Job security to bowl eligibility — what a difference a year makes.
Yes, the circumstances surrounding Vanderbilt’s regular-season finale against Wake Forest are much different than when the teams met last year, also in the last game of the season.
Last November, first-year head coach Robbie Caldwell fielded questions about his job as the Commodores were on the verge of their second straight 2-10 season. Another two-win campaign was completed as Vanderbilt lost 34-13 — hours after Caldwell resigned or was fired, depending on who you believe.
“When your coach gets fired a couple hours before the game it kind of changes the mentality going into it,” defensive tackle Rob Lohr said. “It was just a whirlwind.”
Added quarterback Jordan Rodgers: “I don’t think you can really base anything off last year’s situation. The whole situation surrounding that game was unfortunate for the team, for the coaching staff.”
This year’s pre-Thanksgiving talk was a little more optimistic.
Calling it the most rewarding and challenging season of his 15-year coaching career, first-year coach James Franklin has the Commodores in position to get where many thought was impossible prior to the season — a bowl.
Though Vanderbilt (5-6) is coming off a devastating overtime loss to rival Tennessee, the Commodores can reach their second bowl in four years with a win at Wake Forest (6-5) on Saturday (2:30 p.m., ESPNU).
That’s easier said than done of course, especially considering their road woes. Vanderbilt is 0-4 outside of Nashville this season.
Franklin believes creating environment at Vanderbilt Stadium, which averaged 32,873 people in seven games this season, that is similar to what the Commodores will face on the road — 90,000- and 100,000-seat stadiums — would benefit his team.
“We don’t have the history of winning those games and we don’t have the advantage of having that same type of feel that other people have at home. That is the biggest difference,” Franklin said. “We have played well in halves or we have played competitive against all those people. But we have to find a way to give us the same advantage here at home that other people have at their place.”
BB&T Field in Winston-Salem, N.C., will be more like home for Vanderbilt than any other place the Commodores have played this season. In six home games, the Demon Deacons have averaged 32,625 fans. Like Vanderbilt, Wake Forest has been better at home with a 4-2 record.
The circumstances this year are a lot different for the Demon Deacons, too. Last year, they also were 2-9 heading into their final game.
Wake Forest already has clinched a bowl berth, its second in four years,handling Maryland 31-10 last weekend. Like Vanderbilt the Demon Deacons have had many close calls with top ranked teams, nearly upsetting Clemson, which is ranked 18th.
In fact, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest are two of the most improved teams in the country, each winning three more games than in 2010. A 3-0 start gave the Commodores plenty of confidence. Regardless of what happens Saturday, Vanderbilt will carry much that momentum from a much improved season into the offseason. The Commodores know it won’t be the same, though, if they don’t reach a bowl and end 2011 losing seven of their last nine games.
“We’ve got to bounce back,” Rodgers said. “We can’t allow [the Tennessee] loss to turn into two losses. We’ve got a one-game season now. As we’ve been saying [all season] we’re 1-0 [every week], but we’re really 1-0 this week. We need to be 1-0 to keep our season going.”