A rare treat for college football fans will be on display Saturday when the Vanderbilt Commodores travel to College Station to take on the No. 10 Texas A&M Aggies. As storied as the two programs might be, and in relatively close regional proximity, this is only the third meeting between the two SEC programs on the gridiron.
Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason enters his seventh season at the helm in Nashville seeking his first winning season. Coming off a 3-9 (1-7 SEC) campaign, changes were made on the staff in the offseason with six new assistants, most notably at offensive (Todd Fitch) and defensive coordinator (Ted Roof). Coronavirus concerns took what could have been one of Mason's most experienced teams along the offensive line into an average group. How this makeshift unit responds will dictate how the 2020 season plays out in the win-loss column.
The big expectations placed upon the shoulders of head coach Jimbo Fisher and senior quarterback Kellen Mond over the spring months have not been lifted with the changes to the 2020 season. Playing a conference only schedule or not, this roster is Fisher's best chance to challenge in the SEC West to date with an outside shot of receiving a College Football Playoff invite. Vanderbilt's defense is experienced and talented enough to create problems in the early going while all teams try to knock off the rust in a return to action.
Vanderbilt at No. 10 Texas A&M
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 27 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Texas A&M – 30.5
When Vanderbilt Has the Ball
The Commodores will have a different look on offense this season under new coordinator Todd Fitch. Fitch headed to Nashville as one of the rising offensive minds in the game after guiding Louisiana Tech to an average of 32.5 points per game last season. His no-huddle/spread offense picked apart Conference USA foes ranking 32nd in the FBS ranks in passing yards per game (268.5). Who runs the offense has been a four-headed race in fall camp. Mike Wright is listed as QB 1, but Jeremy Moussa, Ken Seals, and/or Danny Clark could get a call in the bullpen.
In any other season, the strength of the Commodores offense would have been their offensive line. Five starters were listed as returners, but there was more experienced sprinkled in with players getting a couple of starts a year ago, and a Michigan transfer who was penciled in with the first team. As is, this group now must rely on the leadership of junior center Grant Miller and sophomore right tackle Tyler Steen to guide this unit. Due to COVID-19 opt-outs thinning the depth, the line pulled starting defensive tackle Drew Birchmeier onto the other side of the trench at left guard.
Aggies defensive coordinator Mike Elko is underrated on a national scale for the work put in with his unit in College Station. A&M ended the 2019 season with the nation's 29th ranked defense (340.2 ypg). His squad lost a heavy hitter when inside linebacker Anthony Hines opted out. Another opt-out the team will miss is senior corner Elijah Blades. The tone up front will be set by defensive tackle Bobby Brown III. The secondary has a standout in sophomore safety Demani Richardson. In all, seven starters are back making this unit very tough.
When Texas A&M Has the Ball
Over the last two seasons, Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond has continually been on the verge of taking that next step into the elite ranks but has been stymied by a poor run game and average offensive line protection (sacked 31 times in 2019). His junior campaign ended ranked third in the SEC in passing yards (2,897) and fifth in touchdown passes (20). All should come together for Mond with an experienced line in front of him featuring four returning starters and a talented but young receiving corps. Look for tight end Jalen Wydermyer to have a big season for the Aggies.
If Mond is to ascend into the ranks of a top All-SEC performer, he will need sophomore running back Isaiah Spiller to take those same steps. Spiller had flashes of greatness last season rushing for 946 yards with 10 scores four times surpassing 100 or more yards in a game. But only one of those efforts came against a conference foe (South Carolina). If Spiller can be that 15-to-20-carry back per game pushing 100 yards each outing, this offense will be tough to stop.
Without an offense putting points on the board and executing sustaining drives, this Vanderbilt defense wore out late in games. The 2020 grouping promises to be better with nine starters back. The team received a reprieve when leading tackler Dimitri Moore (99) opted back into the season in late August. This defense should be a great test for the Aggies. How well Vanderbilt limits A&M's offense depends on how well the Commodores offense fairs when the field is flipped.
Going toe-to-toe, offense versus offense, Vanderbilt simply does not have the firepower to keep up with Texas A&M's attack. The Aggies extend their control in the shortened series to 3-0 with a big opening week win.
Prediction: Texas A&M 38, Vanderbilt 18
Podcast: The SEC is Back Too & Week 4 Preview
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.