The day that Vanderbilt fans have dreaded since Jeff Driskel set a Florida rushing record against the Commodores is finally upon us. Johnny Manziel will get his chance to run the football against the Vandy defense.
One of the constant criticisms this team has faced over the past two seasons has been their inability to contain mobile passers, particularly against the read option. On Saturday, they'll face the SEC's most effective running quarterback since Tim Tebow was taking snaps in Gainesville. Manziel ran for 1,410 yards and a disgusting 21 touchdowns as a freshman last season, and while he hasn't been as devastating in 2013, he's still good for nearly 70 yards and a touchdown per game on the ground.
Here's how Vandy has stacked up against the SEC's quarterbacks on the ground so far. For the sake of argument, I removed Aaron Murray's outlying 57-yard scramble against Tennessee.
|Quarterback||Rushing Yards per Game||vs. Vandy||Difference|
Quarterbacks have thrived on the ground against Vanderbilt, and if this trend holds up, then the Commodores can expect Manziel to rack up around 110 rushing yards in Saturday's matchup.
The statistics don't tell the whole story, obviously. Vandy's defense looked as good as it has all year last week, and much of that was spurred by strong play from this team's young linebackers. Darreon Herring showed that he can lead this team into the future with the best game of his career, and Jacob Sealand's performance suggests that his struggles early on in the season had more to do with growing pains than his deficiency as a starting linebacker. Having those two play well will go a long way in keeping Manziel from extending drives with his feet.
Still, the advantage will go to the A&M offense over the Vandy D, particularly with perpetual deep threat Mike Evans providing support downfield. The Aggies have a versatile offensive attack that has covered many of the holes left by their inefficient defense. As a result, nothing about this game suggests that points will be a problem on Saturday. Redshirt freshman quarterback Patton Robinette should have a relatively safe environment to play his second meaningful SEC game for the Commodores.
Texas A&M is giving up nearly five touchdowns per game. Vanderbilt has been better, but they haven't faced a team with a one-two punch like Manziel and Evans this year. So which team will come out ahead in what promises to be a Texas shootout on Saturday? Let's take a closer look.
Christian D'Andrea: Manziel is going to make this game a frustrating one for Commodore fans. I foresee lots of drives being extended on third down thanks to his ability to pull the ball down and elude tacklers. As a result, the most important players in this game may not be Jordan Matthews and Patton Robinette, but Darreon Herring and Caleb Azubike.
Azubike is Vanderbilt's most athletic player along the defensive line. His combination of speed and strength made him a breakout candidate for 2013, but he hasn't stood out like many had hoped so far this season. Instead of turning heads with his ability to rush the quarterback like he did in 2012, the Nigerian's name has been mostly associated with the freaky contact lenses he wore for the season opener against Ole Miss.
Herring, Azubike's classmate, has also had his ups and downs this fall. He was set to inherit a starting position after playing well as a true freshman last fall, but injuries to Chase Garnham and Karl Butler thrust him into the spotlight and challenged him to lead the heart and soul of this team's defense in just his second year of college ball. Herring struggled a bit at first, but he came back with the best game of his career against Georgia last week.
If those two can tap into their athletic potential, they can stop Manziel from turning this game into a scoreboard-exhausting shootout. Azubike and Herring have the speed and tackling to make the Heisman winner uncomfortable and prevent him from turning potential losses into drive-sustaining runs. It won't be an easy task - it's something few teams have been able to do - but it would represent a major step forward for two players with the potential to be all-time greats in black and gold.
Can the Commodores rely on their young players to pressure Manziel and stop the Aggies' vicious scoring attack? It's a lot to hope for, and A&M has proven that they can score big even in their losses. I'm not sure that Patton Robinette, as composed as he looked last week, can guide the 'Dores to six touchdowns or more in his first start on the road against a tough conference opponent. The Aggies haven't been held to fewer than 40 points all year, and unless Vanderbilt can improve on last week's stout defensive performance, that streak won't be broken on Saturday.
The Pick: Texas A&M 45, Vanderbilt 34
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Tennessee (+3800) over ALABAMA. This is not a real pick. I just wanted to point out that a $20 bet on the Vols would net you $740 in profit if they won. Similarly, a $20 bet on 'Bama (-6100) would earn you approximately 32 cents.