Back in black, and winning, too.
Vanderbilt's football team has a new coach, a new attitude and displayed a new look during last Saturday's 24-21 triumph over Connecticut. Wearing black helmets in addition to their black jerseys and pants, the Commodores rallied from a 21-14 deficit in the fourth quarter and prevailed on a 31-year Casey Spear field goal with 2:56 remaining.
"In years past, those were the games we hadn't won," junior defensive tackle Rob Lohr said. "Setting the tone is what we did. We let people know that we're serious and that this isn't the Vanderbilt of the past few seasons. It's a new year, and the past doesn't matter. We're here to play now."
Dressing in black from head to toe was a first for Vanderbilt since 1990.
Lohr, a 6-foot-4, 290-pounder from Phoenixville, Pa., racked up four lost-yardage tackles for the Commodores, who held the Huskies to 193 yards and are 2-0 after consecutive 2-10 seasons. The Huskies played Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl last season, giving Vanderbilt its first win over a team coming off a BCS bowl since a 2006 upset of Georgia in Athens.
The two-game winning streak is Vanderbilt's first since the 2008 team that won the Music City Bowl, but first-year coach James Franklin has not been one to reflect since taking over last December. Minutes after the win over UConn, Franklin said, "We were going to win this game. That's what we do. This is the 2011 Vanderbilt."
Though Franklin isn't looking back, Vandy's current team is quite reminiscent of the '08 Commodores.
The '08 team overcame a woeful offense by playing solid defense and posting a plus-nine advantage in turnover ratio. This year's Commodores already are plus-four in turnover ratio, which leads the SEC and ranks 10th nationally, and returned interceptions for touchdowns against Elon and UConn.
That has aided an offense that is 6-for-29 on third downs (21 percent) this season and yielded seven sacks against the Huskies.
"Players who were on both teams say this defense is better than we were then, and I believe so, too," said Lohr, who redshirted in '08. "I think the offense will get it together and will start making some big plays, so I think we are a much better team than we were in '08."
The Commodores will try to make it 3-0 in the Franklin era with a win Saturday afternoon against visiting Ole Miss. Vanderbilt has defeated the Rebels four times in the past six seasons, its most dominant stretch against an SEC foe since winning five straight over Kentucky from 1991 to '95.
"Any time you have success against a team, you're going to go into it with a positive attitude," junior receiver John Cole said, "but even more than that is winning these first two games and being undefeated and playing like this. Once you start league play, things tend to amp up, and that's what we've got to do."
When Commodores players first met Franklin, they were quickly captivated. The relationship strengthened throughout the offseason, but Franklin wasn't the first Vandy coach to express optimism after accepting the job.
His hiring occurred roughly five months after the abrupt resignation of Bobby Johnson, who led the Commodores to their first bowl in 26 seasons and whose eight-year stint in Nashville is the longest in the past 50 years.
"You have an age difference with Coach Johnson and Coach Franklin, which definitely plays a factor," Lohr said. "They are different kinds of coaches. One is a player's coach, and the other is kind of a front-office coach, and I don't mean that in a bad way at all. Coach Franklin is just extremely, extremely involved with us and is making sure we're doing the right things on and off the field.
"He has a great relationship with all the players, and we all really get along. Our team has never been closer."