The Southeastern Conference (SEC) is college football's most dominant program. It has won the Bowl Championship Series for the past six years. And a record six SEC teams finished in the top ten this year. Another SEC team, Vanderbilt, is also doing well. Long the doormat of the conference, the private university known more for its academics is enjoying gridiron success.
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
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And I'm Melissa Block. Across the nation, private universities have had a good year on the gridiron. Notre Dame's football team is back on top. Stanford is riding high. Duke is going to its first bowl game since 1995. And Vanderbilt University in Nashville is now going to a bowl game for the second year in a row. For Vanderbilt, that is the athletics stratosphere, as Blake Farmer reports from member station WPLN.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: There's nobody more jacked up on campus than Mr. Football himself, Nick Zeppos, also known as the school's chancellor.
NICK ZEPPOS: I think it's amazing to see these great universities with Nobel Prize winners, Marshall scholars, Rhodes scholars, and then they suit up. They lace it up for a big bowl game.
FARMER: Vanderbilt has long been the doormat of the Southeastern Conference. The dominant SEC has produced the national champion for the past six years. The one time ESPN "GameDay" rolled into town, the hosts joined the ribbing.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A campus of high achievers and low expectations in football...
FARMER: But the Vanderbilt Commodores are learning a different tune.
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FARMER: Fans packed the student center to celebrate this week's announcement. For the first time, the team is going to a bowl game in back-to-back years. Lucy Hovious is a long-suffering season ticket holder.
LUCY HOVIOUS: We find the most creative ways to lose games you can ever imagine, but this has really been fun. We're now finding creative ways to win games.
FARMER: Vanderbilt had a slow start but closed out the season with its longest win streak in more than 50 years. The Commodores still only sold out half their home games, even with the smallest stadium in the SEC, but senior David Schuman sees improvement.
DAVID SCHUMAN: There were like times freshman, sophomore year where I would be at the game, like, and there's probably maybe 50 students in the stands, and I'm looking around, I'm like there's no way that this team is ever, ever going to be good. But obviously, this guy up there - James Franklin - he's been killing it.
FARMER: That's Vanderbilt's charismatic coach. The administration certainly likes the guy. They announced a contract extension for Franklin, who was already estimated to be making $3 million a year. Other teams are interested in his talents. He makes people believe Vanderbilt really could beat Alabama or Florida one day. On campus, he visits the fraternity houses to help fill the stands, and he allows himself to get choked up before fans.
JAMES FRANKLIN: I sit here and I think about when we arrived here two years ago, the feeling that surrounded the program. That's why I get so emotional.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You're the best, coach Franklin.
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FARMER: Franklin has completely turned around the school's recruiting. Instead of making excuses about Vanderbilt's comparative rigor, Franklin uses academics as a selling point, and the pitch is working, with verbal commitments from some of the nation's top prospects, like defensive tackle Jay Woods of Georgia who talked to ESPN.
JAY WOODS: I feel like you're getting a prestigious education at Vanderbilt, and then you're playing SEC football.
FARMER: Vanderbilt still lags the SEC in many respects. The school is preparing to spend lavishly on new practice facilities. Athletics director David Williams says he's all in, and that the spending is paying off.
DAVID WILLIAMS: I was at a dinner the other night, and it was a lot of high-class people. They had great jobs and had done great careers, but they loved the fact that we beat Tennessee.
FARMER: The lopsided in-state rivalry went Vanderbilt's way, winning at home for the first time in 30 years. Their problem now is making sure there's enough room on the bandwagon as fans come out of the woodwork. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.