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Saturday Predictions: Northwestern at Vanderbilt

The season is closing in on us and after a summer of confusion and lethargy, football is thankfully near. The Commodores will start the 2010 season against a stout out-of-conference opponent in Northwestern, a team many pick to be in the middle of a solid Big Ten this year. This will be a stark departure from other openers against teams like Western Carolina, Miami (OH), and Richmond - three schools who have combined to play in two fewer Rose Bowls than the Wildcats.

Despite the frequent comparisons between the two schools, Northwestern is clearly in a different league than Vanderbilt thanks to their gridiron success. The team is coming off back-to-back bowl eligible seasons, and has played in the postseason seven times in the past 13 years. As you may already know, Vandy has only sniffed the postseason once in that span. 

While Northwestern is trending positively on the football field, Vanderbilt hasn't been as fortunate, coming off a 2-10 season and with a new head coach in tow. Few know what to expect on Saturday night from this young Commodore squad - but hell, we'll take a stab at it. Here are the predictions from your friendly, knowledgable, and above all else, handsome AoG staff.

Train Island: The Wildcats were the considerably better team last year, but have to get by in 2010 without standout quarterback Mike Kafka. However, even with a potent offense in 2009, they still showed that they could be beat on the road by an awful team, losing at Syracuse 34-37.  This might be an unfair comparison based on how they closed out their season (wins against #6 Iowa and #14 Wisconsin), but is a meaningful result just the same.

NU's defense will be the biggest question mark in this game. Both of their leading tacklers are returning at linebacker (Quentin Davie and Nate Williams), but the rebuilt secondary (three new starters after losing a pair of all-conference DBs) and the graduation of DT Corey Wootton leaves the Wildcats a bit thin. Unfortunately, a shaky Larry Smith and rusty Warren Norman may not be able to take advantage of these issues.

Northwestern won't be able to push around the Vanderbilt defense, but they'll be able to do enough to keep the Commodores from winning. The Vandy D is good enough to keep this team in any game, but with Chris Marve as the only standout, they'll need to be almost perfect to give the offense enough space to win. Unless Larry Smith comes out ready to impress - and reports from practice haven't suggested this - it could be a frustrating game for Vandy. Prediction? Northwestern 20, Vanderbilt 13

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KingJamesIV: Where to begin? At this point in the season, our assumption rest mainly in the performances of 2009. The Commodores as a unit have the robustness of an anemic, calcium-deficient leper. Depth is not our friend. The last half of the season each year, I'm pretty sure we're fielding a veritable MASH-unit of the undead. The Classic Vanderbilt Football Season [my activity in brackets]: Start strong [Get hopes up]. Sustain injuries [Curse wildly with no regard for decorum]. Rest hopes on seldom-used/freshman replacement [Not recognize said player's number. Look up name in program]. Pray [Pray]. Take lumps like men [Turn to basketball season]. This is the circle of life that I have known for close to three decades. Sometimes the injuries occur before the strong start. Like this season. Crap.

So what does Vanderbilt have going for it right now? Well, some of those injuries turned out not to be so serious. [Prayers must have worked on Warren Norman. Either that or he borrowed some of Zac Stacy's red clay and vinegar. I am okay with either or both.] Thankfully, it's also the start of the season, which means we're going to be a much stronger team by default. We also have the element of surprise in our favor, particularly with the receiving corps. I'm praying for EB2.0. Heck, I'd take a reprisal of 2005, where we started out 1-0 against another small, private-school team in Wake Forest. Since I have literally nothing else to go on at this point, I'm just going to assume it's the same score. Prediction? Vanderbilt 24, Northwestern 20 In researching the final score of the WF game, I learned that 3 of our 5 wins were by 4 points. An obvious sign.

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Diezba: I'll get this out of the way right off the bat: before I began to contemplate our season this year, I knew exactly 3 things about Northwestern.

First, I knew that their school colors were purple (I knew this thanks to catching some highlights of their bowl game against Auburn). Second, I knew they were in the Midwest -- perhaps in Chicago (this wasn't so much knowledge as it was a vague geographical notion). And finally, I knew the first few notes of their fight song, because the brother of a buddy of mine from my Vanderbilt undergrad days went to Northwestern, and he would always pause on the "Northwestern" tab of NCAA 2004 to let the PlayStation play their fight song in his brother's honor (random, I know).

