Vanderbilt will open their season - and the 2012 college football season in earnest - Thursday night against ninth-ranked South Carolina. It will be the first league game for the new-look SEC, and both teams will be looking to make a statement. For the Gamecocks, rolling through Nashville would signal that last year's 11-2 season was just a building block for 2012. For Vandy, it's a chance to show the world that James Franklin's rebuilding process is not only real, but spectacular.
Thursday's Blackout game will ring in Jordan Rodgers's first season-opener as starting quarterback, and he'll be tasked with applying another year of NCAA experience to the tools he showed off in 2011. If Rodgers can cut down on his mistakes this season, he could make history as the only Vanderbilt quarterback to lead the Commodores to consecutive bowl games. He'll have plenty of help along the offense, as standouts like Zac Stacy, Warren Norman, Jordan Matthews, and Chris Boyd all return to give the team their most exciting lineup since the days of Jay Cutler.
They'll have to put together plenty of drives to aid a defense that is rebuilding after losing leaders like Chris Marve and Tim Fugger. Vanderbilt has plenty of questions to answer on the other side of the ball, but a deep and talented roster should help assuage many of the concerns that fans have had coming into the year.
Will that be enough to deliver a week one victory over a highly-regarded South Carolina squad? Let's see what the handsome and often correct (52%!) AoG staff have to say on the matter:
Christian D'Andrea: Expectations are high in Nashville for this team, and if they can win on Thursday, they'll be high everywhere. Vanderbilt has plenty to prove this season, but they don't have to do it all at once. Just showing that the defense can recover from the loss of their four strongest players will be a moral victory for this team.
Of course, the James Franklin era does not look favorably on moral victories.
The Commodores have the horses to run with a South Carolina team that will also be replacing some defensive stars. Last year, Melvin Ingram ruined Vandy's offensive line and Stephon Gilmore locked down a passing game that featured laughably unconfident performances from Larry Smith and Jordan Rodgers. This year, the 'Dores will have a stable Rodgers behind center and the talent at every skill position (Zac Stacy, Jordan Matthews, Chris Boyd, etc) to make things tough for the Gamecocks.
Can Rodgers outplay Connor Shaw? Can the Vanderbilt defense rebuild on the fly? Can the 2012 hype carry the Commodores to a significant home field advantage in the first game of the season? The team will need all the support they can get in a contest that has all the makings of a shootout. Fortunately, the team has the personnel and the brewing culture to make the answer to all of those questions "yes." Give me the 'Dores for the upset.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 35, South Carolina 31.
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: N.C. State (+3.5) over Tennessee. In a week that brings stalwarts like Buffalo, Southeastern Louisiana, Central Arkansas, and North Texas to SEC schedules, N.C. State stands out as the obvious choice. Vandy fans also get the added bonus of rooting against Tennessee. The Wolfpack get to welcome an increasingly desperate Derek Dooley to Raleigh, and they can set themselves up for a big run through a mediocre ACC with a win on Friday night.
KingJamesIV: The date’s been circled for months. The last time Vanderbilt sold out its season tickets for football was 1996, when the Commodore Home Schedule included a visit from the mighty Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. I remember the excitement for that game. I remember Todd Yoder with a seriously long touchdown reception. A win over one of the juggernauts of college football was within our grasp. Excitement in the football program peaked. Notre Dame answered and took control of the game. The moment, the possibility of realization, slipped away.
Granted, there have been moments here and there which have casually approached that excitement level: Cutler’s 4–0 start in 2005 (and subsequent road victory in Knoxville late that season), the 2008 5–0 start and bowl finish, all of 2011.
I don’t think I’m embellishing when I say that this might be the most exciting, promising season in Vanderbilt history. James Franklin and the team have set a new highpoint, in my lifetime, for enthusiasm in Vanderbilt football.
Does it end here? Does this highwater mark serve as some untouched, snow-covered peak above an ever-eroding rock facade? Or will it be an anchorpoint for our harnesses on a long, arduous climb back into ever increasing relevancy on the college football landscape? [/bad rockclimbing metaphors]
DEFINITELY THE LATTER.
I see our men giving the ol’ ball coach a hell of a time tomorrow. Is South Carolina the more talented team? They aren’t ranked in the Top 10 for esses and jees. Sometimes it comes down to who wants it more. I’d give that edge to the Black Death.
I believe in James Franklin.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 31, South Carolina 28
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Vanderbilt over South Carolina Though I do agree with TI above, does NC State beating Tennessee actually qualify as an upset? Certainly, #25 Louisville over Kentucky doesn’t. Nor does #14 Clemson over Auburn. Michigan over Alabama would certainly, but I don’t see it happening. LSU isn’t going to lose to North Texas. Arkansas isn’t going to lose to Jacksonville State. Mississippi State isn’t going to lose to Jackson State. If Ole Miss loses to Central Arkansas…yikes. Missouri isn’t losing to Southeastern Louisiana, Florida isn’t losing to Bowling Green, and Georgia isn’t losing to Buffalo. Note, I would welcome being wrong about any of these except my italicized pick.
Check back as kickoff draws closer for more expert* advice for the season opener.