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November 13, 2012

Vanderbilt, Duke may become victims of success

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Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

For the first time in its history, the Vanderbilt football program has earned bowl eligibility in consecutive seasons. The program is in line to sign a Top-15 recruiting class in February and things are trending in a positive direction for those who have anchored down.

Similarly, Duke is making strides toward consistent legitimacy. The Blue Devils have won six games before November for only the third time since 1953 and are bowl eligible for the first time since 1994 -- coincidentally the last time the team broke six wins.

The success and subsequent excitement that James Franklin and David Cutcliffe have brought to the beaten-down fan bases of both private universities are now being tempered with the potential loss of both men as college football's annual coaching carousel begins to spin.

Vacancies at Kentucky -- which may not be viewed as a step up for either Franklin or Cutcliffe -- and Arkansas are expected to soon be joined by Tennessee and Auburn. The familiarity with Cutcliffe at Tennessee will likely make the 58-year-old a candidate worth considering despite being an elder statesman in the coaching ranks. Franklin became a hot name immediately after he took the position at Vanderbilt, and his success on the field combined with the proven ability to recruit SEC-caliber players makes him attractive.

Now all those invested in the Commodores and Blue Devils will be forced to wait and see if their coach remains or if they will use the perennial doormats as steppingstones.

For their part, each coach is saying all the right things, right now.

"We love where we are and what we are doing," Cutcliffe said. "I am happy at Duke."

Franklin shared the coachspeak.

"We have been dealing with these types of things since we got here," he said. "Our focus is on this week."

While both recite the expected verbiage, speculation will persist.

Chris Lee covers the Commodores for VandySports.com, and he believes Franklin is sincere. But if Franklin chose to leave, it would pause the forward progress.

"Franklin has been the best coaching hire this school has made since Steve Sloan in the 1970s, and I think many would argue he is better than that," Lee said. "Most people will talk about his recruiting, but his on-the-field coaching is incredible. If he left I think the next guy could probably win with the talent he has brought into the program, but it won't be the same.

"There is a real feeling that with Franklin this could be a nine-win program. If he got Vandy a New Year's Day Bowl victory, they will build a statue for him."

Vanderbilt's come-from-behind victory against Ole Miss last week was a statement game for the program. Three-star commit Taurean Ferguson of Jonesboro (Ga.) High viewed the victory as the team personifying the attitude of its leader.

"They never gave up and that is the kind of guy Coach Franklin is," Ferguson said. "He doesn't stop. He is always coaching guys up and making them believe. He will get after you when you need it but he does it to build you up, and I think that comeback was because of him and his style."

Ferguson was the fifth commitment to the Vanderbilt class, choosing to give his verbal pledge in March. The 5-foot-9 cornerback said that his relationship with Franklin was the primary reason.

"He really made me feel like he cared," Ferguson said. "He made me feel like I was already on the team. He was the only coach that was recruiting me that would pick up the phone every time I called and I like that he was always available."

Franklin said that he does not have a set message for recruits regarding his future with the program, but that he will address it with any who ask.

"I will get into more detail with those guys," Franklin said. "We have a personal relationship with those kids and we will get into detail with them."

Ferguson said that he hasn't asked the coach his intention but made it clear that if Franklin wasn't part of the program it may change his status as well.

"I hope he stays and I am pretty sure he will," Ferguson said. "If he leaves before signing day, though, I will probably look around to see if there is a better place for me."

Landon Stokes, a three-star defensive end from Orlando (Fla.) Lake Highland, said that his relationship with Franklin was a major reason for his commitment as well but, unlike Ferguson, he plans to stay the course regardless of Franklin's status.

"Coach Franklin is a great coach. I want to play for him and I think he will stay," Stokes said. "But it is about the whole package for me and I am anchored down right now."

If Franklin were to leave, the Commodores' commit list would become a list of targets for poaching programs. Four-star quarterback Johnathon McCrary and three-star running back Johnathan Ford figure to receive the most attention.

Duke, on the other hand, may be in a better place to keep its class together.

Brian McLawhorn covers the team for DevilsIllustrated.com and he thinks that the philosophy on Tobacco Road is different than in Nashville.

"The unique thing is that I don't think Cutcliffe is the main guy in any of the recruiting," McLawhorn said. "It is a family-style recruiting approach and not just one coach being a driving force. I think that aspect will keep a lot of the kids here, but if he took the staff with him it could fall apart."

The 16-man class for Duke is currently ranked No. 55 class in the country and is on track to be one of the Blue Devils' highest-ranked recruiting hauls over the last decade.

McLawhorn said that the loss of Cutcliffe would likely be noticed in the future and that his presence has always been felt in the region whether he was at Tennessee, Ole Miss or now at Duke.

"He has been involved with the Raleigh-Durham area for so long that he will get the kids he wants if he goes to a place like Tennessee," McLawhorn said. "His relationship with Peyton and Eli Manning always generates attention when they are on campus and that plays a major role in recruiting."

What both programs are banking on is the follow-through on promises made to both men.

Duke has upgraded its practice facility, it has extended its outdoor field from 60 to 100 yards, and it has stadium improvements in the works.

According to McLawhorn, the administration has shown Cutcliffe a commitment that it has not shown any previous coach, Steve Spurrier included.

"Spurrier really didn't stay long enough to find out, but it was unlikely he would have gotten what Cutciffe is getting now," McLawhorn said. "Ted Roof got nothing, I mean zero support. With what Cutcliffe has done on the field and the off-the-field stuff improving, it has students and alumni enthusiastic for the first time."

Vanderbilt is following through with similar plans. It has renovated the football stadium and added a new high definition Jumbotron, it made cosmetic improvements to the McGugin Center and built a new $30 millon practice facility.

Lee thinks the administration is doing everything it can to keep Franklin happy.

The rubber will meet the road when doing all a program can proves not to be enough to keep each man happy.

"They are paying Franklin and his assistants a good salary and making sure that Vanderbilt is competitive with other SEC schools where it can," Lee said. "There are things that the school simply cannot do, but it is getting its bang for the buck. The administration is doing as much as they can afford."

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