All that to say: my predictions on Northwestern are subject to the huge caveat that I'm not exactly an expert. But, thankfully, the Internet helps anyone become an expert in sports statistics with the tap of a few keystrokes. Here are three that stuck out to me:

  • 25. The Wildcats averaged scoring 25 points per game last year, including their biggest win (a 34-point romp over Towson) and their biggest loss (a 21-point clobbering by no. 10 Penn State at home). The Commodores, on the other hand, averaged only 16 points per game (and, of course, we all know it was way worse within conference play). There are two important considerations to keep in mind: Northwestern (as Train Island points out) has lost their stud quarterback, Mike Kafka. This will hurt the Wildcats' offense. Equally as important, but perhaps more ambiguously, is how our offense will function this season. We have numerous major changes: a new head coach (who's more willing to be risky considering his employment posture and general personality?); a stronger, meatier, healthier, game-tested Larry Smith; and a new offensive line coach in Herb Hand, who led Tulsa to stratospheric point-totals in his prior job. Who can say whether the Commodore offense will be better? We'll find out Saturday, but I think it would be literally impossible -- well, perhaps I shouldn't say that -- to be worse.
  • 3. The Wildcats won three of their 8 wins on the road: at Perdue, at Iowa (which was then ranked no. 6), and at Illinois. They also lost in overtime to the Auburn Tigers, 35-38, in the Outback Bowl.  The Black and Gold, on the other hand, won exactly one game in Vanderbilt Stadium at Dudley Field (which is apparently what we're calling it now -- didn't it used to be the other way around?). That win, you may recall, was against mighty Western Carolina. The Wildcats know how to win games in hostile territory, and the Commodores seemed to have forgotten how to win at all last season, whether home or away. Will the West End Sailors defend the Brick House this year? I hope so. But I'm not holding my breath.
  • 10. When Coach Robbie Caldwell named Larry Smith his starting quarterback, he chose a young man with ten career starts for the Commodores, including Vanderbilt's 2008 Music City Bowl championship. Though Smith struggled last season, particularly after his mid-season hamstring injury, he has shown flashes of both talent and leadership. If the rumors coming out of fall camp are to be believed, Larry has gotten much "hungrier" and much more "edgy" in his leadership style: transitioning from a soft-spoken "do as I do" to a motivator who's not afraid to be vocal. Contrasting this is the Wildcats' Dan Persa, who'll be making his first collegiate start on Dudley Field this weekend. If our offenses depend on our field-generals' experience and poise, I think the Commodores will do well with Commodore Smith at the helm.

I've not been able to get something that Coach Caldwell said in his first-ever game-week press conference out of my mind. He said, "How do you win every game? You win the first one." Seems to me that if it's stuck in my head, it's probably stuck in the Commodores' collective craniums as well. Prediction? Northwestern Wildcats 17, Vanderbilt Commodores 20.

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Vandy Dan:  First off, I love this match-up and I'm tired of people whining about the schedule.  Routing Western Carolina to start last season was just the spark the team needed to drop 10 of its next 11 games.  Combine that with the fact that Vanderbilt has choked on its share of cupcakes in recent years (e.g., Duke '08, Miss. St. '08, and Army '09) and I fail to see why Vanderbilt fans are so eager to start with a cupcake.  Instead, we get to take on a decent, but not great, Big 10 team breaking in a relatively untested QB.  Sure, Dudley Field is not Kinnick Stadium, but Dan Persa is not Tim Tebow either.   If Vandy wins this game, it sets a tone for the whole season.  A win over Northwestern would provide needed confidence for tough upcoming games against LSU and Ole Miss.  All of a sudden 2-1 is a real possibility when 0-3 was the expectation - and Bobby Johnson is viewed as a guy who left a program on solid footing.  Conversely, a loss means this team is as bad as most thought - cementing the legacy of Deuce Johnson.

So, what will happen?  Unfortunately, I see this team taking the first step toward Vanderbilt's first ever 11-loss season (It's good to be gold!).  The definition of insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting different results.  I'm not insane enough to think that the same staff (minus Johnson) coaching the same offense (plus a few new receivers) is going to improve much from what we saw last season (or the year before for that matter).  In particular, I'm not convinced that Larry Smith will do anything to expose - or even test - Northwestern's inexperienced secondary.  If Northwestern is putting 8-men in the box with no fear of the pass, it will not matter whether Warren Norman is 100%.  Likewise, even the best defensive performance for Vanderbilt can be undone by an entire evening of three-and-outs by the SEC’s worst offense.

In the end, I think this game comes down to whether Larry Smith and his team can avoid last year's pitfalls or whether Dan Persa and his team can duplicate last year's success.  Given those options, I'll take the new guy.  Prediction?  Vanderbilt 13, Northwestern 23.