Vanderbilt football will return from a month-long hiatus on Saturday to play in their second bowl game in four years. The Commodores will face Big East co-champions Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl just three hours from Nashville in Memphis, Tennessee. The postseason matchup will be James Franklin's first as a head coach.
Cincinnati will provide a tough test for a Commodore team that went 4-0 in their non-conference schedule in 2011. Vanderbilt beat Elon, Connecticut, Army, and Wake Forest to help become bowl eligible. The team shared two common opponents with the Bearcats - both squads defeated UConn but lost to Tennessee. However, the Cincinnati team that we're likely to see Saturday could be fundamentally different from the one that started the season 7-1.
Cincinnati has been a markedly changed team without starting quarterback Zach Collaros in the lineup, going 7-1 when he's gotten the majority of the snaps and 2-2 without him. Collaros was injured November 12th against West Virginia but may be able to play in the Liberty Bowl depending on the condition of his bum ankle. Dual-threat backup Munchie Legaux has guided the team to a pair of wins in his absence, but has been unable to recreate the accuracy that Collaros brought to the pocket. He's completed fewer than half of his passing attempts in three of the four games he's played in late in the season.
Reports suggest that Collaros has looked good in Liberty Bowl practices dating all the way back to December 19th. However, some of the UC faithful, including Bearcats Nation's Chris Baines, think that Legaux might be the better fit in Butch Jones's system thanks to his size and mobility. Collaros hasn't been as successful under Jones's regime as his breakout sophomore campaign (in relief of Tony Pike) would suggest. Like Larry Smith starting for the Commodores as a redshirt freshman in the 2008 Music City Bowl, Cincinnati's quarterback decision this Saturday could represent the passing of the torch behind center.
Legaux and Collaros provide similar threats for the Vanderbilt defense. While Collaros, a senior, is much more established and composed behind center, Legaux has progressed as a passer in the starting role. The sophomore threw for three touchdowns and over 200 yards in the team's regular season finale against Connecticut. That performance should help boost his confidence heading into the postseason, even if questions about Collaros's return continue to swirl.
One trend to keep an eye on is the diminishing effect of Legaux's rushing game. In his first meaningful BCS game this year, he gashed West Virginia for 77 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries. However, as teams adjusted to his presence, he became less effective. He has gained just 88 yards on 40 carries in the three games since that performance. Collaros's rushing performance, which is a major part of his offensive attack as well, was equally diminished in Big East play this season. He averaged just 1.7 yards per carry in league play before going down with an ankle injury.
However, Collaros is the bigger worry in terms of quarterbacks that have given the Commodores trouble in 2011. Vandy has been gashed by accurate passers like A.J. McCarron and Tyler Wilson who were able to find open receivers and stretch the field vertically. While Legaux has a big arm and is a presence in the pocket at 6'5", he has yet to prove that he can create a consistent deep threat against opposing defenses. Collaros isn't a prolific downfield passer, but showed against South Florida that he can produce in a shootout, springing for 389 yards and three touchdowns in the Bearcats' victory.
Either player has the ability to lead Cincinnati to a bowl victory, especially if tailback Isaiah Pead can be effective out of the backfield. However, Vanderbilt's combination of stout defensive backs and a deep rotation of defensive linemen should keep either player from putting together an impressive performance. While Collaros has the experience as a key member of a BCS bowl team, he lacks the weapons that he had at his disposal when he kept UC's undefeated season hopes alive in 2009. Neither he nor Legaux have shown that they can be the kind of consistent weapon that the Bearcats need under Butch Jones for this bowl game. As long as Vanderbilt can account for the pair's mobility, they should be in good condition to drag Cincinnati into the ugly type of game that James Franklin's team likes to play.