A few weeks after James Franklin was named Vanderbilt's football coach, I was in Nashville for Tennessee's bowl venture. I was curious to see if the hiring had captivated the populace.
In fact, my very random, amateurish poll determined that Franklin's hiring might as well have been a top-secret matter of the CIA. People in witness protection are better known. The Commodores might as well have hired John Doe.
I asked people in restaurants, convenience stores and parking lots. I asked people at the Opryland Hotel, and at the Marriott only a deep pass route away from Vanderbilt Stadium. The closest anyone came to naming the new coach was to say, "I think he came from Maryland."
He did. Franklin was an assistant coach at Maryland before Vanderbilt hired him away — in the dark of night, based on my poll.
Two years later, James Franklin still might not be a household name in Nashville, where the Titans and Vols are more popular than the Commodores. But he's no stranger to college football.
The question now isn't "Why did Vanderbilt hire Franklin as its head coach?" It's "How will it
be able to keep him as its head coach?"
Franklin didn't take long to make an impression. He took Vanderbilt to a bowl game in his first season. As noteworthy as that might be for Vanderbilt, one season isn't much of a track record.
The track record is now almost two seasons long. And it keeps looking better.
So do the players, most of whom Franklin can take credit for developing if not recruiting.
In its best seasons, Vanderbilt has a history of being halfway competent, occasionally fielding an adequate defense or a somewhat proficient offense. But there rarely has been any semblance of balance.
That's why this team's statistics are so striking entering Saturday's game against Tennessee. For starters, Vanderbilt doesn't rank last in the SEC in a singular statistical category. How many times have you been able to say that?
Wide receiver Jordan Matthews is second in the SEC in pass receiving.
Richard Kent is third in punting.
Casey Spear is second in field-goal kicking.
Linebacker Chase Garnham is sixth in sacks.
Cornerback Andre Hal is second in passes defended.
Zac Stacy is seventh in rushing.
The Commodores rank 16th nationally in scoring defense. And while their offense isn't as formidable, they are averaging more yards per game than Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Missouri.
Other numbers are up as well.
The Commodores have a long history of clumsily handling victories seemingly within their grasp. Even while playing themselves into a bowl last season, they didn't change their tendencies. In games decided by seven or fewer points, Vanderbilt was 1-5.
But Franklin's second team isn't sabotaging itself. In four games decided by seven points or fewer, the Commodores have won three.
Also, don't dismiss the Commodores' 40-0 victory over Kentucky as business as usual. As wretched as the Wildcats have been, they have lost only five other games by bigger margins in the last 16 years.
The Commodores often were on the wrong side of that kind of game not so long ago. They were 2-10 in 2010, the year before they hired Franklin, who has since won 12 games in two seasons.
And made a name for himself in the process.