Three games into an undefeated 2011 season, Vanderbilt and first-year coach James Franklin are gaining some admirers nationally.
On Sunday — a day after the Commodores improved to 3-0 with a 30-7 victory over Ole Miss — Vanderbilt received votes in two Top 25 national polls. It received eight votes in the Associated Press poll. In the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll — which Franklin votes in — it garnered 11 votes.
“I don’t want anyone to feel like we think we have arrived because we haven’t,” Franklin said on Saturday. “We have a long ways to go. We have done some good things because we are playing as a team. We believe in what we are doing.”
The Commodores were last 3-0 in 2008. That season they spent three weeks ranked in the Associated Press poll before finishing the season 7-6. They ended with their first bowl game win in 26 years — a 16-14 victory over Boston College in the Music City Bowl.
The 2008 success led Vanderbilt to receive three votes in the Associated Press’ 2009 preseason poll. That didn’t last long, though. VU went 2-10 that season and again in 2010.
The 2011 Commodores are halfway to bowl eligibility with nine games remaining.
“We don’t even talk about that,” Franklin said. “Those goals, those things are way too big for us to handle right now.”
The road — literally — should get tougher from here.
The Commodores travel to No. 12 South Carolina (3-0) for their first road game of the season at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2). They’ll get an off week before playing at No. 3 Alabama on Oct. 8.
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves — that forces us to get complacent,” cornerback Trey Wilson said. “We are just going to come in and focus just like we have in weeks past. Coach Franklin preaches every week we have to get better.”
The defense, in particular, already has been about as good as any.
Vanderbilt’s 10 interceptions lead the country and are already more than all of last year (nine). The Commodores have a total of 12 takeaways, which is tied for second in the nation.
Wilson, a junior, has a team-high three picks — two of which he has taken back for touchdowns. The Commodores’ three interception returns for touchdowns already are the most in a single season.
Overall, the defense ranks 10th out of 120 schools with an average of 250 yards per game game allowed. That is much improved from a year ago, when Vanderbilt (419.3 yards per game) ranked 93rd in the country.
“By nature, we are an aggressive defense. We do quite a bit of blitzing and movement,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said after Vanderbilt intercepted Ole Miss quarter Zack Stoudt five times. “Creating havoc upfront ... that is important to us — to be disruptive.”
Ole Miss is obviously down — the Rebels are 1-2 and have dropped 10 of their last 15 games, leading to speculation regarding coach Houston Nutt’s job security.
But the Commodores didn’t just squeak out a win — they soundly beat the Rebels for their fifth victory in the last seven years of meetings. It was also their largest margin of victory in a Southeastern Conference game in 40 years.
The win might have helped not only in the rebuilding of Vanderbilt’s national image. Perhaps the Commodores will be viewed as more a threat to opposing SEC schools.
“We can’t really worry about what other teams think of us,” quarterback Larry Smith said. “We’re just taking it one game at a time and worrying about Vanderbilt football.”