that Franklin could interview at Penn State as soon as Sunday. There was also a report earlier this week that Franklin had spoken with Texas officials, but Commodores players believe the hot topic will not be a distraction today.
"Not at all," junior defensive end Kyle Woestmann said. "We're a family, and we all stick together."
Vanderbilt is making school history with a third consecutive bowl appearance, and it's just the seventh overall. The Commodores improved their postseason record to 3-2-1 last season with a 38-24 win over North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl.
The Cougars should pose a stiff challenge, having lost their four games to Brigham Young, Central Florida, Louisville and Cincinnati by a combined 20 points. Those losses have become even more respectable in recent days, given how impressive Louisville and UCF were in their bowl triumphs.
Houston quarterback John O'Korn, a freshman from Fort Lauderdale, has completed 239 of 399 passes (59.9 percent) this season for 2,889 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Woestmann is hoping the Commodores can rattle O'Korn, but he compares the up-tempo style of the Cougars to Texas A&M, which routed Vanderbilt 55-24 in late October.
"Anybody can probably tell that teams that run the tempo up on us have definitely provided a little bit of an issue," Woestmann said. "Fortunately for us, we play in the SEC and play against some of the best teams in the country. Texas A&M and Missouri and Auburn are all fast-paced teams, so I think we've had a lot of opportunities the last couple of years to play offenses of that style.
"This will be a good chance to show that we've developed over the season."
Speculation of Franklin's future also will overshadow the final college performance for Commodores senior receiver Jordan Matthews, who will leave as the SEC's all-time leader in yards and receptions. Matthews has 107 catches this season for 1,334 yards (111.2 per game) and five touchdowns.
"I'm looking forward to it," Matthews said. "I'm not sad about anything. I have no regrets, because I have enjoyed every moment playing with these guys."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com 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 ...