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Independence Bowl Preview and Prediction: NC State vs. Vanderbilt

Ralph Webb

Ralph Webb

The Camping World Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, will feature a pair of 6-6 teams in NC State and Vanderbilt. Both are coming into the game with momentum, having knocked off their in-state rivals in their regular-season finales. The Wolfpack defeated North Carolina 28-21 on the road, while the Commodores kept Tennessee out of the Sugar Bowl with a 45-34 win of their own.

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Vanderbilt finally has emerged with a decent offense to couple its stout defense. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur played well in the final two weeks of the season against Ole Miss and Tennessee to help the Commodores get bowl eligible — and running back Ralph Webb has always been a threat in the backfield.

While Vanderbilt’s offense has improved, it will face a difficult challenge in trying to move the ball against the Wolfpack. NC State has the ACC's No. 1 rushing defense (statistically), which also ranks fifth in the FBS. It will be interesting to see which team has the advantage up front. The Wolfpack could have an equally tough challenge scoring points against the Commodores’ stout front seven.

The winner of this game will finish above .500 and carry momentum into the offseason as each program tries to climb the ladder in its respective conference. It should be a good one in Shreveport.

Camping World Independence Bowl: NC State vs. Vanderbilt (Shreveport, La.)

Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 26 at 5 p.m. ET

Where: Independence Stadium (Shreveport, La.)

TV Channel: ESPN2

Spread: NC State -4

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Three Things to Watch

1. Vanderbilt RB Ralph Webb vs. NC State Front Seven

Webb has more than 1,100 rushing yards on the ground for the Commodores this season. The junior has had a great season, currently sitting fourth in the SEC in yards on the ground. He also has benefitted from a great offensive line blocking for him. However, NC State has the ACC's No. 1 rush defense, allowing just 105 yards per game on the ground. That's also good for fifth nationally in that category. Overall, the Wolfpack are 28th in total defense and 32nd in scoring defense in the FBS. It's not like NC State’s defense is impenetrable — the pass defense isn't great — but this run D is for real. Vanderbilt could have a very difficult time in this game if Webb doesn’t get some help from the passing attack.

2. NC State's Offensive Playmakers vs. Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham

The Wolfpack have plenty of offensive playmakers, including senior running back Matthew Dayes, who has run for more than 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. Sophomore wide receiver Stephen Louis ranks near the top of the ACC in receiving yards as well, but overall, NC State is a middle-of-the-pack (pardon the pun) offense compared to its ACC peers. Vanderbilt has a solid front seven, led by arguably the SEC's best defensive playmaker in Cunningham. The junior linebacker is 12th in the nation with 119 total tackles to this point. With a likely future in the NFL, this could be the last opportunity for the Commodores’ best defender to shine in college.

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3. Vanderbilt QB Kyle Shurmur

Because of NC State’s success in stopping the run, Shurmur could end up being the ultimate deciding factor in this game. If the Wolfpack are able to stuff the box and shut down Webb, Vanderbilt is going to have to throw. Shurmur had a ton of success against Ole Miss and Tennessee — throwing for a combined 689 yards and four touchdowns. Nothing against Shurmur, but both of those defenses are really bad... and depleted. That's not to say he can't have success against NC State. The Wolfpack's secondary is certainly not on the level of the front seven. NC State ranks 11th out of 14 ACC teams in passing defense. The point is, while Vanderbilt doesn't have to shred the Pack through the air, it needs to take advantage of a weaker secondary in order to win this game.

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Final Analysis

The best matchup in this game will be the NC State front seven against Vanderbilt’s running game — and that will certainly be fun to watch. But the most interesting question I have is, what will the Commodores do when the Wolfpack load the box? Whether or not Kyle Shurmur can make plays through the air against a susceptible defense is really the most intriguing storyline here. That may end up deciding the winner. Both of these teams finished the season strong and are plenty capable of leaving Shreveport with a victory. But the way Vanderbilt played in the last two weeks of the season was even more impressive. The Commodores will get it done in a tight game.

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Prediction: Vanderbilt 26, NC State 20

— Written by Cody McClure, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a radio host on Sports Radio 1180 WVLZ in Knoxville, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter @CodyMcClureCFB.