At 6:30 Saturday evening, the veil will be lifted. After months of encouraging reports, Vanderbilt fans everywhere will finally get to see James Franklin in action.
Franklin's first Vanderbilt campaign will throw the coach into the fires of the SEC, but not before a warm-up game against FCS (or I-AA, if you're into that) Elon this weekend. The
Phoenicians Phoeni Phoenices Phoenix will provide a good test for a team that debuts their third head coach in as many years in their season opener. Elon went 6-5 in 2010 against a fairly strong FCS schedule, but lost to Duke 27-41 in the first game of that campaign. Over the past five years, the team has lost to the Blue Devils, Wake Forest, and South Florida when paired against FBS opponents.
This game won't be a cakewalk by any means for the Commodores. Elon has proven to be a tough out for most of their conference opponents, defeating seven ranked FCS teams in those five years and reaching the national playoffs in 2009. Though their schedule hasn't been comparable to a FBS slate, they've still shown to be a capable opponent.
Despite Elon's prowess, most eyes will be on Vanderbilt Saturday night. The Commodores are still waiting to build on the success of 2008's 7-6 season, but a pair of 2-10 debacles had brought back the culture of "same ol' Vandy" around Nashville's college football faithful. Franklin's hiring has helped fight that stigma. His infectious enthusiasm has brought fans back to the fold, but more importantly brought high level recruits to Nashville. His first game will be the premiere of what he brings to the team's output on the field. However, he'll probably be the second-most talked about subject this weekend.
Larry Smith will be the focal point of any Sunday analysis, as the weight of this team's success lies on the fifth-year senior's shoulders. Smith's career in Nashville has been turbulent, but he's shown flashes of the ability that led this team to a Music City Bowl title back in 2008. He'll have some extra help this year, particularly in the forms of tight end Brandon Barden and wide receiver Jordan Matthews. Both are All-SEC caliber players who can come up with the 50/50 plays that can swing a game from defeat to victory in the Commodores favor.
Can Smith harness his abilities? Can his offensive line keep him upright long enough to deliver the ball to guys like Barden and Matthews? Can the defense recover from the graduation of linebacker/captain/surgeon John Stokes? These questions won't be entirely answered in Saturday's game against a FCS opponent, but it'll give us valuable insight on how these 'Dores will shape up in 2011.
On to the picks:
Train Island: Something tells me that Elon is going to make a solid game out of this. Not an Appalachian State-Michigan or James Madison-Virginia Tech type game, but they'll play solidly enough to force Franklin to play his starters throughout.
Of course, that's just a hunch. Statistically, the Phoenicians (I'm sticking with the Biblical here) seem tailor-made for the Commodores to dominate.
Elon's pass-heavy offense (over 300 yards per game in the air in 2010) plays into Vanderbilt's strength in the secondary, and I think their line will have trouble containing Vandy's underrated front four. Their lack of run defense will also benefit the 'Dores. Zac Stacy and Warren Norman could have a repeat of their season opener against Western Carolina in 2009, where the pair each ran for over 100 yards.
Elon's style plays right into the hands of a team that will be looking to prove that they have the horses to run in the SEC in 2011. Vandy should win this one handily, especially with a corps of veterans leading the way. Still, I can't shake the feeling that the Phoenicians will make this one uncomfortable for a little while.
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Tennessee vs. Montana. I may have made this a weekly feature just so I could write 200 words on how the Vols can get beaten by Montana. While Derek Dooley is no Phillip Fulmer, this game is loaded with Wyoming-esque plots. A lowly regarded, northwestern school making the trip to Knoxville? Check. A Volunteer team loaded with questions and searching for an identity? Check (The 2008 Vols were floundering in mediocrity, while the 2011 team is seeking to prove that last season was a step back to dominance). A game with big picture implications? Check (2008 - bowl eligibility. 2011 - season-long legitimacy).
