In what head coach Derek Mason hoped would be a positive start to the college football season, the Vanderbilt Commodores lost to a rebuilding South Carolina team at home. After building a 10-0 lead, Vandy’s offense became stagnant in the second half as the Gamecocks came back and won 13-10. The Commodores gained only 242 yards in the game.
This week, Vanderbilt will host a Middle Tennessee team that rolled in its opener, beating FCS member Alabama A&M 55-0. The Blue Raiders are coming off a moderately successful 7-6 season in 2015, which ended with a Popeyes Bahamas Bowl loss to Western Michigan. Middle Tennessee returns a boatload of talent from that team and is Athlon Sports’ pick to win the C-USA East this year.
The Commodores’ offensive woes, which have been a key flaw thus far in the Mason era, were still ever-apparent in the loss to the Gamecocks. Middle Tennessee, on the other hand, looked potent on offense, totaling 681 yards against the Bulldogs. The competition level was certainly different than the test Vandy faced but it will be interesting to see how the two teams’ offenses compare this week.
Saturday will mark the 17th all-time meeting between the Commodores and Blue Raiders. Vanderbilt won last year’s matchup in Murfreesboro 17-13, but it wasn’t easy. Surprisingly, that was Vandy’s first win over Middle Tennessee since 1956. The Blue Raiders have won three of the last four meetings, all of which have taken place in the new millennium.
Middle Tennessee at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 10 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Vanderbilt -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Middle Tennessee’s Lethal Passing Tandem
Quarterback Brent Stockstill and wide receiver Richie James return this season after shattering the Middle Tennessee record books last year. Stockstill threw for a whopping 4,000 yards as a freshman in 2015, and James caught more than 100 passes for 1,346 of those yards. It was the most productive season in program history. The Blue Raiders have other options at receiver too. While Vanderbilt’s defense is its strength, it is used to stopping run-heavy SEC teams and its secondary isn’t as good as the front seven. This could be a tough matchup for the Commodores. Stockstill threw for nearly 300 yards against Vandy last season.
2. Vanderbilt’s Not-So-Lethal Passing Attack
Kyle Shurmur went 8-for-22 and 73 yards passing against South Carolina in the opener. And the Gamecocks aren’t exactly elite in the secondary. Vanderbilt doesn’t appear to be much-improved in the passing game. Middle Tennessee’s defense allowed only 54 passing yards to Alabama A&M last week. Again, the competition level obviously wasn’t the same, but those numbers are still evidence that Vanderbilt could struggle through the air in this week's contest. One of the Blue Raiders’ strongest position groups is their cornerbacks. Couple that with a solid defensive line that has shown it can get pressure and, again, it looks like a difficult matchup for Vandy.
3. Pressure on Derek Mason
This may be the biggest game of Mason’s tenure as a head coach thus far. That's because of the pressure that will begin to mount if the Commodores lose this game. Coming into the season, many pundits thought Vanderbilt would be a strong bowl contender and could make noise in the SEC East. It’s certainly too early to say that won’t happen because of a loss to South Carolina — it’s a long season — but Vanderbilt needs to win the swing games, and this is a swing game. It’s a winnable game. An 0-2 start would not bode well for Mason’s future outlook.
Vanderbilt has one of the SEC’s best front sevens, which will help against most of the teams it faces. However, Middle Tennessee isn’t overly-reliant on its running game. What the Blue Raiders do possess is arguably the best quarterback Vandy will face until it takes on Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly in November. Hopefully, running back Ralph Webb and the Commodores’ bigger offensive line will be able to wear down Middle Tennessee and keep quarterback Brent Stockstill and the offense off of the field. But that’s hard to bank on. And this is a legitimately-bad matchup for Vanderbilt. Last week, I picked Southern Miss to upset Kentucky because of the Golden Eagles’ excellent quarterback. Might as well make it two-for-two. The Blue Raiders will get it done in Nashville.