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Vanderbilt Commodores vs. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders Preview and Prediction

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Vanderbiltand Middle Tennessee first met on the gridiron in 1915, a game in which the Commodores won, 51-0. The teams have met periodically throughout the past 100 years, but interestingly, did not play each other from 1956-2001. In fact, the Commodores last win in the series came in '56. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president then, for what it's worth.

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The Blue Raiders come into this game averaging 71.5 points per game in contests they've won. Middle Tennessee fell to SEC power Alabama in Week Two, 37-10, and narrowly missed out on an opportunity to knock off Illinois last week in Champaign, losing 27-25. Quarterback Brent Stockstill was superb last week, throwing for 330 yards and three touchdowns. 

Head coach Derek Mason's decision to start handling the defense is going to pay off big for Vanderbilt. Progress is already showing. The Commodores held two of the SEC's offensive juggernauts, Georgia and Ole Miss, to 31 and 27 points, respectively, though they lost both games. Vandy also virtually shut down a powerful Western Kentucky offense in week one, but still lost, 14-12. Their lone win so far is a 47-7 victory over Austin Peay.  

Vanderbilt won the first 12 meetings against Middle Tennessee. However, the Blue Raiders have since won the last three, all in the 2000s and all in Nashville. Saturday marks the teams' first meeting since 2005 and the first meeting in Murfreesboro since 1920. 

Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee

Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV Channel: CBS Sports Network

Spread: Even

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Three Things to Watch

1. Quarterbacks

The biggest thing to keep an eye on in this game, without a doubt, is quarterback play. Vandy's Johnny McCrary is currently third in the SEC in total passing yards, behind only Ole Miss's Chad Kelly and Arkansas's Brandon Allen. McCrary has thrown for 1,074 yards and five touchdowns. However, he has also thrown as many interceptions. The Blue Raiders' gunslinger, Stockstill, has thrown for 1,221 yards and 12 touchdowns. He is on pace for a phenomenal year and has better numbers than McCrary at this point, but both are playing extremely well. Whichever quarterback gets going first will give his team a leg up in the flow of the game.  

2. Can Ralph Webb make an impact?

As mentioned, Middle Tennessee has an outstanding passer, but the Blue Raiders are also pretty good at running the football. If this game is going to be decided in the trenches, the Commodores' offensive line needs to step up its run blocking and create space for Webb. In four games, the talented rusher, Webb, has only 282 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. And both of those scores came against Austin Peay. Webb has yet to show his full potential in a game that matters. Saturday's showdown against Middle Tennessee could be a perfect time to showcase his abilities. 

3. Could this game eliminate Vandy from bowl contention?

Coming into the season, a bowl game looked like a long shot possibility for Vanderbilt. Most had (and still have) the Commodores ranked last in the SEC, and with an early loss in a key game against Western Kentucky, it doesn't seem probable that Vandy will get to the postseason. However, there is reason to hope for Commodore fans in looking at how the team has competed in the last three weeks. They are evidently better this year. And with Missouri and South Carolina looking terrible and Tennessee and Kentucky looking beatable, it's not impossible for Vandy to reach six wins. But it all starts against Middle Tennessee. This is a must-win. 

Final Analysis

Middle Tennessee is solid on the offensive end. At times, they have looked elite in comparison to their competition. However, this game against Vanderbilt will likely be their most difficult matchup of the season outside of the road trip to Alabama in Week Two. If they want to stay around until the fourth quarter, Stockstill will need to be at his best against a talented Vanderbilt defense. For the Commodores, it all starts with being able to dictate the pace of the game. They have to stay balanced and avoid costly mistakes. If the Commodores play a clean game, they will emerge with a victory. 

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Prediction: Vanderbilt 28, Middle Tennessee 24

— Written by Cody McClure, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a radio host and lead SEC Writer for Three Point Stance Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CodyMcClureCFB.