An in-state rivalry will open the 2018 season in Nashville as the Vanderbilt Commodores (5-7 in 2017) host the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (7-6) for the 19th meeting between the two teams. The Commodores have won each of the last three games against their neighbors from the south after losing three in a row from 2001-05. The series began in September 1915 and the teams have played on-and-off ever since.
In the first eight games between the Blue Raiders and the Commodores — which spanned from 1915-50 — Vanderbilt outscored Middle Tennessee by, well, a lot. And by “a lot” I mean that Vanderbilt held a 345-0 advantage in those first eight matchups. Vanderbilt won last year’s season-opening battle 28-6 in Murfreesboro.
Middle Tennessee posted a winning record in 2017 and went 4-4 to finish tied for third in Conference USA's East Division. The Blue Raiders struggled against the Power 5, however, beating Syracuse on the road but losing to Minnesota and Vanderbilt. Aside from their win in the Carrier Dome, Middle Tennessee's only other road victory came against Charlotte, a team that went 1-11 in 2017.
Vanderbilt is certainly looking to put together the pieces after last season’s disappointing showing. Derek Mason’s group mustered only one win in SEC play, which came against Tennessee, who went 0-8 in conference games. The Commodores actually started 3-0 before dropping five in a row. To be fair, however, the first three of that five-game gauntlet were No. 1 Alabama (59-0), at No. 21 Florida (38-24) and No. 5 Georgia (45-14).
Middle Tennessee at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Vanderbilt -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Experienced signal-callers
They may not be the flashiest names under center, but Brent Stockstill (Middle Tennessee) and Kyle Shurmur (Vanderbilt) have both shown their talent in big moments. They haven’t always had the strongest supporting casts, but each is not to blame for their teams’ struggles either. Now, with both healthy and back for one more season, can Shurmur start off 2018 as he did '17 — with a win against the Blue Raiders — or will Stockstill and his father, Middle Tennessee head coach Brent Stockstill, team together to capture some family magic and pull off a stunner?
2. Blue Raiders' presence in Vanderbilt backfield
Vanderbilt lost top rusher Ralph Webb to the NFL, which doesn’t bode well against a defense that led Conference USA and finished 16th nationally in tackles for a loss per game with 7.4. And with the exception of sophomores at linebacker (D.Q. Thomas) and safety (Reed Blankenship), much of Middle Tennessee’s defensive starters are juniors or seniors. That experience, combined with Vanderbilt’s change at running back, could prove to be key on Saturday night.
3. Turnover misfortune
Neither of these two teams had much in the way of success last season when it came to turnovers. Both turned the ball over more often than they created takeaways, with Middle Tennessee averaging a full net turnover per game (-0.92) and Vanderbilt not too far behind at -0.42. Whichever offense can just do its job and take care of the ball will put its team in great position to begin 2018 on the right side of the ledger.
Make no mistake about it: Vanderbilt has the talent on the field to handle Middle Tennessee with little difficulty. But Ralph Webb’s departure hasn’t been discussed very much, and the Blue Raiders' defense is no joke. Vegas certainly knows something here with only a three-point spread, as this one could really go down to the wire.
Prediction: Middle Tennessee 31, Vanderbilt 23
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.