Vanderbilt’s ascent the last two seasons under James Franklin can be attributed to several factors.
But right there at the top of the list is the fact that the Commodores have played the kind of defense that it takes to win in the SEC.
In fact, Vanderbilt is one of only five SEC schools to have finished in the top 20 nationally each of the past two seasons in total defense. The Commodores were 19th this season after finishing 18th in 2011.
They’re in exclusive company. The other four schools in the league to field top-20 defenses each of the past two seasons were Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina.
Keep in mind that Vanderbilt finished 93rd nationally in total defense in 2010, the year before Franklin arrived and brought in Bob Shoop as his defensive coordinator. The Commodores were 56th nationally in total defense in 2009 and 30th in 2008, the year they went 7-6 and won the Music City Bowl under Bobby Johnson.
It’s yet another reminder that any kind of real progress in this league begins and ends with defense.
The Commodores also head into the 2013 season with one of the most impressive defensive streaks in the country.
Vanderbilt has gone 455 plays outside the red zone of not giving up a touchdown. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that’s the longest active streak in the country among FBS teams. The last time the Commodores gave up a touchdown outside the red zone was against Florida in the sixth game this past season when Jeff Driskel scored on a 70-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame owned the longest active streak heading into the Discover BCS National Championship. The Irish had gone 628 consecutive plays outside the red zone in which its opponent had not scored a touchdown, but that streak was snapped when Amari Cooper scored on a 34-yard reception in Alabama's 42-14 win over Notre Dame.
Vanderbilt's formula under Shoop is stopping the run, eliminating the big plays and taking the ball away. Of course, that's the formula for all good defenses.
Shoop notes that the 70-yard touchdown run by Driskel was the Commodores' last defensive snap (other than a kneel-down) against the Gators. That was also the last loss by the Commodores, who went on to win seven straight and finish with their first nine-win season since 1915.
"If you can eliminate those chunk or explosive plays -- no balls over your head, keep the ball in front and inside and pursue and tackle -- you can win," Shoop said.