Gary Stokan likes Vanderbilt.
He likes the story of the Commodores’ turnaround under passionate second-year coach James Franklin. He loves that 19 Georgia kids fill their roster. He believes the program’s growing fan base would fill up the Georgia Dome.
But does he like them enough to invite them to the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve in Atlanta over the likes of LSU, South Carolina or Texas A&M?
“More than likely Vanderbilt would have to win out to be heavily considered for the Chick-fil-A Bowl,” Stokan, president and CEO of the bowl, said.
And that is the problem facing the Commodores, who are bowl-eligible for consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.
Even if they end the season on a six-game winning streak — they were 6-4 heading into last weekend’s contest against Tennessee and the final game at Wake Forest this Saturday — for eight wins, it might not be enough to leapfrog nine- or 10-win teams still on the ballot.
“Right now you’ve got a preponderance of SEC teams, six out of 10 in the top 10 in the BCS, that all have at least eight wins and if, their schedule plays out, could have nine or 10 wins,” said Stokan, who sent a Chick-fil-A Bowl rep to the last three Vanderbilt games. “That would be the one thing that may hurt Vanderbilt at the end of the day, is what are the records, what are the rankings of the teams as we get through the selection process.”
The SEC has agreements to send 10 member schools to bowls. Heading into the weekend, just eight were bowl-eligible with four others still in the hunt — Arkansas, Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee.
The league is strong enough to have two teams in BCS bowls. From there, the Capitol One Bowl gets first pick. The Cotton Bowl and Outback Bowl follow, selecting teams from the West and East divisions, respectively. Then the Chick-fil-A Bowl is up, followed by the Gator Bowl. Eight wins for Vanderbilt appears to be a must to be considered for those bowls. Stokan called the Commodores a “little less desirable” if they finish 7-5 or 6-6.
Up next is the Music City Bowl, which took Vanderbilt in 2008 but passed on the Commodores last year. If the number of bowl eligible teams remains at eight, however, the Music City Bowl would have to take Vanderbilt.
“We’ve got a great relationship with [athletics director] David Williams and coach [James] Franklin, and they are part of our community,” Music City Bowl president Scott Ramsey said. “When they were here in ’08 it was a historic event for our city and for their university. I think we will have a lot of conversations between now and then with Vanderbilt. Maybe they want to get out of town rather than stay in town, if it is a choice that we’ve got, and take that input. But I think we’re always going to try to make the best decision we can for the bowl game. The bowl game’s mission was to hopefully fill up the hotels with a lot of out-of-towners.”
With the next selection, the Liberty Bowl had Vanderbilt last year and won’t want a repeat. Unless, again, the Commodores are the SEC’s last bowl-eligible team.
That leaves the Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., and the final bowl with an SEC tie-in, the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La.
If Vanderbilt slides down the bowl ladder, athletics director David Williams doesn’t believe lack of fan support would be the reason.
He points to last year’s Liberty Bowl. Vanderbilt quickly sold out its allotment of 10,000 tickets. Combined with seats sold on the secondary market, school officials believe Commodores fans accounted for nearly 30,000 of the 57,103 tickets sold.
“I think the thing we have going in our favor is we traveled extremely well last year at 6-6,” Williams said. “I feel very strongly we’re going to be much better than 6-6 this year, so you have to really think we’re going to travel even better. We’re one of those programs, as far as I’m concerned, we’re on an upswing as it relates to sort of the newness of it all. I think, for that, it is going to help us when they have to make those decisions.”
Fewer than 1,000 tickets remain for public sale as the Chick-fil-A Bowl inches toward its 16th straight sellout, second to only the Rose Bowl in continuous sellouts. The game’s representative from the SEC receives 16,000 tickets.
While Commodore fans are constantly being urged and reminded — by Franklin most of the time — to come out to home games, Stokan isn’t concerned about persuading them to travel to Atlanta.
“I have no doubt in mind that Vanderbilt could easily sell the 16,000 and probably want more,” Stokan said. “That is certainly not going to hurt Vanderbilt in the selection process.”
Lack of tradition and national brand recognition might be harder to overcome.
Even amid Franklin’s turnaround, Vanderbilt doesn’t exude the pizzazz or wow factor — at least in name only — of an LSU or Florida or Texas A&M. Whether bowl reps admit it or not, that goes a long way in attracting not just fans to the game, but national TV audiences as well.
Sending a high-major program to a “lower” bowl doesn’t always pay dividends, though. Williams recalls going to the Liberty Bowl in 1990 when he was working at Ohio State. The bowl drew a measly crowd of 32,262 as Air Force knocked off the Buckeyes 23-11.
Having a more enthusiastic fan base as opposed to an apathetic one — e.g. the current status of Tennessee stumbling into bowl eligibility as coach Derek Dooley faces the ax — could benefit Vanderbilt.
With two weeks before bowl selections on Dec. 2, there are plenty of questions to be answered. Vanderbilt is just glad to be in the discussion.
“We’re going to be happy wherever we go,” Williams said. “We’re going to put on a good show both on the field and in the stands.