Vanderbilt can essentially lock in a bowl bid on Saturday, but it won't be easy. Standing in their way will be the toughest opponent that this team has faced since early October.
Mississippi has had a revival on the gridiron in 2012, compiling a 5-4 record after a 2-10 abomination in 2011 that ended with Houston Nutt's firing. New head coach Hugh Freeze has breathed new life into the Rebels, as he and first-year starting quarterback Bo Wallace have led this team to wins over Auburn and Arkansas in league play and nearly toppled #15 Texas A&M at home a month ago.
That will make them a formidable test for James Franklin's Commodores on Saturday. Ole Miss, at 52 in Warren Nolan's rankings and 49 in the Massey ratings, would constitute Vandy's biggest win of the season if they can pull off the mild upset in Oxford. The 'Dores were able to pull off a similar feat when they traveled to Columbia and defeated Missouri in a sloppy game last month. If they can do it again, they'll secure a six-win season and a non-losing record in conference play for the first time since 2008.
Fortunately for Vandy, the Grove and Vaught-Hemingway Stadium have been hospitable grounds for this team in the recent past. The 'Dores came away with upset wins in 2008 and 2010 despite arguably having the less talented team in each matchup. On Saturday, they'll be better prepared for the Rebels than ever before, with All-SEC caliber players on both sides of the ball.
Vanderbilt's biggest advantage will come on the offensive side of the ball. Ole Miss has given up over 29 points per game in SEC play this season, and Vandy's offense seemed to figure out how to finish drives in last week's 40-0 trouncing of Kentucky. The 'Dores will have plenty of touchdown threats on the field on Saturday, starting with All-SEC tailback Zac Stacy and including a pair of big targets in Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews.
Jordan Rodgers will have to step up in the face of a solid Mississippi pass rush to sustain drives and march his team down the field. Vanderbilt has proven that they can win ugly, but a solid showing in Oxford this weekend could be the performance this team needs to level up to a big time bowl game. So can James Franklin's boys pull it off? We went to the experts* to figure it out. Be sure to add your own predictions in the comments below.
Christian D'Andrea: The biggest factor in tomorrow's game will probably be the play of first year starter Bo Wallace for the Rebels. The big quarterback has been solid behind center for Ole Miss, but he'll be facing a stout and experienced Vanderbilt secondary. If the 'Dores can force him into mistakes and make the Rebels run the ball, they'll be able to handcuff the Mississippi offense.
Vandy showed that they can win with that gameplan last week at Kentucky, but Ole Miss will be a much tougher challenge. Still, Wallace has 10 interceptions already this season and has been prone to forcing passes when pressured this season. Statistically, he's playing like a more accurate 2011 version of Jordan Rodgers. If that comparison holds true, then the 'Dores should be able to capitalize on his mistakes if the front seven can provide a steady pressure in the Rebel backfield on Saturday.
There will also be a fair amount of pressure on this team's offense to prove that their 40-point explosions over the past two weeks weren't solely related to playing awful competition. Rodgers has improved as the season has worn on, but his best games have come against teams that haven't been able to put much pressure on him. If the Rebels bring a consistent blitz, will he be able to step up in the pocket, hang onto the ball, and make the right decision?
I think Rodgers is due for one classic mistake on Saturday, but that won't be enough to derail this team. He's been a sturdy and reliable presence behind center this season, and he's become the most consistent player there since Jay Cutler left in 2005. Some of that's attributable to his receivers - he hasn't had a game yet this season without a completion of 29 yards or longer, and that's mostly due to the Stacy/Boyd/Matthews brigade - but he's still a calming influence back there. He should be able to put together the kind of game that shows just how much this team's offense has growth since August.
The Prediction: Vanderbilt 27, Ole Miss 21. Rodgers is able to lead drives in the second half that give the 'Dore defense enough time to recoup on the sideline, and they hold the Rebels late in the game.
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Missouri (+3) over TENNESSEE. It isn't a great week for upsets in the Southeastern Conference. A&M might have a shot to topple Alabama, but it's a bad one. Mississippi State should continue their slide out of the top 25 with a loss to LSU. Florida and Georgia won't be losing to Louisiana-Lafayette or Auburn, either. That makes the Tigers the best bet in a weak group of matchups. Mizzou will have to count on James Franklin bouncing back hard from a rough season, but if there's any team in the SEC that can make your offense look good, it's Tennessee. The Vols need a big effort to climb back up to .500, but I think they'll drop an ugly one to the Tigers to stay winless in the conference this season.