It's a battle of two undefeated teams as the offensive powerhouse Commodores (averaging 45 points per game) welcome last season's Big East co-champions Connecticut to Dudley Field in a brawl for top 25 status Saturday night.
Well, not really.
Two teams with major question marks surrounding their seasons will meet under the lights in Nashville in a game that could be the deciding factor between bowl eligibility and a losing campaign for each squad. UConn will be looking to prove that they can rebuild on the fly after last year's Orange Bowl appearance, while Vanderbilt wants to put the SEC on notice behind a roster filled with returning talent. Neither team is being projected to make much noise in the postseason, but a win Saturday would put either team a step closer to the six win plateau.
Each side will be putting new head coaches to the test against BCS talent for the first time as well. It was James Franklin's hiring at Vandy that put the wheels in motion that sent Paul Pasqualoni from the NFL back to the Big East. Our friends over at The UConn Blog have that story covered.
A victory this weekend would bring instant credibility to either coach. Franklin is looking to prove that he has the talent to run a Division I team, while Pasqualoni will be looking to erase the ghosts of a long Syracuse tenure that ended on a down swing. Both teams dispatched of FCS foes to open the season, and Saturday's matchup will be a key indicator of what fans of either squad can expect in 2011.
It's an inter-conference primetime battle that will get national coverage on the most illustrious of networks - ESPN3. So who will come out on top in this showdown of BCS behemoths? Let's see what the AoG staff has to say, along with their SEC Upset Picks of the Week.
Train Island - Vanderbilt's last matchup with Connecticut was much closer than the final 40-21 score indicates. The 'Dores started strong before collapsing in Storrs last year and hung with a talented Huskies team into the fourth quarter. However, much like in games against LSU, South Carolina, and Kentucky, the wheels came off once the defense got tired. Will this be a factor again in 2011? Larry Smith's offense looked as though they could sustain drives long enough to get his secondary some rest, but it's tough to gauge how effective he'll be Saturday after one game against a I-AA team.
UConn used a balanced attack to topple Fordham last week, but they'll likely turn to the ground game against Vanderbilt thanks to the return of tailback D.J. Shoemate and the awesome play of Lyle McCombs. McCombs, a redshirt freshman, gashed the Rams for 141 yards and four touchdowns on the ground and will share carries with the projected starter Shoemate in the backfield.
Last year, Jordan Todman ripped the 'Dores for nearly 200 yards on the ground. With an inexperienced linebacking corps around Chris Marve, they could do the same with Shoemate and McCombs unless the team's defensive line is able to close gaps in the trenches. Though Vanderbilt got burned by Aaron Mellette last week in the secondary, the Huskies are still better served attacking the team's run defense than going after players like Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson.
If Vanderbilt can shut down the Huskies' run attack, this game swings in their favor. Their depth at defensive line will play a key role here, but if the team's offense can't sustain drives and get these guys a decent rest, we could be looking at 2010 all over again. However, Smith looked better in last week's opener, and the addition of a healthy Warren Norman to the backfield should only help his cause.
I think Vandy keeps the time of possession battle close enough to keep the D rested and Smith limits his mistakes enough to squeak out the win here. I think it'll be close, and one turnover could blow this open either way. I also expect Jordan Matthews to have a quietly solid day (six catches, 77 yards, one touchdown).
TI's Pick: Vanderbilt 24, Connecticut 20
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Georgia over South Carolina. Alright, so the Bulldogs had almost nothing to offer Boise State, but who didn't see that loss coming from miles away? Now this team is playing for Mark Richt's job, and an 0-2 start could end up crumbling Athens to its core. South Carolina won't be able to afford another slow start like they did against East Carolina, and the team's musical chairs situation at QB will play a bigger role in a SEC showdown.
Factor in UGA's homefield advantage, and you've got the makings of a minor upset here. The Gamecocks are playing for a top ten ranking, but they'll have to overcome a history of "close but no cigar" finishes when it comes to joining the NCAA's elite. The Bulldogs just need a win to keep things together here, no matter how ugly. I think they get it.
KingJamesIV - I'm pretty excited for an obvious reason -- we stand to learn so much more about this team and its coaching staff. Connecticut is a respectable (read: FBS) opponent that participated in a BCS bowl game last season. There's some familiarity not just with the players, but with the coaching staffs as well. Hell, you could even say that Vanderbilt is the reason why Paul Pasqualoni is UConn's new head coach.
