The question isn't really if Vanderbilt will beat Massachusetts on Saturday - it's if the Minutemen will be able to put together a tougher showing than their 49-7 loss from 2012.
James Franklin and his staff knew exactly what they were getting when they entered into a four-game agreement with the burgeoning FBS program in western Massachusetts. The Minutemen, in their first three years of Division I-A play, provide the 'Dores with a virtual FCS opponent without taking away the bowl-eligibility driving win that comes from playing the Austin Peays and Tennessee States of the world. In fact, it's a formula that the Vandy staff like so much that they added another FBS newcomer - Old Dominion - to their 2014 schedule.
With all due respect to the Minutemen and their fans, the outcome of this game should not be in question. UMass is steadily improving as a program, but nothing they've done in 2013 suggests that they'll be able to pull off a major upset over the Commodores on Saturday. They've played two power-conference teams and lost by a combined score of 82-7. When they dropped down to face a familiar FCS foe they ended up getting beaten 24-14 by Maine. The defense has been a problem, but a seven point-per-game scoring average is every bit as troubling.
In short, the Minutemen are closer on a sliding scale to Austin Peay than they are Ole Miss or South Carolina. Massachusetts has more talent than the Governors do, and they'll be able to throw in homefield advantage, but that could only mean the difference between Vanderbilt pulling their starters in the fourth quarter instead of the third. Expect another good look at Josh Grady and Patton Robinette behind center on Saturday afternoon. The 'Dores should end up placing another brick on their road to a third-straight bowl bid.
Christian D'Andrea: One crushing SEC loss, one cupcake opponent in the following week. If the Commodores could do that for a full season, no one would have to worry about bowl eligibility. Vanderbilt struck gold when they scheduled a four-year home-and-home series with FBS newcomer Massachusetts. I don't see them making that 2018 return contest in Foxboro, but I do see this year's road trip as a positive for the team. They're taking their players to a legit NFL stadium for what should be a lopsided road win. Yes, you'll have to squint pretty hard to make that seem like an accomplishment against a Massachusetts team that's gone 1-14 since transitioning to I-A, but it still looks good on paper and is something that you can sell to recruits.
Vandy shouldn't have much trouble against an undersized UMass team that has been devastatingly bad against FBS running backs. Wisconsin had three different players gain 100+ yards against them, and while Vanderbilt's backfield and blocking is no match for the Badgers, the Commodores should be able to have similar success. The Wesley Tate, Brian Kimbrow, and Jerron Seymour triumvirate should be able to find plenty of holes against a defensive line that will be outweighed by approximately 30 pounds per man.
That should help bring some balance back to the Commodore offense. Vanderbilt really needs something to jolt some life into their passing game beyond the otherworldly skills of Jordan Matthews. Jordan Cunningham stepped up against Austin Peay, and he'll have the chance to exploit an undermanned secondary once against against UMass. Additionally, Steven Scheu and Austyn Carta-Samuels seem to be developing a bit of a rapport. If Scheu can develop into a receiving threat, it would add a new dimension to this team's offense. Scheu should be bigger and more athletic than any of the Minutemen who end up defending him. If he can't get open against Massachusetts, it may be a sign that tight end isn't going to be an impact position for the Commodores this fall.
On defense, all eyes should be on this team's linebacking corps. Jake Sealand is a talented player who picked up the college game quickly enough to play as a true freshman in 2012, but he got abused last week against South Carolina. He's filling in for the injured Chase Garnham, and Saturday's game could be a big confidence building exercise for the young man. Around him, emerging players like Harding Harper, Darreon Herring, and Stephen Weatherly should have plenty of opportunities to put last week's terrible performance in the rear view mirror.
Everyone will look better on Saturday, and not just because they're playing an overmatched team in an NFL stadium. James Franklin's teams improve as the year wears on, and we'll see that on Saturday. It won't be airtight, but expect the Commodores to take care of business in Foxboro.
The Prediction?: Vanderbilt 44, UMass 6
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: SMU (+28.5) to cover against TEXAS A&M. The Mustangs barely squeaked by Montana State last week, but they are scoring 27 points per game this season. We've seen that the A&M defense isn't spectacular this year (having given up 31 points to Rice), and if SMU can hang 24 points on the board then the Aggies will have to score 53 to cover. That's a tall task, even for Johnny Football. The Mustangs won't win outright, but they'll get beat by fewer than four touchdowns in College Station.