Bowl games suddenly have become old hat for Vanderbilt under coach James Franklin, and so have Thursday night season openers.
The Commodores will commence Franklin's third season Thursday on ESPN by hosting Ole Miss in a Southeastern Conference matchup of programs on the rise. Vanderbilt opened last season with a 17-13 loss to South Carolina in Nashville on a Thursday night ESPN telecast, but the Commodores regrouped to go 9-4 and beat North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl.
"South Carolina came in last year having played in a bunch of Thursday night games, and our guys hadn't," Franklin said. "It's no different than your second time in a bowl game. The more times that you can go out there and have some recall and have some experience helps. Basically 75 percent of our roster has played on a Thursday night, ESPN nationally televised game, and I think that will help us.
"Plus, we're at home."
Vanderbilt's nine victories last year were the most for the program since 1915, and the Commodores followed that with a top-20 recruiting class. The abundance of good news ended in June, however, when four Commodores were dismissed from the team following their arrests on rape charges involving an unconscious student.
A fifth and more prominent player, redshirt junior receiver Chris Boyd, allegedly gave a defendant advice on covering up the crime and was indicted last week. Boyd, who is suspended indefinitely, had 50 catches for 774 yards and five touchdowns last season and was expected to team with senior Jordan Matthews in providing a receiver tandem second to none in the SEC.
"James has had a few years to recruit there, and I know he hasn't sat around and not recruited someone to play in case of injuries," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. "They've got good players. Boyd and Matthews have proven what they can do in this conference. You would hope that it eases some of the stress that it puts on your defense, but that's really speculation."
Said Matthews: "I just have to focus on Ole Miss and doing my best for [quarterback] Austyn [Carta-Samuels]. We have a lot of great teammates and a lot of great players, and we're just going to try to focus on that."
Thursday will be a coming-out opportunity for Carta-Samuels, a 6-foot-1, 215-pounder from San Jose, Calif., who threw for 3,655 yards at Wyoming during the 2009 and 2010 seasons before transferring to Vanderbilt. He started once last year, completing 14 of 25 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown against Presbyterian.
"I am very confident in the guys I've got around me," Carta-Samuels said, "and I'm really excited about what we will present on Thursday."
The Commodores without Boyd have six returning offensive starters and seven returning defensive starters. Ole Miss has 19 of 22 starters back from last year's team that went 7-6 and won the BBVA Compass Bowl over Pittsburgh.
Quarterback Bo Wallace, tailback Jeff Scott, receiver Donte Moncrief, defensive end C.J. Johnson and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche are among the more familiar players returning for the Rebels.
"There is a lot of excitement and buzz in their program, just like there is with ours," Franklin said. "Not only did they have some success on the field, but they followed it up in recruiting. Our first year, our guys had success and wanted more of it, and I think that's where they're at."
Thursday will mark the collegiate debut of defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, the younger brother of Denzel and the No. 1 prep prospect nationally in the 2013 signing class.
Vanderbilt defeated Ole Miss 27-26 in Oxford last November, which was Franklin's first win over a winning team before adding a second at the expense of N.C. State. That the Commodores are starting another year with an SEC foe is challenging, but it's not all bad according to Franklin.
"For us, it spreads the SEC out," he said. "You don't want to get into a position of playing seven SEC teams in a row. That would be tough on anybody. If you can spread your nonconference games throughout the whole year and hopefully get some byes in there as well, you can avoid that seven- or eight-game gauntlet.
"It's a positive, but the hard part is right from day one, you can't use the model Kansas State coach Bill Snyder used in building confidence with your team by playing three or four out-of-conference games. I guess you can make arguments both ways."
Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6524.