I'm most interested to see how our defense holds up to a more traditional attack. Elon threw A LOT of wide receiver screens, taking advantage of Mellette's ability to gain yardage after the catch. When they did run, they only mustered a little less than two yards per carry.
UConn's run game shredded the Commodore defense a season ago. If VU-UConn 2011 looks a lot like the second half of VU-UConn 2010, prospects for the season really start to lose their luster. The area that could be the difference for Vanderbilt? The offense. If James Franklin's new-life Commodore offense can continue to build on last week's successes by extending drives, it will go a long way to keeping the defense rested and able to finish.
I'm with TI on this one. I think Vandy is going to win a close, hard fought game.
KJIV's Pick: Vanderbilt 27, UConn 24
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Cincinnati over Tennessee. There are really only a few SEC games this week that have a remote chance of an upset: Tennessee/Cincinnati, Kentucky/C. Michigan, Mississippi/S. Illinois, and the two conference matchups: Auburn/Mississippi St. and Georgia/S. Carolina. TI took Georgia/S. Carolina so that's off the board. Auburn could very well upset Mississippi State; at the same time the Bulldogs could also hang 60 on them. No way I'm touching that. Kentucky's offense looked pretty horrible last week. But they should still totally overpower Central Michigan. So that leaves the Rebel-bears vs. the Salukis and the Vols vs. the Bearcats. I literally know nothing about Southern Illinois' 2011 college football outlook. So I'll give Ole Miss the edge and assume they TCB. That leaves me with one option. Football Outsiders has the Bearcats and Vols ranked 31st and 45th, respectively. Good enough for me.
Schadenfreude says: VOLATILITY.
Vandy Dan - I really have no idea what to expect from this one. Last year, Vandy hung with a much better UConn team into the fourth quarter. Without Jordan Todman getting the ball 37 times, I was ready to chalk this one up as a win. While it's tough to learn much from a game against Fordham, freshman RB Lyl McCombs's 141 yard, 4 TD performance is cause for worry. An unsettled battle between three inexperienced QBs means that Vandy fans should expect to see plenty of McCombs on Saturday night.
On the other side of the ball, Larry Smith has a chance to prove himself as a senior captain. Last year against UConn, he turned in one of his better performances going 15-25 for 163 yards and 2 TDs (along with 2 INTs of course). He also ran for 64 yards, though 57 of those came on a single first quarter run. There is no reason that Larry should not improve on that performance this year. I'm also looking forward to the debut of Warren Norman, who gained 189 yards against UConn last year. Of course, it's easier to gain 162 return yards when your defense gives up 40 points.
I'll stick with TI and KJIV on this one. If nothing else, may as well stay optimistic until Coach Franklin gives us reason to believe it's the SOV.
Vandy Dan's Pick: Vanderbilt 31, UConn 27
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Cincinnati over Tennessee. I'm sticking with KJIV again on this one. The Vols beat an overmatched Montana team in Week 1, but still gave up 16 points. Cincinnati won a laugher over Austin Peay 72-10. Don't look for the Bearcats to put up 72 points, but expect another sound performance out of a rushing attack that put up 387 yards on the ground.
The guys above hit on most of the potential upsets this weekend, but don't sleep on Penn St. at home. I expect Bama to win, but Happy Valley is never an easy place to play at night (unless you're Iowa).
SectFRow1Seat 30 - Opening Line: Vandy +5.5. Current Line: Vandy -2 OU: 42.5 Indication: There's nothing to do in Connecticut other than bet on UConn.
Last week, Vandy was a favorite and a good bet. This week they play a real team from a real conference. And they're the favorite. DANGER AHEAD. For those of you who took Vandy at more than +4, you know have a momento mori for the rest of the season. Vandy wins this game, but it's going to be closer than that.
SectFRow1Seat30's Pick: Vanderbilt 28, UConn 24.
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Cincinnati over VAWLS. Opening Line: VAWLS by 4.5. Current Line: VAWLS by 4. Indication: 1) Everyone in Ohio bets on the NFL and Ohio State. 2) This month's government assistance checks have not yet arrived in VolNation.
Tyler Brary is overrated and Neyland has lost its mojo. This game is coin flip, but it's being decided by less than 4.
Check back throughout the day for more updates from the blogosphere's most handsome Vanderbilt writers not named Rod Williamson.