Montana is a consistently strong FCS school that hasn't been able to get over the hump in recent years, stemming a tide of regular season wins with early playoff exits. Though their last game against a BCS conference team ended in a 41-7 blowout against Iowa, the Griz will be looking to prove that they belong in the discussion alongside Appalachian State, James Madison, and Villanova when it comes to FCS powerhouse teams. A win at Tennessee would validate a decade's worth of winning seasons, even without a FCS crown in Missoula.
Unfortunately, Montana is coming off a bit of a down year (7-4) and doesn't really have the talent to run with UT. An upset is a longshot here, but in the interest of schadenfreude (which will be all I have to hold on to if Elon wins), I'm going with the Griz in a nailbiter. In a week devoid of solid upset picks, the pride of the Big Sky Conference has earned my confidence in 2011.
The Pick? Montana 23, Tennessee 20
KingJamesIV: Though they made a lot of progress over the course of last season, the facts are the facts: 1) Elon has never won an FBS game. 2) Elon only has one quarterback on its roster with a start under his belt. 3) Vanderbilt paid Elon to come here to take a loss. And that's just what they will do on Saturday.
James Franklin will have this team fired up to play. The fact that there is more excitement and fervor over the start of this season is almost astonishing, especially when you think back to the crowd versus Wake Forest last season (or lack thereof). It's a testament to Coach Franklin's exuberance, his youthful, tireless staff, and the body of work the players have invested in this program over the offseason.
The Pick? Vanderbilt 38, Elon 10
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Ole Miss vs. BYU. Is this really an upset? No. But I think the other SEC teams facing cupcakes take care of business this week. According to our AOG College Pick 'Em game (have you joined yet? there are prizes...), the line is around Ole Miss +3. So an upset would be more than that, right?
The Pick? BYU 31, Ole Miss 24
Vandy Dan: Has a FCS/D1AA team ever been less than an 11.5 point underdog to a team from a BCS conference? Welcome to Vanderbilt football, James Franklin.
On paper, Elon is no cupcake. They return a ton of talent, including a trio of senior running backs. Plus, any emotional boost from James Franklin's first game likely will be offset by the debut of Jason Swepson on the Elon sideline. As we saw earlier this week, Swepson will have his team believing that they can win this game. Elon might not be Appalachian St., but Vandy isn't exactly Michigan.
Vanderbilt will win this game for the same reason that it loses SEC games - better talent. Unfortunately, the gap is not as wide as it should be in another year or two. In fact, if I was not a Vanderbilt fan, this would by my upset of the week. As is, I'll think positive until Franklin's team gives me reason to think otherwise.
The Pick? Vanderbilt 31, Elon 14
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Eastern Carolina vs. South Carolina. Why am I picking against the only SEC East team that I think is capable of contending for a national title? Because I think that the SEC is going to run the table this weekend. If I was being honest with myself, I'd probably put Vanderbilt in this spot, but instead I'll take the slim chance that the very talented Dominique Davis leads his team to a victory over the very troubled Stephen Garcia. In the real world, expect Lattimore to run for 200+ yards and several TDs as South Carolina exposes a pathetic ECU defense. Also, KJIV, picking a 3-point favorite to win by a TD is not an upset.
The Pick? Eastern Carolina 38, South Carolina 31
SectFRow1Seat30: Vandy wins this game, no problem. The real question, and the one I'll be addressing weekly, is should you invest your money vuallin on this game. Line opened at 12.5 and has moved to as high as 16. I say that the Commies come out fired up for their new coach. Heavy betting on the Commies.
The PIck? Vanderbilt 38 Elon 0.
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: BYU v. Ole Miss. I agree with KingJ: for your money line fix, which I'm all for, go with BYU. Betting the money line is a beautiful thing, and as a Vandy fan and bettor I've enjoyed it's fruits with Commie victories in recent years. I'm not thrilled with this BYU pick, but it's the most likely of the games this week.
The Pick? BYU 24 Ole Miss 21.
Picks from the rest of the AoG staff are coming, so check back soon for some terrible, terrible advice.