By Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. – SEC football is starting to get interesting. The preseason feel of early out of conference matchups is beginning to disappear, as teams prepare for the start of arguably the nation’s toughest conference schedule.
The road to Atlanta is now underway, as each week will bring teams closer to a possible Championship trip to the Georgia Dome. Pundits predicted this week’s biggest SEC games, but a new coach and an unheralded program stole the show in Nashville.
That is where we kickoff this week’s Three and Out.
First Down: Who Is James Franklin?
I want to ask a serious question. When Vanderbilt named then Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin as their new head coach, who immediately knew who he was?
Being a pretty big college football fan myself, the name didn’t jump to mind, and I actually had to search online to find out more about the Commodores new head man.
I guarantee you SEC fans know who Franklin is now, as he made a major statement in his conference debut, defeating Ole Miss 30-7 on Saturday
. Only three games into his Vanderbilt tenure, Franklin is blazing a path, having defeated the reigning Big East Conference champion (UCONN) and Ole Miss in successive weeks. Franklin is making Vandy history, and is now off to the best start as a first year coach since Red Sanders in 1946.
But, in order to completely appreciate where the Commodores are today, you have to take a look back at this program just one year ago.
Rewind the clock to before the start of the 2010 season, as I sat in at the Wynfrey Hotel for the SEC Media Days. Longtime Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson had just retired, leaving a strong legacy, including having guided the Commodores to their only bowl game win in 53 years.
But, Johnson’s retirement came in late July, and left the university with a narrow time frame to name his successor. Perhaps caught off guard, or because it was so close to Vandy’s opener, the administration settled on continuity, elevating then assistant head coach Robbie Caldwell to the top spot.
When Caldwell walked into the room to speak at Media Days about his team, no one knew what to expect. A man of Southern roots, Caldwell was the epitome of the lifelong football coach, a man who had dedicated his life to the game. Once he began to address the crowd, you couldn’t help but smile.
Caldwell’s stories were genuine, his humor heartfelt and the media sat back and enjoyed the show. Caldwell was by far the most quotable coach during the three-day session, sharing his thoughts on turkeys, anonymity and watermelon. Even though you rooted for him to succeed, something about Caldwell’s words (he even admitted this to a degree) lead you to believe that he wasn’t the long term answer for Vanderbilt football.
The Commodores couldn’t put it together on the field in 2010, losing eight straight to finish the season at 2-10. Caldwell’s tenure ended after only one season.
Now with the time and means to hire a new football coach, Vanderbilt aimed high. Rumors swirled around Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who had just authored the Tigers to a National Championship win. According to media reports, Malzahn was close to accepting. But in the end he declined, leaving the Commodores searching for another candidate.
Before Vandy fans had time to regroup, the administration hired James Franklin. Relatively unknown, Franklin set about not only to change the record at Vanderbilt, but the culture. Through some innovative ideas, endless energy and team recommitment,
the Commodores now stand at 3-0 on year.
A funny story shared by Andre Ware on Saturday’s broadcast pretty much sums up the level of excitement brought by the new coach. Ware commented that while they were meeting with Franklin earlier in the week, the coach’s 4-year old daughter walked by their conversation. As she left the room, she turned around to Ware and company and yelled, “Go DORES!”
After Saturday’s win, Vanderbilt fans indeed have a reason to smile.
Second Down: Living Up To The Hype
Going into the fall of 2009, no high school running back in the country was rated higher than Marcus Lattimore. The talented athlete from Duncan, South Carolina was already a household name. His physique was picture perfect, packing 210 pounds on a 6-foot frame. His speed was even more heralded, as Lattimore clocked a 4.4 forty. He was compared to former Auburn star Ronnie Brown, and was named South Carolina’s “Mr. Football” as a senior.
After a lengthy recruiting process, Lattimore spurned offers from the nation’s top programs to stay home, inking with Steve Spurrier and the University of South Carolina.
Now, high school success doesn’t mean collegiate glory, as there have been litanies of “can’t miss” prospects that have done just that, failing to reach the same levels of greatness in college as they did in the prep ranks.
