The only conference game in the SEC for Week 1 takes place in Nashville. Vanderbilt hosts Ole Miss in a key early season matchup on Thursday night. The Commodores opened SEC play on Thursday night last year but lost 17-13 to South Carolina.
Both teams – for different reasons – have been in the spotlight this offseason. Vanderbilt is dealing with the fallout from an off-the-field scandal involving four former players and suspended receiver Chris Boyd.
In Oxford, the Rebels reeled in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes and hope to make another jump in the SEC standings in 2013. Coach Hugh Freeze brought dramatic improvement to Ole Miss last year, and the addition of a top-10 recruiting class will immediately help address a lack of depth.
Vanderbilt has won five out of the last six meetings against Ole Miss, including a 27-26 thriller in Oxford last year. The Commodores also enter this game riding a four-game winning streak in SEC play.
Three Things to Watch
Vanderbilt’s Austyn Carta-Samuels made one start last season, throwing for 195 yards and one touchdown in a win over Presbyterian. But the senior has attempted just three passes in SEC play, and won’t have the services of Boyd for this game. Carta-Samuels started two years at Wyoming before transferring to Vanderbilt, so he won’t be intimated by making a Thursday night debut in the SEC. With a solid defense and rushing attack, the Commodores won’t need Carta-Samuels to win the game. However, he has to avoid turnovers against an Ole Miss defense that generated 28 last year.
On the Ole Miss sideline, there’s plenty of anxiety about Bo Wallace. In his first season with the Rebels last year, Wallace threw for 2,994 yards and 22 touchdowns and rushed for 390 yards and eight scores. However, Wallace also tossed 17 picks and had shoulder surgery after the bowl win over Pittsburgh. Although all signs point to a full recovery by Wallace, Missouri’s James Franklin had shoulder surgery last year and was never 100 percent. Vanderbilt’s secondary is one of the best in the SEC, so this should be a good test for Wallace and his right shoulder.
Stepping up at Receiver
Both teams will be without key pieces in the receiving corps. Boyd is suspended for Vanderbilt, while Ole Miss lost Vince Sanders to a collarbone injury in fall camp. Neither team has a standout option at tight end, but the Rebels have more depth at receiver. True freshman Laquon Treadwell was a huge catch on the recruiting trail and is expected to start on Thursday night. Ole Miss also has another proven option to fill Sanders’ role in senior Ja-Mes Logan.
But who steps up for Vanderbilt? Is it senior Jonathan Krause or freshman Jordan Cunningham? Senior Jordan Matthews is one of the nation’s best receivers, but he will see plenty of extra attention from Ole Miss’ secondary unless Krause, Cunningham or someone else emerges as a reliable target.
Ole Miss DE Robert Nkemdiche
The nation’s No. 1 recruit didn’t disappoint in fall practice, securing a starting spot for Thursday night’s game. Vanderbilt’s offensive line has made considerable progress over the last few seasons, with senior tackle Wesley Johnson one of the most underrated players in the SEC. And if Nkemdiche isn’t matched up against Johnson, he will likely face junior Andrew Bridges, who has 13 starts under his belt. It’s unrealistic to expect the true freshman to dominate the line of scrimmage in his first game. But Nkemdiche is a difference maker for Ole Miss and should play a key role in the outcome of Thursday night’s matchup.
Key Player: Wesley Tate, RB, Vanderbilt
Zac Stacy leaves behind big shoes to fill in the Vanderbilt backfield. Brian Kimbrow and Wesley Tate should be a solid one-two combination for coach James Franklin, but Tate is expected to be the workhorse this year. The senior has 542 yards and nine scores in his career and has 39 receptions for 328 yards. With Boyd suspended, Tate could play a key role in the passing attack. Even though Carta-Samuels has experience, Vanderbilt doesn’t want to ask too much of him in his first start in the SEC. Expect to see plenty of Tate on Thursday night.
These two teams are essentially a mirror image of each other. Thanks to home-run hires at head coach, both programs are on the rise in the SEC. Both coaching staffs have quarterback concerns heading into this game. And both offenses will be missing the No. 2 receiver from last year.
There’s not much separation between the Commodores and Rebels, but with the uncertainty over Wallace’s shoulder, and this game in Nashville, a slight edge goes to Vanderbilt.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 24, Ole Miss 20
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