WKU and Vanderbilt might not be at the top of the list for the best game in Week 1 of the college football season, but there’s no shortage of intrigue for the opener in Nashville. Led by prolific senior quarterback Brandon Doughty, the Hilltoppers are picked by some to win Conference USA in 2015 and could enter the conversation for the best team from the Group of 5 ranks. And according to the good folks in Vegas, WKU is a slight favorite in this matchup.
The Commodores are coming off a disappointing 3-9 season, and the pressure is already building on coach Derek Mason. After struggling mightily last year, Mason made significant staff changes. Four new assistants roam the Vanderbilt sideline, including veteran play-caller Andy Ludwig.
Less than 75 miles separate these two programs. However, this is only the fourth meeting between Vanderbilt and WKU. The Commodores own a 3-0 edge over the Hilltoppers, with the last matchup in 1938.
WKU at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Thursday)
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: WKU – 2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. WKU’s Rush Defense
Opponents certainly had their way against WKU’s front seven in 2014. The Hilltoppers allowed 220.8 rushing yards per game last season and gave up 33 rushing scores in 13 games. While last year’s totals weren’t pretty, there’s reason for optimism. Three starters are back, and UAB transfer Jontavious Morris (305 pounds) adds beef to the line of scrimmage. Quarterback play was an issue for the Commodores last season and remains a concern in 2015. Sophomore Johnny McCrary is considered the favorite over Wade Freebeck to take the first snap. However, Vanderbilt’s mission on offense is simple: Get the ball to running back Ralph Webb. The sophomore was one of the few bright spots for the offense last season, recording 912 yards and four scores. Considering the firepower on WKU’s sideline, along with the quarterback question marks, Webb should see a heavy workload on Thursday night. The Hilltoppers need to stop Webb and force Vanderbilt into obvious passing situations.
2. WKU QB Brandon Doughty
In three previous matchups against Power 5 opponents, Doughty completed 72 of 116 passes for 790 yards, four touchdowns and six interceptions. Those numbers are solid, especially when you consider five of those picks came in one game (Tennessee, 2013). Doughty will have to be at his best on Thursday night, as Vanderbilt’s defense has had all offseason to prep for the opener with Mason calling the plays and any mistakes in a close game will be magnified. Doughty’s supporting cast is among the best in the Group of 5 ranks, with running back Leon Allen returning after rushing for 1,542 yards last season, along with a receiving corps that returns three of its top four options. Tempo and getting out to an early lead could be a huge advantage for WKU. Vanderbilt isn’t build to rally from behind, and the Hilltoppers have the firepower to overwhelm an opponent if they can jump to an early lead.
3. Uncertainty on Both Sides of the Ball for Vanderbilt
As mentioned above, Vanderbilt made significant changes after a 3-9 record last season. This game is the first opportunity for Mason to show the changes have the program trending in the right direction. Mason plans on calling the defensive signals, which should help a unit that allowed 33.3 points per game last year. The Commodores return nine starters on defense, including rising star linebacker Stephen Weatherly. How will this group slow Doughty and the WKU offense? Can Mason’s defense get enough pressure on Doughty to eliminate the big plays? On the other side of the ball, Vanderbilt has to get better quarterback play in 2015. McCrary and Freebeck are locked into a tight battle to take the first snap. Regardless of which player starts, eliminating turnovers is a priority. With a favorable matchup against WKU’s defense (allowed 39.9 points a game last season), McCrary or Freebeck has a chance to build some confidence. Will the Commodores find a few answers to some of their preseason question marks on Thursday night? Or will this team end its opener with more uncertainty?
Style of play will be important on Thursday night. Vanderbilt would prefer to keep this matchup from becoming a high-scoring affair. If the Commodores establish the line of scrimmage and Webb has a huge game, WKU’s offense won’t have a chance to jump out to an early lead. The Hilltoppers want to score in a hurry and make Vanderbilt play from behind. Doughty will make his share of plays, but the Commodores get just enough from Webb to win their first opener since 2011.