The Vanderbilt Commodores and Missouri Tigers are set to square off in Nashville on Saturday for a matchup between SEC East foes in search of their first conference win of the season.
Missouri was considered by many to be a dark-horse candidate to win the SEC East prior to the start of the season. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for that prediction to unravel. The Tigers' defensive woes have been glaring en route to a disappointing 3-4 overall record and an 0-3 start in SEC play. They have lost five straight conference games dating back to last season, including a 35-14 throttling at the hands of Texas A&M in their most recent contest on Oct. 16. Fresh off a much-needed bye, Mizzou and second-year head coach Eli Drinkwitz will hit the road for the first time in over a month in hopes of reversing their fortunes with a win over Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Vanderbilt appeared to be picking up a little steam after taking South Carolina to the wire a couple of weeks ago. However, that momentum would not carry over to the next game, as the Commodores were outgained 522-155 in a 45-6 blowout loss to Mississippi State last week on their own homecoming. They sit at 2-6 overall and 0-4 in conference play under first-year head coach Clark Lea. Ironically, Vanderbilt's last SEC win came two years ago in Nashville against Missouri. Can the Commodores bring an end to their 17-game SEC losing streak with another upset victory at home over the Tigers on Saturday?
Saturday's game will mark the 14th meeting all-time between Missouri and Vanderbilt. Missouri leads the series 8-4-1 and won the most recent meeting by a score of 41-0 last season in Columbia.
Missouri at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 30 at 3 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Missouri -16
When Missouri Has the Ball
Despite their struggles on defense, the Tigers have been solid on the offensive side of the football, averaging 447.1 yards and 34.4 points per game. That said, quarterback Connor Bazelak hasn't had the big second-year surge that many expected. He has been serviceable — completing 67.2 percent of his pass attempts for 1,920 yards with 12 touchdowns. But his seven interceptions are concerning, and Bazelak's 135.7 passer efficiency rating leaves plenty to be desired. The good news is that Bazelak has shined in matchups against bad pass defenses this season, and that is exactly what he will face on Saturday.
In fact, Vanderbilt ranks dead last in the SEC and 122nd nationally, allowing 286.4 yards per game through the air. And only one team in the FBS has allowed more touchdown passes than the Commodores (22). They also rank last in the SEC with seven sacks, which bodes well for a Mizzou offensive line that has only allowed seven sacks on the season. Bazelak will need to be wary of an opportunistic Vanderbilt defense that has come away with two interceptions in each of its last four games. That effort has been led by defensive back Dashaun Jerkins, who has an interception in each of the team's last three contests.
No one has been more instrumental in the success of the Missouri offense than Tyler Badie. The do-it-all running back not only leads the team in receptions (32) and touchdown catches (4), he also carries most of the load for the Tigers' rushing attack. Badie ranks second in the SEC with 735 rushing yards and leads the conference with 1,008 yards from scrimmage. Only two players in the entire country have scored more touchdowns than Badie's 13. He should have no trouble keeping that momentum rolling on Saturday against a porous Vanderbilt defense that ranks 12th in the SEC and 95th nationally, allowing 171.4 rushing yards per game.
When Vanderbilt Has the Ball
The Commodores are still in search of a spark for a struggling offense that is averaging an FBS-worst 13.3 points per game and an SEC-worst 291.4 yards per game. The offense has been particularly bad against SEC competition, failing to score a single touchdown in three of its four conference games. It also appears that the Commodores will be without starting quarterback Ken Seals again on Saturday. While Lea didn't completely rule Seals out for the Missouri game, he did state that he continues to be day-to-day with a finger injury and that he would not return until he is 100 percent healthy, insinuating that Mike Wright will once again be the starter on Saturday.
Wright put together a solid performance against South Carolina, but he struggled mightily in his second start last week against Mississippi State. For the season, he has completed just 55.7 percent of his passes for 423 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. The silver lining is that Wright has performed slightly better than Seals. And unlike Seals, the dual-threat signal-caller has the ability to make plays with his legs (134 rushing yards).
The Commodores passing attack has relied heavily on four different wide receivers — Will Sheppard (35 rec., 457 yds., 3 TDs), Chris Pierce Jr. (33, 373, TD), Devin Boddie Jr. (28, 259, TD), and Cam Johnson (24, 237, 2). And the offensive line has held up decently in pass protection, surrendering 16 sacks in eight games. The Commodores will be paired against a Missouri pass defense that, at first glance, appears serviceable. The Tigers allow 201.7 yards per game through the air, which ranks sixth in the SEC and 34th nationally. However, in terms of yards allowed per attempt (7.9), Mizzou ranks just 13th in the conference and 97th in the country. Regardless, a Vanderbilt passing game that has generated just seven touchdowns against 10 interceptions, averaging an SEC-worst 191.6 yards per game, doesn't present much of a challenge.
A Vanderbilt run game that averages 3.03 yards per carry and has produced just four rushing touchdowns all season wouldn't normally present much of a challenge either. But running backs Rocko Griffin (89 att., 296 yds., 2 TDs) and Patrick Smith (39, 146) will have an opportunity to exploit one of the leakiest run defenses in the nation on Saturday. Missouri's struggles against the run this season have been well-documented. The Tigers are giving up a whopping 287.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks dead last in the SEC and second to last in the FBS. They also have allowed 21 rushing touchdowns, five more than any other conference team. Linebacker Blaze Alldredge has been one of the few bright spots for the Mizzou defense, leading the team in tackles (48), tackles for a loss (8), and sacks (4).
Vanderbilt should be able to find some success on offense against the SEC's worst defense. The problem is that the Commodores aren't far behind the Tigers in the same area. And the Missouri offense is far superior to that of Vanderbilt's. The Tigers also will be fresh and well-prepared coming off their bye week. Mizzou wins comfortably to secure its first SEC win of the season.
Prediction: Missouri 41, Vanderbilt 24
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.