NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Going into their second season together, James Franklin said his Vanderbilt Commodores are so confident they feel they could beat the NFL's Green Bay Packers with a home-field advantage.
Well, the Packers aren't coming to help his Commodores open the season Thursday night. The ninth-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks are, and Franklin and his Commodores are ready for the challenge, expecting to finish with a win.
"Belief is a very powerful thing, and we have that right now," Franklin said.
Playing the first Southeastern Conference game of the 2012 season on national television brings Vanderbilt a tough challenge. The Gamecocks are ranked higher than they've ever been to start a season. They went 11-2 and finished second in the SEC East last year. Marcus Lattimore is back from his torn left anterior cruciate ligament, and coach Steve Spurrier has lost to Vanderbilt only twice in 19 games all-time.
By Vanderbilt standards, the Commodores had a successful year too in Franklin's first season going 6-7 and reaching the program's fifth bowl game ever. Spurrier insists his Gamecocks are ready as well.
"Our guys realize that this is a big game for us, about the same as the Georgia or Tennessee game," Spurrier said. "Eastern division, conference rivals. Hopefully, we're ready to play well. I think we are. Only time will tell. The word out of Vanderbilt is they're ready to play very well. We know that. We have absolutely no excuses if we don't play well."
South Carolina comes in having won eight straight and nine of its last 10 against SEC East opponents. The Gamecocks also have won 12 consecutive season openers, and they beat Vanderbilt 21-3 last season holding the Commodores to just 77 yards of offense.
Alshon Jeffery is now in the NFL with the Chicago Bears, and he had more catches (183) in his South Carolina career than all the returning receivers and tight ends combined (155). Junior Connor Shaw, the quarterback who has won eight of his first nine starts, now has the job all to himself. And Lattimore will be wearing a brace on that left knee at least early in the season.
"We're going to try to win the game whatever it takes," Spurrier said. "Marcus is ready to carry 25 or 30 times. ... Marcus could carry 30 to 40 if we needed to. Hopefully, we'll have more balance and not quite get to that. Again we have to wait and see how the game progresses.'
This will be Shaw's first real test. He's the dual-threat quarterback who has thrown for 1,671 yards with 16 touchdown passes and eight interceptions while running 167 times for 690 yards and eight TDs. South Carolina ranked 95th nationally last season throwing for 181.4 yards per game, leaning heavily on the run. Shaw's left tackle, redshirt freshman Brandon Shell, will be making his first career start.
Vanderbilt lost four starters off a defense that ranked 18th nationally allowing 324.6 yards per game. Defensive tackle Rob Lohr said they will be ready to test a young lineman, even if he is good enough to start at South Carolina.
"They're definitely a run-first offense because they're good at it," Lohr said. "They're still dangerous as a passing team, so we're ready for anything."
The Commodores have senior running back Zac Stacy, who ran for 1,193 yards and 14 TDs last season. Quarterback Jordan Rodgers, whose big brother Aaron starts for the Packers, started the last seven games of 2011 and earned the job to start this season. Vanderbilt's offense revved up once he took over in 2011, finishing with 347 points that were the most scored by the Commodores since 1915.
"We're buying into what he's selling us ...," Rodgers said. "Plus we believe so much in our offensive philosophy and our defensive philosophy. ... It doesn't really matter who's out there. We feel our offense has an answer to everything."
Rodgers will have to face South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney, who is expected to get more work with Melvin Ingram now in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers. Clowney had eight sacks and forced five fumbles as a freshman. He said the Commodores are a very smart team when it comes to finding the weak spot on a field.
"They try to use it because they know they pretty much ain't that athletic, so they try to use that against us as much as they could," Clowney said.
The Commodores spent a lot of money at the stadium this offseason with new lighting after a stand of lights went out during a game last season. There's also a new artificial surface, new video boards and a grassy hillside in one end zone for new fan seating. Even though tickets remained available Monday, Franklin said he expects a sold-out crowd wearing Vandy black and gold.
"I expect there to be a good crowd because there is more buzz and excitement about Vanderbilt football than there has ever been before," Franklin said.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)