COLUMBIA — Steve Spurrier has prepared to play games against Vanderbilt for decades, but the challenge has changed recently.
Vanderbilt is no longer the perpetual doormat of the SEC East, finishing fourth in the division last fall with a 9-4 record. The season ended with a seven-game winning streak — the program’s longest since 1948 — and a 38-24 win against North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl. It was only the third bowl victory in program history, their second in the past 50 years.
Coming off its best season since 1915, Vanderbilt got votes in the Associated Press Top 25 poll this offseason. Now, when he looks at game film, Spurrier noticed things are not the same.
“The biggest difference is their athletes. They’re not slow guys anymore,” Spurrier said Tuesday. “They’re fast, and they’re in excellent shape. You don’t see many overweight guys playing for Vanderbilt. Even their offensive linemen are not quite as heavy as they used to be, but their defensive players are really in tip-top shape. They’re fast and lean, and they can really run.”
No. 13 South Carolina will host Vanderbilt at 7 p.m. Saturday inside Williams-Brice Stadium. The Commodores have lost 14 straight games against ranked opponents, but their recent success is still a drastic change from their norm.
For years and years, Vanderbilt didn’t have the talent to compete — much less beat — other SEC teams. Nicknamed the Harvard of the South, the university has long prided itself on stringent academic requirements.
On Tuesday, Spurrier wondered if that had begun to change.
“I don’t know all the academic requirements they have there at Vanderbilt, but if you’re going to play in the SEC you’ve got to recruit very closely to the standards everybody else has,” Spurrier said. “I would think they’ve relaxed them a little bit, but I don’t know exactly.”
A lowered academic standard would be news to Vandy coach James Franklin.
Since he arrived at Vanderbilt in 2011, Franklin has embraced his institution’s strict academic reputation instead of running from it. It’s a pillar of his recruiting pitch, something he mentions almost every time he speaks with media.
At SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., this summer, Franklin lauded his team’s academic accomplishments. He pointed to the past decade, saying team GPA has been “on par” as the program’s win total increased.
“Very proud of the fact that we’re part of what we call the 20-20-20 club,” Franklin said at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, site of media days. “That is, us and Notre Dame are the only two schools in the country that finished in the top 20 on the football field, that had a top 20 recruiting class, and are in the top 20 academic institutions. We’re very, very proud of that stat as well.”
Vanderbilt University’s academic accomplishments are well known. Its football team has also been successful in the classroom.
In recent years, there has been no significant dip with Vanderbilt football’s Academic Progress Rate. The Commodores scored a 973 out of a possible 1,000 in 2011-12, the most recent available score. The minimum to avoid NCAA punishment is a four-year score of at least 930.
The 973 score was five points lower than the previous year, but consistent with the program’s recent past. Since 2008-09, the Commodores scored in the 970s every year. USC, meanwhile, hasn’t had an APR above 970 since Spurrier became coach. The Gamecocks scored 966 in 2011-12.
Franklin also said this summer his current crop of freshmen had the program’s highest GPA through their first summer school session, though he didn’t provide the number.
Spurrier stressed he had no evidence Vanderbilt may have lower academic standards in recruiting. To him, it was logical. The Commodores ended last season with the SEC’s longest win streak, and they were ranked No. 20 in the USA Today Coaches Poll. They’ve played the Gamecocks competitively in recent years, including a 17-13 USC road win to open the 2012 season.
Most — though, not necessarily Franklin — agree it’s harder to win at a high level when academic standards for recruits are higher than competitors. True success, they say, comes with a level playing field. Spurrier has always held that opinion.
“They want to play,” Spurrier said. “They want to play football, and they want to be competitive, and to do that you almost have to have the requirements pretty close to the other schools. Pretty close.”