After two lackluster seasons, Derek Mason got Vanderbilt to a bowl game in his third year in Nashville. With his fourth season set to begin on Saturday, Mason looks to take it up a notch and lead the Commodores to a winning season after a 6-7 campaign capped with an Independence Bowl loss to NC State.
Entering its 12th season under head coach Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee hasn't had a losing season since 2011 and will look to build on an 8-5 campaign that ended with a Hawaii Bowl loss to Hawaii. The Blue Raiders are viewed by many as the biggest challenger to Western Kentucky in the East division of Conference USA.
The two interstate foes will meet on Saturday night as Vanderbilt looks to start 1-0 for the first time since beating Elon to kick off the 2011 season. Middle Tennessee will look to its first win over a Power 5 program since beating Georgia Tech in 2012.
Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Vanderbilt - 4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Contrast of styles
Saturday's contest in Murfreesboro couldn't feature two teams that are more different in terms of style. Under Mason, Vanderbilt has won with physicality and defense. The Blue Raiders on the other hand, have had no qualms about trying to win a shootout. That's probably the approach they will take Saturday as quarterback Brent Stockstill and dynamic playmaker Richie James both return. Middle Tennessee will have to replace leading rusher I'Tavius Mathers.
The Commodores ranked in the top 30 nationally in 2016 when it came to keeping opponents off the scoreboard, allowing just 24 points per game. The Commodores will have to replace their top two tacklers from a season ago, including linebacker Zach Cunningham. That doesn't mean that Vanderbilt is devoid of talent. Defensive tackle Nifae Lealoa is a load in the middle, and Oren Burks is an outstanding linebacker for what should be a very veteran defense.
2. Ralph Webb
In Vanderbilt's 47-24 win over the Blue Raiders last season, the difference for the Commodores was running back Ralph Webb. Webb ran for a career-high 211 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries in the victory.
At 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, Webb is Vanderbilt's biggest offensive weapon and was able to wear the Blue Raiders down a season ago. Not only did Webb keep the chains moving, but he also kept the Middle Tennessee offense off the field. After seeing the success that Webb had last season, the Vanderbilt offense will likely take a similar approach.
3. The fourth quarter
Both Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee played their fair share of nail biters a season ago, but the outcomes went in opposite directions. In games decided by one score in 2016, the Blue Raiders were 4-1 with the only loss coming to Western Kentucky by one point in overtime. Vanderbilt was just 2-4 in such games.
Should Saturday's contest develop into a nail biter, the advantage would look to favor Middle Tennessee. Not only did Middle Tennessee fair better in close games a year ago, but it has the advantage in the biggest area that decides these types of contests – at quarterback. It is worth noting that both teams have solid placekickers in Canon Rooker for Middle Tennessee and Tommy Openshaw for Vanderbilt.
Saturday's opener as mentioned before will feature two very different styles and the team that dictates its pace should be in the best position to win. Vanderbilt cruised past Middle Tennessee last season, but this contest is in Murfreesboro. Both teams return their best offensive weapons, but the loss of linebacker Zach Cunningham for the Commodores is arguably the biggest subtraction for either team. After Ralph Webb ran all over Middle Tennessee last year, expect the Blue Raiders to stack the box and force Vanderbilt QB Kyle Shurmur to beat them. If they're successful in that endeavor, they should like their chances.