NASHVILLE — The Vanderbilt Commodores have made plenty of history this season, and now they can do something not seen at this private university in nearly a century: Win nine games.
Coach James Franklin isn't talking about the opportunity his Commodores have today in the Music City Bowl against North Carolina State (7-5). Not yet, even though it would be their first nine-win season since 1915 and only their third all-time. Not when he's been so busy coaching and trying to sell as many tickets to turn LP Field, home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans, into a home field.
"This is a perfect situation for us," Franklin said.
"We're still trying to build our brand. We're still trying to build our following. We're still trying to claim our stake of being Nashville's team and really establish it so this is a great opportunity to play in our city, to play LP Field, which is kind of like our other stadium. From what I understand, they used our stadium for a time period, and now we're using theirs."
This is a second straight bowl for Vanderbilt, something the Southeastern Conference's smallest university had never done before. The Commodores also come in with an SEC-best six straight victories and their best season since 1982. That helped Franklin earn a second straight contract extension a month ago.
Now they want to improve on a year ago when the Commodores lost the Liberty Bowl 31-24 to Cincinnati. Franklin said he realized some of his players were just happy to be in a bowl. This time around, the Commodores say they know that winning bowls will prove how much Vanderbilt has changed in Franklin's two seasons.
"I would like to leave here and start a legacy of changing the culture here," Vandy senior defensive tackle Rob Lohr said. "I think we've started doing that. Until we win a bowl game and do it continuously, it's not going to change anything, so we're looking forward to the opportunity to get this win -- win No. 9. But like coach says, 'It's always 1-0 this week."'
Bowl games are nothing new for N.C. State with this the 27th in school history. But the Wolfpack (7-5) had to win two of their final three games to become bowl eligible, and it wasn't enough to save coach Tom O'Brien's job. Offensive coordinator Dana Bible stuck around as interim head coach along with the rest of the staff to coach this game, while incoming coach Dave Doeren prepares to take over.
"There's no way I'm going to try and replace him," Bible said of O'Brien. "I'm just doing the best job that I can to give us the best chance to succeed."
The Wolfpack have won two straight bowls, and they also have 6-foot-6 senior Mike Glennon, considered among the top quarterback prospects in the NFL draft in April. Glennon has thrown for 3,648 yards with 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions this season and is the quarterback who started last season when Russell Wilson left N.C. State for Wisconsin.
Glennon said he wasn't sure how his teammates would deal with heading into the bowl with the coaching change.
"We've done a better job than I was expecting," Glennon said. "With everything that's gone on, that could be a huge distraction, but I think we've been focused. When we go out to practice, we have good practices. At times where there could be a lot of distraction, I think we've handled it pretty well."
Glennon has some talented receivers led by Quintin Payton and Bryan Underwood, who had 10 TD catches. The Wolfpack averages 304 yards passing per game, 20th nationally, though they face a Vanderbilt defense that ranks 10th nationally allowing 175.8 yards passing per game and fifth in pass efficiency defense (99.8).
The bigger challenge for N.C. State may be the fact that this isn't a home game. In their six home games, the Wolfpack allowed just 14.3 points per game. In the six games on the road or at neutral sites, they gave up 34.8 points.
Vanderbilt comes in averaging 29.3 points led by Zac Stacy, the school's career leading rusher who had 1,034 yards this season, and Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of the Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The quarterback was benched in the Liberty Bowl loss, and he's determined to show how much he's grown this season.
"I don't want to repeat that," said Rodgers, who completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 2,431 yards this season. "I'm going to play to the best of my ability really for my team. We want a victory as a team for this program."