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Franklin, Vanderbilt poised to cap season of revival with Liberty win

It was not until the regular-season finale that Vanderbilt clinched bowl eligibility, but there’s no disputing coach James Franklin’s first season has been a roaring success.

For starters, Franklin has completely changed the culture of the program while injecting a competitive enthusiasm that is palpable.

Consider, the Commodores lost seven games in a row — each by 14 points or more — to conclude the 2010 season. On Franklin’s watch, Vanderbilt lost by a double-digit margin only twice, at Alabama and at South Carolina.

Truth be told, the Commodores’ 6-6 record easily could be 10-2. They were in position to beat Arkansas, Georgia and Florida late in the fourth quarter before losing all three games. Also, they lost in overtime at Tennessee.

Nevertheless, Vanderbilt was a lucrative moneymaker all year and finished the regular season 9-3 against the spread, going 6-1 ATS in its last seven.

When the Commodores were favored — as they are today, laying 2 points against Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl at Memphis, Tenn. — they compiled a 4-1 spread record.

Franklin’s team holds advantages in location and motivation. This is only the second bowl game Vanderbilt has played in since 1982.

Senior quarterback Zach Collaros, who broke his right ankle Nov. 12, was sick this week but will start for the Bearcats (9-3).

The Commodores’ quarterback is Jordan Rodgers, the brother of Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers.

Behind a big game by junior running back Zac Stacy, who has 1,136 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground, I like the Commodores to take the cash and wrap up a strong season under their promising first-year coach.

Three more bowl plays:

Meineke Car Care Bowl, today

Northwestern (+10) over Texas A&M — The Wildcats are 3-0 ATS in bowls under coach Pat Fitzgerald. Northwestern was a double-digit underdog once this season, winning 28-25 at Nebraska while getting 17½ points. The Aggies have been abysmal versus the number (3-9 ATS).

TicketCity Bowl, Monday

Penn State (+7) vs. Houston — Obviously, there have been distractions galore for the Nittany Lions, and it’s difficult to predict how the circumstances will impact their performance. But it’s not as if Houston isn’t dealing with its own issues. Kevin Sumlin bolted to take the Texas A&M job, and after starting the season 12-0, the Cougars got thumped 49-28 in the Conference USA title game.

Houston has a prolific offense, but Penn State’s defense is one of the nation’s best, allowing 15.7 points per game. Even with issues at quarterback, expect the Lions to run effectively, so I’ll take the points.

Rose Bowl, Monday

Wisconsin (+6) vs. Oregon — This is the only time the Badgers have been underdogs all season. Russell Wilson threw 31 touchdown passes compared with only three interceptions, and Montee Ball rushed for 1,679 yards and 32 touchdowns.

Look for Wisconsin’s combination of Wilson and Ball to outplay the Ducks’ lethal duo of Darron Thomas and LaMichael James in a high-scoring affair. Give me the Badgers as underdogs, and I’ll also get a small taste of the money-line wager at plus-200.

Last week: 1-3 against the spread

Season: 35-28-2

Brian Edwards of VegasInsider.com and BrianEdwardsSports.com is providing college football analysis for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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