In his three years on the job, James Franklin has encouraged his team to play with an edge.
The Vanderbilt football coach even went so far to order shirts with the word “CHIP” printed on the right shoulder.
Coming off their first nine-win season in 97 years and a victory in the Music City Bowl, the Commodores now face a new battle — fighting complacency.
Vanderbilt ended the season on a seven-game winning streak and ranked No. 23 in the final Associated Press poll. At a press conference on Thursday before Vanderbilt’s first preseason practice, the recurring sentiment was settling wouldn’t be an option.
“The chip is bigger now,” defensive end Walker May said. “It is one of those things where you still don’t have the respect; you still don’t have anybody who cares for you now, except for your fans. We still have the chip and it is still bigger. We’re still disrespected in the SEC.”
After years in the cellar of the SEC, the Commodores have moved up to the middle of the pack in the East. The media chose the Commodores to finish fourth in the SEC East — also their finish last year — one spot ahead of rival Tennessee.
The next step is to win games over ranked opponents. They’ll get plenty of chances with Georgia (T-No.5), Texas A&M (T-No. 5), South Carolina (No. 8) and Florida (No. 9). They last defeated a ranked opponent in 2008.
“That is a big step,” fullback Fitz Lassing said. “I’d say it is even harder to go from good to great than from average to good. That is the step we are looking to take now. You just have to keep working, keep putting in the time. We were really motivated when coach [Franklin] first got here because we were coming off a rough string of seasons. We were really hungry, fighting to get out of the gutter.
“Now we have to have that same desire, same work ethic to take the next step, get to the next level.”
Vanderbilt returns 15 starters, including seven apiece on offense and defense.
Gone is quarterback Jordan Rodgers, all-time leading rusher Zac Stacy, defensive tackle Rob Lohr and cornerback Trey Wilson. But four starting offensive linemen return, along with wide receiver tandem Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd and All-SEC cornerback Andre Hal.
Areas of interest include quarterback, where Austyn Carta-Samuels takes over; running back, where Hendersonville native Wesley Tate leads the charge to fill the void left by Stacy; defensive line, which showed much promise in the spring; and tight end, a weakness the last two years.
“The verdict is still out — we have to go out there and work,” Matthews said. “We are 0-0. We have no practice under our belt. If we want to be a team we need to be, we have to go out each day and do our job. Then, if we do that, I can start talking to you close to [the season opener against Ole Miss on] Aug. 29 about how good this team is, which I think we will be a good team.”
Asked if a team can be better even if the record is worse, Franklin responded with a confident yes. He said scheduling, along with injuries and fortuitous bounces, factor into a team’s record.
He added that Vanderbilt “on paper” has a chance to be better than last year thanks to increased depth, team chemistry and an internal drive.
Of course, Franklin doesn’t want his team to enter the season with a sense of entitlement.
“Dealing with adversity with 17 to 22-year-old males is a lot of time easier to handle than success,” he said. “We have to make sure we still keep that fighter’s mentality. … My message to the team [Wednesday] night was that this team has not won a bowl game. This team has not won any games. This team has no streaks going. This team hasn’t done anything yet. That is going to be our approach with everything we do. We have experiences… we’ll use for growth. But this team hasn’t achieved anything. We’re not going to take anything for granted.”