It's been 81 days since the Vanderbilt Commodores were eliminated from the NCAA Division I Men's Baseball Tournament. That's more than 11 long, hot, college sports-less weeks filled with unbearable chores like going outside, spending time with family, and tending to personal responsibilities.
But now, all that's over.
Vanderbilt will kick off the 2013 college football season with a marquee matchup against SEC West rival Ole Miss on Thursday night at Dudley Field. The game is the latest chapter in a budding rivalry between the two programs. Mississippi has helped serve as Vanderbilt's launching pad during the 'Dores climb from the conference's basement. Vandy is 5-1 against the Rebels in their last six meetings and has won three games over Ole Miss in a row.
That means that Ole Miss doesn't have a single player on their roster who has played a snap in a win over the Commodores. Hugh Freeze's rising team should be hungry for a win, and a victory on Thursday could end up being the difference between a winning and losing season in the ultra-competitive SEC. The same holds true for Vanderbilt; if the 'Dores want to repeat their record-setting nine-win season from 2012, they'll have to take care of Mississippi first. Neither team has many breaks during their conference schedule, and an early SEC win would do wonders for either side.
So, while it's just the first game of the season, Ole Miss/Vanderbilt could have major bowl implications for either team. Which side will come out ahead and set the tone for their season off right with a win?
Christian D'Andrea: I'm always excited to see Vandy/Ole Miss, but this game is taking on even more importance thanks to the way both teams have been recruiting lately. Hugh Freeze will unleash Robert Nkemdiche on the world Thursday, and he was the most talked about high school defensive player since Jadeveon Clowney came to reap souls in South Carolina. He'll be flanked by eight other four or five-star recruits in Mississippi's Class of 2013, and almost every one could end up making an impact on Thursday night.
Vanderbilt will counter with its own youth movement, though the presence of some stalwart veterans will limit their opportunities to shine in the season opener. Playing behind guys like Wesley Tate and Walker May are standout athletes like Caleb Azubike and Brian Kimbrow. If the opportunity arises, James Franklin will have the chance to throw his recruits into the fire. Based on their accolades, these guys should be able to stand up to the pressure and defend their home turf.
Both Vanderbilt and Ole Miss have the pieces to throw together an offensive shootout, but I don't think we'll get to that point. Commodore and Gamecock fans expected fireworks in last year's season opener, but both teams played sloppy on their way to scoring 30 combined points. That same rawness will be a big part of Thursday's game; two teams that haven't had the chance to fine tune their timing without warm-up opportunities against like Austin Peay and SE Missouri State are likely to stumble a bit out of the gates.
Like last year, I can see Mississippi taking an early lead while Austyn Carta-Samuels and the Vandy offense acclimate to life without Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy. Even so, the Vanderbilt defense is stout this year, and they'll be able to slap the reins on the Rebels' high-powered offense. Donte Moncrief and Vince Sanders are one hell of a receiving tandem, but they'll have to go up against one of the country's best secondaries. Andre Hal, Kenny Ladler, and Javon Marshall have the skills and experience to keep Bo Wallace from cracking the 400-yard mark this year.
Ultimately, that will help the 'Dores stick around, and ACS will have plenty of opportunities to find his niche behind one of the strongest Vanderbilt offensive lines in years. If Vandy's three-headed running attack can shift the defensive focus away from Jordan Matthews, this team should be able to find the points they need to win. Over at Red Cup Rebellion I put this one at 16-14, but I think we'll see some more scoring than that.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 23, Ole Miss 20
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Washington State over AUBURN. Jeff Tuel is a starting quarterback in the NFL. Sure, it's for the Bills, but that's got to count for some sort of good karma for the Cougars, right? Washington State only beat two FBS opponents last season, but so did Auburn. They've both got high-energy, highly publicized coaches in place to turn those fortunes around. While the Tigers have Gus Malzahn's steady hand at the helm and the advantage of playing at Jordan-Hare Stadium, State has a coach that loves pirates and the legacy of Ryan Leaf to protect. It's a long shot - Auburn has improved greatly, on paper, from last season - but with Kentucky at Western Kentucky leaning towards making the Hilltoppers the favorite, the Cougars have to be my gut upset pick for the week.
KingJamesIV: I think Ole Miss is going to be better than they were last season -- you don't bring in the kind of class they did and not get better. I'm not sure the SEC did those freshmen any favors by sending them on the road for a matchup against an SEC opponent for the opener. No matter how good anyone thinks they could be, smart money would be on them needing some time to get acclimated to the speed of the next level. How much time is the question... (I'm thinking at least one game).
I expect both teams will be ready to go, but you just can't marginalize how important the experience factor is in an important game at the start of the season. In a close match and given that experience, I think Vandy has the trump card in a tight one that comes down to the wire.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 27, Ole Miss 23
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: TCU over LSU. Tigers are around a 4-1/2 point favorite but are playing in the Jerry-dome in Arlington, Texas. I think LSU most likely gets it done, but there aren't a lot of realistic options in a week filled with cupcakes and you never know with the Hat.