Vanderbilt is in a tough spot. With half of the season in the rearview mirror, the Commodores run a high risk of returning to a holiday season where their only bowl experience comes from watching ESPN with their families.
While that doesn't sound so bad for the rest of us, it would be a major step back for a Vandy team that is coming off of a nine-win season and the program's first back-to-back bowl appearances in school history. The Commodores made a statement that they can be a top-half SEC program in 2012, but their chance to back that up is slowly slipping away in 2013. This team is 0-3 in conference play so far, and while there have been sparks of brilliance contained in that disappointing start, the 'Dores have not looked like a top 25 program this fall.
The biggest problem has been this team's lack of cohesion on defense. The Commodore D was supposed to be a deep and talented unit despite the losses of Rob Lohr and Archibald Barnes to graduation, but they've looked lost when it comes to figuring out opposing offenses. What's more concerning is an apparent void of leadership thanks to the loss of seniors Chase Garnham and Karl Butler at linebacker early in the year. While the 'Dores have several other veterans in their starting 11, no one has stepped up to lead this team when opponents have marched down the field on them time and time again.
Vanderbilt will gain a step this week when Butler returns from injury, but his impact alone won't be enough for a team that's giving up almost six touchdowns worth of points per game against conference foes. The team's disjointed defense has left the 'Dores to play catch up all season, and whether that's a case of their linebackers chasing after a play or this team's offense trying to dig itself out of a first-quarter hole, it's a bad look.
Georgia presents this team with an opportunity. Vanderbilt's wins this season have come against Austin Peay, UMass, and UAB. The Commodores have not beaten a ranked opponent since 2008. Saturday's game against UGA represents the last home game they'll have against a top 25 team this year. If James Franklin really wants this to be a #BrandNewVandy, he'll have to get a win whose origins date back to the Bobby Johnson era.
The Bulldogs are vulnerable. Behind a quarterback who has shredded the 'Dores for the past three season lies a depth chart that has been torn up by injuries. Todd Gurley may be back on Saturday, but Friday's reports suggest that the 'Dawgs are getting ready to play without him. His backup, and the team's first-team receivers from this preseason, are all out as well. If there ever was a chance for this struggling defense to look good against a top 25 team, it's now.
Can Vandy take advantage of this and improve to 4-3 on the season? Or will Georgia overcome injuries and escape Nashville with another SEC win? Let's take a closer look.
Christian D'Andrea: A depleted Georgia team put up nearly as many points against Missouri as Vanderbilt did at home a week earlier. If this game results in a shootout - and that's what all signs are pointing to so far - then that bodes poorly for the Commodores. Vandy has all the pieces to go toe-to-toe with an offensive juggernaut. Jordan Matthews is one of the best receivers on the planet, Austyn Carta-Samuels is averaging 260 passing yards per game, and Jerron Seymour is picking up nearly six yards per carry. Despite that, this team still has yet to truly click on offense outside of last month's win over UAB.
Right now James Franklin must be looking at this team like a bagged-up jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are there, and while it's apparent how some of them fit together the overall picture still isn't clear. For Vanderbilt to win this game, they'll either have to figure out how to reconcile these players and their big-play ability into fruitful drives or depend on an underwhelming defense to grow by leaps and bounds coming out of the bye week. I'd bet on the former rather than the latter.
That suggests that we're in for a high-scoring affair at Dudley Field. The last one, only two weeks ago, topped out at 51-28 in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the final score suggests. Until this team proves it can either win a shootout or get important stops when they need to, I can't argue against that recent history.
The Pick: Georgia 45, Vanderbilt 31. Prove me wrong and get some stops, defense.
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: OLE MISS to cover (+10.5) against LSU. Six SEC games this week, and all feature inter-conference matchups. Neat. The Rebels got starched by Alabama and nipped by Texas A&M, but they should be competitive in a home matchup with the 6-1 Tigers, even without freshman stud Robert Nkemdiche. Mississippi has all the offensive weapons to turn this one into a shootout like they did in last weeks' 41-38 loss to the Aggies, and that 10.5 point spread looks a bit high for this matchup. Besides, most Commodore fans became Rebel fans by default after this year's instant-classic season opener in August.