by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
2011 Liberty Bowl
Cincinnati (9–3) vs. Vanderbilt (6–6)
Date: Dec. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn.
Vanderbilt is back in a bowl game for the second time in four seasons but only the fifth time in school history. First-year head coach James Franklin directed the Commodores to six wins — two more than they had the previous two seasons combined. Vanderbilt, despite its mediocre 6–6 record, played very solid football for much of the ’11 season. Four of the Commodores’ six losses came by six points or less and five of their six wins came by 23 points or more.
Cincinnati, too, was much improved in 2011. After struggling though a 4–8 mark in ’10 — Butch Jones’ first season as the head coach — the Bearcats went 9–3 in ’11 and shared the Big East championship with West Virginia and Louisville. Turnovers were a major reason for the turnaround; last season, UC ranked 119th in the nation in turnover margin (-1.25 per game). In 2011, they currently rank 11th (+0.92 per game).
WHEN VANDERBILT HAS THE BALL:
The Commodores’ defense has been stout — 19th in the nation in yards allowed — but the big story in Nashville has been the dramatic progress made on the offensive side of the ball. The Commodores improved from 16.9 points per game in 2010 to 26.9 in ’11 and from 298.3 yards per game in ’10 to 342.8 in ‘11.
The offense received a huge boost in Week 6 when Jordan Rodgers stepped in for Larry Smith as the No. 1 quarterback. In the final seven games, the Dores averaged 413.0 yards and 31.6 points. The passing game has been efficient — with wideouts Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd emerging as consistent threats — but this is a run-based attack that is led by junior tailback Zac Stacy. Snubbed by both the coaches and media for first-team All-SEC honors, Stacy rushed for 1,136 yards (a Vanderbilt single-season record) and 13 touchdowns and led the league with a 6.2 yards-per-carry average.
A key for the Commodores offense will be to protect Rodgers against a Cincinnati defense that leads the nation in sacks and tackles for a loss. Vanderbilt’s offensive line struggled earlier in the year, but made huge improvements in the latter half of the season. Rodgers’ mobility played a big role in the Dores’ reduced sack total, as well.
WHEN CINCINNATI HAS THE BALL:
The Bearcats’ offense will feature a talented tailback with an NFL future and a quarterback who can hurt you with both his legs and his arm. Isaiah Pead will be the primary ball-carrier, but we aren’t quite sure who will be taking the snaps for Cincinnati. Zach Collaros, the No. 1 quarterback, broke his ankle against West Virginia on Nov. 12. His recovery is reportedly ahead of schedule, but Jones said recently that it will be game-time decision as to whether the senior plays in the Liberty Bowl. If Collaros is unable to go, sophomore Munchie Legaux will get the nod. Legaux stepped in for Collaros in the final four games and completed 50-of-109 passes for 688 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions. Legaux has talent and is the Bearcats’ quarterback of the future, but Collaros gives this team a much better shot to win the bowl game.
Pead rushed for 1,110 yards and 11 scores, hitting the 100-yard mark against Tennessee, NC State, Louisville, Pitt and West Virginia. The senior will have to be productive for the Bearcat offense to flourish in Memphis.
Vanderbilt has been strong in all facets of special teams with the glaring exception of kicking field goals. Ryan Fowler and Carey Spear combined to hit only 7-of-13 field goals with a long of 37 yards. Cincinnati’s kicker, freshman Tony Miliano, converted 16-of-22 field goals, including 7-of-10 from 40 yards and beyond. The Bearcats are average in the return game but rank 17th in the nation in net punting (39.1-yard average).
The boys in Vegas must put a lot of stock in the power of the SEC. Vanderbilt, which went 2–6 in league play, is a 2.5-point favorite over a 5–2 Big East team. Some of that has to do with Collaros’ injury, but it’s also an indication that Vanderbilt is a solid football team that very easily could have won two or three more games. The key for the Commodores will be to protect Rodgers — which they have done very well in recent weeks — and get Stacy going in the run game.
Vanderbilt 27, Cincinnati 24