Commodores look to turn things around at home against SEC East-leading Tigers
Back when Vanderbilt picked Oct. 19 for its homecoming game, it did not expect its season to look like this. Sure, early games against top-5 teams Georgia and LSU would make for a slow start, but a home bout against Missouri would ideally have kickstarted a run toward a second straight bowl game.
Instead, at 1-5, Vanderbilt is off to its worst start since head coach Derek Mason's first season in 2014. Worse yet, very few of the games have been competitive. Last Saturday, the Commodores were favored at home against UNLV by 14 points but wound up losing 34-10, and that came one week after losing to Ole Miss by 25.
Missouri, on the other hand, is coming in white-hot. After getting upset at Wyoming to start the season, the Tigers have ripped off five straight wins, including two in SEC play. The five wins have come by an average of 28.8 points, and last week's 38-27 win over Ole Miss was the first in which the Tigers gave up more than two scores.
The Tigers finally cracked the AP Top 25 this week and have an inside track to the SEC East title as the only team in the division without a loss. They'll still have to get through at least one of Georgia and Florida to claim a third SEC East title in seven years, but they're on the right track.
Historically, Missouri has had the upper hand in this series since joining the SEC. Although the Commodores won the first matchup in 2012, Missouri has won five of the last six, including the last three by an average of 14 points.
Missouri at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Missouri -21
When Missouri Has The Ball
Quarterback Kelly Bryant has been every bit as good as advertised after transferring in from Clemson. His 65.0 percent completion rate is right in line with his career average, while his yards per attempt are up to a career-best 8.8 to go with an impressive 12-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Bryant should have a chance to feast against a Commodore defensive backfield that has had trouble stopping the likes of Northern Illinois and UNLV. Vanderbilt ranks 122nd nationally in allowing 9.1 yards per attempt and 123rd with a 165.23 opponents' quarterback rating.
Missouri has spread the ball around very evenly, with six players compiling between 190 and 280 receiving yards on the season. Fans are still waiting for tight end Albert Okwuegbunam to break out, while Jonathan Nance has displayed big-play ability (19.2 yards per reception) in his first season since transferring from Arkansas. However, if Mizzou pulls ahead early, the Tigers may just feed the ball to Larry Rountree III, who is averaging over five yards per carry for the third straight season.
When Vanderbilt Has The Ball
The biggest question all year for the Commodores has been whether they'll actually get good quarterback play. Ball State transfer Riley Neal narrowly won a training camp battle for the position but has played poorly enough (59.2 percent completion rate with four touchdowns and three picks) that Mason has been forced to bring in backup Deuce Wallace. But Wallace has looked even worse, completing just 25-of-59 passes for 187 yards.
The lack of success is even more disappointing considering the experienced weapons surrounding the quarterback. Senior tight end Jared Pinkney has been held to 13 catches for 143 yards, while Kalija Lipscomb has found the end zone only twice this season. Vanderbilt's one silver lining has been running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who picked up where he left off after leading the SEC in yards per carry last season. Another potential positive for Vanderbilt: They will not have to face Missouri's top defensive player, as linebacker Cale Carrett, an Athlon Midseason All-America pick, is out for the season with an injury.
Vanderbilt's offense has looked anemic all year, and that's not likely to change with Missouri ranked 11th nationally in scoring defense. The Commodores' best chance of staying in the game is for them to jump out to an early lead and feed Ke'Shawn Vaughn the ball, but Missouri will be keying on him. Even with a homecoming crowd, Vanderbilt doesn't have much of a home-field advantage, and Kelly Bryant will likely prove to be too big of an obstacle to overcome. Expect Derek Mason's seat to get even hotter as Missouri clinches bowl eligibility for the third straight season.