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Western Kentucky Hilltoppers vs. Vanderbilt Commodores Preview and Prediction

Kyle Shurmur Vanderbilt Commodores

Kyle Shurmur Vanderbilt Commodores

The Western Kentucky Hilltopperswill make the short trip to Nashville to face the Vanderbilt Commodores in the final installment of a three-game series that began in 2015. It's a series that has yet to disappoint, with each of the first two contests decided on the final play of the game.

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The teams are deadlocked at one win apiece heading into the Saturday afternoon rubber match. Vanderbilt garnered a 31-30 victory last season in Bowling Green, as Western Kentucky came up empty on a potential game-winning 2-point conversion in overtime. Western Kentucky notched a hard-fought 14-12 win in its 2015 trip to Nashville, after Vanderbilt failed to convert on a game-tying 2-point attempt at the end of regulation.

This contest will serve as a much-needed break from SEC action for Vanderbilt. After starting the season 3-0, the Commodores have lost five consecutive conference games. They are now charged with winning three of their final four games just to become bowl eligible. The opportunity to get their season back on track starts on Saturday as Derek Mason’s Commodores go for a series-clinching win over Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers also find themselves in bounce-back mode after having a four-game winning streak snapped by C-USA foe Florida Atlantic last week. The defending Conference USA champs now sit in fourth place in their division at 5-3 on the season, in search of a sixth win on Saturday to clinch bowl eligibility. The underdog Hilltoppers could also add a feather to their cap by beating an SEC opponent for the second time in three seasons.

Western Kentucky at Vanderbilt

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 4 at 12 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPNU

Spread: Vanderbilt -10

Three Things to Watch

1. Mike White vs. Vanderbilt pass defense

The senior quarterback (above, right) is the primary catalyst for a potent passing attack that ranks No. 16 in the nation (309.4 ypg). And while White’s production has dipped a bit compared to 2016, thanks in part to the departure of star wideouts Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris, the Hilltopper passing game is slowly but surely starting to return to 2016 form. White has accounted for 1,073 passing yards and 13 touchdowns (one rushing) in his last three contests alone.

The bad news is that he will be matched up against the best pass defense that he has faced all season. Vanderbilt ranks No. 11 nationally against the pass, giving up just 170.9 yards per game. Additionally, the Commodores were responsible for White’s second-worst performance of the 2016 season, limiting him to 222 passing yards (115 below his season average) with just one touchdown and one interception. White has been on a roll of late, but he could have his work cut out for him on Saturday.

2. Kyle Shurmur vs. the Western Kentucky pass defense

This will mark Shurmur’s third game of the season against a non-Power 5 school. He fared exceptionally well in two early-season matchups against MTSU and Alabama A&M, combining for 498 passing yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. That said, Western Kentucky is the best defense against the pass, statistically speaking, that Shurmur has faced this season. The Hilltoppers currently rank No. 22 in the nation against the pass, allowing 182.3 yards per game. They also have nine interceptions to their credit, while giving up just five touchdowns through the air in eight games.

Shurmur could indeed be tested, but he does enter Saturday’s matchup with an outstanding 18-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio on the season. He should have a boost of confidence as well, after racking up a season-best 333 passing yards and four touchdowns last week on the road against South Carolina.

3. The run game

This should be one of the more intriguing aspects of this matchup. Both teams have been terrible running the football this season. In fact, the Hilltoppers rank dead last among FBS teams in rush offense, averaging just 83.3 ground yards per contest. The Commodores aren’t far behind, ranking No. 125 of 129 FBS teams, averaging only 94.4 rushing yards per game.

Regardless, you can probably expect to see both teams make a concerted effort to establish their respective run games on Saturday — primarily due to the fact that both teams have been really bad when it comes to stopping the run as well. Western Kentucky ranks No. 91 in the country in that regard, giving up 187 rushing yards per game, while Vanderbilt comes in at No. 121 nationally, allowing 238.8 rushing yards per contest.

It should be noted that there is a big difference between the quality of opposition that each of these teams has faced to this point. Vanderbilt has been paired against great rush offenses and defenses for much of the season, including those of Georgia and Alabama. Keeping that in mind, the battle-tested Commodores should have an edge in the run game.

Final Analysis

It’s hard to believe that this is the first time that Vanderbilt has been favored against Western Kentucky, especially when you take into account the Commodores’ current five-game losing skid. But it does make sense. The Hilltoppers have faced no one of consequence en route to a 5-3 record. Their five wins have come against four of the worst teams in college football and FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky. In their only other matchup of the season against a Power 5 school, the Hilltoppers lost 20-7 to an uninspiring Illinois team that has since lost six straight games. Vanderbilt might even be undefeated right now had the Commodores played the same schedule.

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This simply isn’t the same caliber Western Kentucky team under head coach Mike Sanford that it was under Jeff Brohm. Mike White is a solid talent at quarterback, and the WKU secondary makes for worthy opposition. Otherwise, this is a team on the decline. The Commodores obviously haven’t been at their best of late either, but they did show signs of life last week against South Carolina. And it would come as a surprise if a superior Vanderbilt team doesn’t come away with a win at home over the Hilltoppers on Saturday.

Prediction: Vanderbilt 31, Western Kentucky 20

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.