Top high school recruits today face additional pressure, due to the fact they are seen as saviors before they even step on campus. Their “decisions” are televised, they are expected to contribute immediately and fans no longer allow for a grace period to adjust. These high school stars are expected to be just as great in college, and become heroes the moment they hit the practice field. We often forget they are mere children, 18-year olds who are away from home for the first time.
Lattimore was no different. Staying at home signaled the growth of the South Carolina program, and the Byrnes High graduate was expected to be the key piece that pushed Spurrier’s squad to heights Gamecock fans had ever seen. Despite being on the cusp of SEC hierarchy, South Carolina wasn’t there yet. Marcus Lattimore was supposed to make that happen.
For once, the "five-star" prospect has lived up to the hype. After another stellar performance against Navy on Saturday
, where Lattimore carried the ball 37 times for 246 yards, there is no question. Not only is Lattimore the Gamecocks best player, you can begin to make the argument that he might be the best player in the nation.
He currently leads the SEC in rushing yards per game, clocking in 178 yards per contest. Lattimore has already scored seven times, and averages a conference leading 200 all-purpose yards per game. Watching him down the stretch in a close game against Navy, you began to see the entire repertoire of his greatness.
Spurrier, lauded in the past for his amazing passing systems, relied nearly exclusive on his ball carrier Saturday night. In one key drive in the fourth quarter, Lattimore touched the ball 80 percent of the time. The sophomore would run the football, and then catch a short pass to move the chains. He put on a clinic.
That is when it finally hit me. The prep phenom is now a collegiate star, and should be listed in the Heisman conversation. Marcus Lattimore is that good.
Third Down: Blowout Saturday
It had to happen eventually. After an opening two weekends of heart stopping action, we finally reached a Saturday where blowouts became the norm. Aside from South Carolina’s field goal win over Navy, or Kentucky falling to rival Louisville by a touchdown in the Governor’s cup, most SEC games this week were decided long before the final whistle.
The average margin of victory was 22 points, and several games were out of reach at the half. Both Georgia and Alabama recorded shutouts, while scoring 59 and 41 points respectively. SEC games weren’t any better, as Vanderbilt 23-point victory over Ole Miss left little in doubt, while Florida was in total control in their 10-point win over Tennessee.
Not to say there weren’t exciting games or that even during blowouts there weren’t moments on edge. But, in comparison, overall this weekend’s thrill factor didn’t match the previous two. The last second stops were replaced by the second string getting reps, as teams prepared for what appears to be a monster slate of action next week.
Again, not considering non-conference games, the SEC went 4-2. I’ll take a few easy games here and there as long as the league is winning. Sometimes it is nice to have an emotional break, seeing as how every week in the SEC provides you with a certain top 25 matchup.
I mean, look at a week from now. We have two top 10 teams meeting (Arkansas vs. Alabama), while number two LSU ventures out of conference to take on a top-20 squad in West Virginia. There is no rest for the weary. So my point is you probably should enjoy these types of weekends as an SEC fan, because your heart could use the rest.
Plays Under Review
-- I mentioned that Marcus Lattimore was the nation’s top running back. The second highest rated high school back that year? Michael Dyer of Auburn. The Tigers didn’t do so badly either.
-- Does anyone get more animated on the sidelines then Florida’s Will Muschamp? He’s in his third game as a head coach, and he is in no way pacing himself. That man coaches like his hair is on fire. I like it.
-- Don’t sleep on Alabama’s Trent Richardson as a Heisman candidate either. SEC fans are spoiled to have a league with such great ball carriers. If Alabama runs the table and is in championship discussion, you’ll see Richardson mentioned prevalently. Rightly so.
-- Fantastic atmosphere in Starkville Thursday night. I already covered it here, but I cannot emphasize how much fun we had as guests of Mississippi State University. I would happily travel there again.
-- How good is LSU’s defense? They made a Dan Mullen offense come to a complete halt, allowing just two field goals against a team that was averaging 47 points per game on the season.
-- Who would have thought that next week’s Vanderbilt-South Carolina game would be for the Eastern Division lead? That game is HUGE now.