Joe Fisher is in his 16th year as the play-by-play voice of the Vanderbilt Commodores, and over that time has, in his words, seen a lot of bad football (including from South Carolina during the 0-21 losing streak from 1998-99). He's not seeing bad football anymore in Nashville thanks to coach James Franklin, who has won more games in his first two years (16) than anyone since 1904-05.
In this interview with Gamecock Central, Fisher talks about the turnaround, the history of the series between the two teams and what to look for this weekend as the Commodores roll into Columbia to face No. 13 South Carolina.
Gamecock Central: You've seen a lot of ups and downs in football since 1997.
Joe Fisher: Yeah I sure have. There's no question about that. You know, not too many years ago we'd be going against teams and you felt like there was very little, if any, chance to win a game. Those days are long gone.
I think Vanderbilt is now recognizing that not only are they competitive with everybody else, but everybody else has realized that Vanderbilt's competitive, too.
GC: You just go back to the season opener last year between the two teams in Nashville, a tight, 17-13 win for the Gamecocks.
Fisher: Yeah, Connor Shaw got out and got the running game going for him and really hurt us in that regard. Vanderbilt is very concerned this year with keeping him contained. He's a very good running quarterback, and I think he's underrated as a passer. He's better than most people think.
He's quite a talent. If we let him run for 90 yards, we're going to have a long night.
GC: Looking at what Franklin has been able to do over the past two seasons, do Vanderbilt fans feel like this is the year they break through and get a win over either Florida, Georgia or South Carolina?
Fisher: I think that's the next step. That's the thing people are looking at. They've been to back-to-back bowl games, which had never happened in the school's history, they won nine games last year, which hadn't happened in almost 100 years.
So the next step is to beat a team you're not supposed to. Whether that's South Carolina or Florida or whoever, that a step in the maturation process. But that being said, this conference as you know isn't easy. It's not like you walk in, roll them out there and you win. It's going to be quite a challenge, but a lot of people are looking at that as the next notch on the belt.
If you can beat somebody that's nationally ranked, that's an indication that you're climbing.
GC: Do people in Nashville look at USC as an example of how to turn a program around in the SEC since it wasn't that long ago South Carolina was 0-21?
Fisher: Actually I don't think so because they're two totally different programs. I remember those days, too. I remember coming to Williams-Brice Stadium and I give them a world of credit, because they were going 0-11 and the place was packed. I remember that very vividly, I remember going there and watching an 11-10 game that was one of the worst football games I've ever seen.
I don't think the road map is similar. I think you're dealing with a lot of different elements. Vanderbilt is a little unique, certainly unique in the conference. There are some other elements to deal with, there. But I give James Franklin and Bobby Johnson before him a lot of credit. They were the ones that really started going after the quality recruits that the Georgias and South Carolinas of the world were going after and selling the program as a positive and not selling academics as a negative.
I think as time has gone on, you're seeing that to be a plus now, you're seeing a lot of young men who understand they can play SEC football, the best conference in America, and get a world-class degree.
GC: From the outside looking in, it seems like Franklin's enthusiasm has been contagious, that he's very much a player's coach.
Fisher: I don't think there's any question about it. If you spend any time around James Franklin, you quickly learn that there is no 'off' switch. That is him all the time. He is always motivating his players, always teaching his players and always recruiting. In the two-plus years he's been here, he and his staff have been the same way.
He has assembled a quality staff that feels the same way he does, and they all demand that of each other. As a result, they're a force to be reckoned with now. They're somebody that walks into premiere homes in the country and competes.
GC: What has your quarterback transfer from Wyoming, Austyn Carter-Samuels, brought to the team and the offense?
Fisher: He spent a year in the program behind Jordan Rodgers, he knows the offense and is very comfortable. He's a very confident, natural leader who I think the players rally around. He has a very strong arm. I think without question a stronger arm than Jordan had last year. He's played in big arenas before at Wyoming, he's played at Texas, so he won't be intimidated playing at South Carolina.
The bottom line is that he's the guy the offense has looked at since Day One in the spring and said, 'He's our guy.' He knows he's number one.
GC: Looking at South Carolina, what jumps off the page?
Fisher: Several things. Offensively, as I mentioned, Connor Shaw is underrated. He's a guy who is tremendous in the read-option, can get tough yards for you when he has to run the football, is underrated as a passer and understands Steve Spurrier's offense and what they want him to do.
In the Georgia game, he made some really quality throws, especially in the second half. That's the number one thing. Number two, the running game is similar. I thought the Georgia-South Carolina running back battle was very interesting. Both had downhill runners who punish you, and while Mike Davis isn't 6-4, he can punish you and flat bring it.
They have weapons on the perimeter, too. (Bruce) Ellington is someone you always have to pay attention to as well. They have plenty of weapons.
Defensively, of course you start with (Jadeveon) Clowney. Everyone knows that. But I think he may be getting overshadowed a bit by what is now a typical South Carolina defense - a big, fast, athletic unit. If you've watched our games in recent years, they've been very entertaining. For the most part they've been low-scoring, defensive battles. They've been decided in the fourth quarter, and I see no reason this game won't be the same.
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