Despite a few bright moments, Vanderbilt's 2013 season has had all the momentum of a draining bathtub. In four weeks of play, the Commodores have gotten some big plays out of Jordan Matthews and seen some big holes open up across the rest of this roster. This was entirely evident last week, as second-year FBS program UMass exploited Vanderbilt's lack of depth on both sides of the ball to hang around until the fourth quarter of an eventual 24-7 Vandy win.
Some of Vanderbilt's problems over the last four weeks have legitimate excuses. The defense has struggled to identify plays without Chase Garnham barking out orders from his middle linebacker spot. The offense has slowly adjusted to the loss of red zone target Chris Boyd to take pressure off of the rest of this team's playmakers. And, most notably, fans and opposing defenses alike are beginning to realize just how special Zac Stacy's ability to move the chains had been.
Unfortunately, that doesn't cover other issues like this team's lack of rhythm or inability to score in the first quarter. Vanderbilt's success in pressuring opposing quarterbacks has slowed to a low pulse after a voracious first half against Ole Miss in the season opener. The running game has been solid but lacked an identity despite the presence of three very talented backs. Things simply aren't clicking on offense, and the same problems that haunted this team in 2012 - namely defending the read option - are significant again in 2013.
None of these problems have easy fixes, but the Commodores can regain some of their preseason confidence with a big win over Alabama-Birmingham at home. The Blazers are a better team than UMass is, but they still reside on a different level of Division I football than Vanderbilt. Once again, Vanderbilt will have more talent on both sides of the ball thanks to a roster that has larger and more athletic players at every premium position.
Can the 'Dores take advantage of it this time?
Vanderbilt underwhelmed last week, and that's caused the Commodore bandwagon to get a bit lighter. Beating up on the Blazers won't convince anyone that this team is ready to compete with the SEC's finest, but a loss or even a tightly contested win could be enough to question this team's ability to make it to a third straight bowl game. Suddenly, a non-conference game that was slated to be a tune up has given this team to make a statement about the rest of their season. Vandy needs a convincing win on Saturday, and they'll have several opportunities to make that happen in front of a home crowd.
Christian D'Andrea: UAB isn't a great team, but they have some talented players that can test the Commodores and make them earn every inch of a non-conference win. The trio of Austin Brown, Darren Reaves, and Jamarcus Nelson gives the Blazers three All-Conference USA caliber players who can drive their offense. That'll be a tough combination for the Commodores to plan around.
The Blazers get a bit shallow after that. Defensive Coordinator Bob Shoop has had plenty to think about so far this season, but stopping UAB should come down to limiting Reaves on the ground and Nelson/Brown through the air. LSU was able to limit Nelson to just 42 receiving yards one week after his 199-yard performance against Troy, and that played a big role in their 56-17 beatdown in week two. The Tigers were also able to keep Reaves below his seasonal averages on the ground, but the all-conference back still managed to gain 84 yards and add a touchdown in the loss.
Of course, the other method by which to beat the Blazers is just to outscore them. In three games, UAB is giving up 39.3 points per contest. That includes 306 passing yards per game against FBS opponents. That's the kind of defense against which Austyn Carta-Samuels and Jordan Matthews can thrive. Look for that pair to make plenty of connections on Saturday, and keep an eye out for Jordan Cunningham and Steven Scheu to make an appearance in the passing game as well.
Defensively, Vanderbilt will have to get a strong performance from its linebackers despite the possible absence of senior Karl Butler. Butler missed the UMass game with a leg injury, but wasn't wearing a cast on the sideline and looked like he could have pressed himself into action if Vandy needed him. If he can't go this weekend, Larry Franklin, a guy with a track record of coming up big against overmatched opponents, will take his place. The 'Dores struggled without Butler and Chase Garnham last week, but another week of experience and a soft learning curve should help this team look better than it did against a Minuteman team that completed 11 straight passes at one point.
We based Vanderbilt's probable outcome on their opponent's weaknesses last week, and the 'Dores weren't able to capitalize. They'll have more energy playing before a home crowd this Saturday, but it's still tough to be entirely confident that they'll take care of business. The Commodores will win this one, but it could be another uncomfortable showing in the first half.
The Prediction? Vanderbilt 33, UAB 17.
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: LSU (+3) over GEORGIA. This three-point spread is a direct response to UGA's homefield advantage in a battle between two very good SEC teams. LSU is 4-0 with a solid road(ish) win over TCU, while Georgia has a narrow loss to Clemson and a close win over South Carolina on its books so far this season. This one's a tossup, but without a good looking upset elsewhere in the SEC, I'd advise you to take the points and enjoy what should be a monster game.