I won't be going to this weekend's Liberty Bowl in Memphis, TN. I won't get to drink any large beers while walking down Beale Street or roll down to Tunica to make a donation to Harrah's watered-down cranberry vodka fund. I won't even get to see James Franklin's prideful tears of joy as he inserts Larry Smith for one last snap behind center. However, I will be watching it intently from a Wisconsin sports bar with a former University of Cincinnati cheerleader.
A former University of Cincinnati male cheerleader.
Your move, Commodore faithful.
Vanderbilt/Cincinnati is a matchup that few would have predicted at the outset of the season. Both teams were coming off disappointing 2010 campaigns and breaking in coaches that were just beginning their legacies at each school. Both overcame adversity to put together solid seasons in 2011. Cincinnati (#24 Coaches', NR AP) rebounded from Zach Collaros's broken ankle to hold on to a share of the Big East title. Vanderbilt bounced back from tough losses against Arkansas and Tennessee to win big games that would make them bowl eligible for just the second time in the past 29 years.
On the surface, this game would seem to mean more for the Commodores than the Bearcats. For Vanderbilt, this game represents the first time ever that any Vandy player will have gone to more than one bowl game in his career. It is an affirmation of first-year coach James Franklin's proclamation that this is the "Brand New Vandy." Heading into the season, the Liberty Bowl was reasonably the best that fans and players could hope for. Behind some gritty performances and a changing of the culture associated with the team, they now stand at the threshold of their goal.
For Cincinnati, the Liberty Bowl is a step down from a potential BCS nod after a 7-1 start to their season. The Bearcats rebounded from a 4-8 season in Butch Jones's first year as head coach to climb as high as 18th in the USA Today poll before losses to West Virginia and Rutgers booted them from the rankings. Collaros's injury played a big role in that fall - the Bearcats went 2-2 over the stretch in which he was injured.
Collaros is Cincinnati's starter for tomorrow's game despite breaking his ankle less than two months ago. He's a more accurate passer than backup Munchie Legaux, but much of Collaros's efficiency is predicated on his mobility. The senior has looked nimble in practices leading up to tomorrow's game, but it has yet to be seen if he'll be ready for full-speed action in a high-pressure setting.
Fortunately for Vanderbilt, neither Collaros nor Legaux is the kind of classic, drop-back passer that has given the team fits in 2011. The Bearcats' offense will instead be driven by senior tailback Isaiah Pead. Pead has run for over 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, averaging over five yards per carry. He's cracked the 100-yard barrier in five games this year, but was also limited by teams like Akron, Rutgers, and UConn. Pead is also effective as a receiver out of the backfield, catching 36 passes so far this season.
Collaros and Legaux will each have a few solid targets downfield. Wide receivers D.J. Woods, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Anthony McClung have all developed as steady, if unspectacular, pass catchers for the Bearcats. McClung has emerged as a special player in his sophomore year, and has developed a strong rapport with both QBs. He's been a significant target for Legaux in recent weeks, hauling in 13 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns in his last two games.
Defensively, the Bearcats employ a furious defensive scheme that leads the nation with 44 sacks. Vanderbilt's offensive line will have their hands full with a team that is averaging nearly nine tackles for loss per game. Senior tackle Derek Wolfe leads the unit with 9.5 sacks this season, and he's got a strong burst off the line that allows him to get upfield and disrupt plays early. Both Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy will have to be wary of his presence in the middle.
Of course, he's not the only weapon that UC has on their d-line. Ends Monte Taylor and Dan Giordano and tackles Brandon Mills and John Hughes all have four sacks or more on the season. Hybrid linebacker/end Walter Stewart is another monster in the trenches - he's forced four fumbles to go along with his six sacks this year. All of these players will cause problems across a Vanderbilt offensive line that has dealt with injuries all season. Though the Commodore blockers have improved significantly throughout the season, UC's presence on the line will require Jordan Rodgers to be on top of his game as both a passer and improviser.
This pressure up front has helped bolster a secondary that has been gashed by solid passers in the past. South Florida's B.J. Daniels erupted for 409 passing yards and three touchdowns against them in October. Tyler Bray put up a similar statline with 405 and four in a UC loss back in September. Even UConn's Johnny McEntee was able to pass for over 250 yards against the Bearcat defense despite throwing for fewer than 100 yards against Vandy earlier in the season.
If Rodgers can handle the pressure, he'll have opportunities to find guys like Jordan Matthews, Chris Boyd, and Brandon Barden downfield. Since Cincinnati is allowing fewer than 100 yards rushing per game, he may have to in order to put points on the board. Zac Stacy will have his work cut out for him against a very tough defensive front, but the Bearcats have yet to play against a runner of Stacy's caliber in 2011. Rutgers freshman Jawan Jamison was able to cut them up for 200 yards, and his example will be the one Stacy and Jerron Seymour try to follow in Memphis on Saturday.
Cincinnati has two major strengths that Vanderbilt will have to watch for. The first is a strong ground game led by Isaiah Pead and bolstered by the running ability of quarterbacks Zach Collaros and Munchie Legaux. However, if they can limit this ground attack, the Commodores have the defensive secondary to shut down UC's limited passing game.
The second is their aggressive pass rush and stout defensive line. This will be a bigger problem for a Vanderbilt team whose offensive line has struggled over the past two seasons. However, this unit has risen up to the challenge throughout 2011. O-Line coach Herb Hand has been given a full month to prepare for the Bearcats, and the Commodores should be able to handle Cincinnati's big men in the trenches with at least reasonable success.
Vanderbilt enters the Liberty Bowl as a slight betting favorite, and it's easy to see why the teams are so evenly matched despite Cincinnati's higher ranking. Vandy has more to play for here, and they are peaking at the right time after last month's rout over Wake Forest. If the 'Dores can force UC to throw the ball, they should be able to prey on the Bearcats' weaknesses and grind out a win, even if the team's o-line struggles against one of the country's best pass rushes. However, they'll have to play mistake-free football and capitalize on every opportunity to record what may be the university's best-ever bowl victory.