Vanderbilt earned head coach Derek Mason his first win as a Commodore last weekend, but it wasn't easy. Vandy had to rally from an 11-point deficit in the final nine minutes to defeat a team that has recorded just two wins over the past two-plus seasons of FBS football. Still, the team's offense finally showed up, and a win is a win.
Now, newly-minted starting quarterback Patton Robinette and the 'Dores will have to roll that momentum into a matchup with a much fiercer opponent. The 16th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks are 5-0 against Vandy in the past five years and are coming off a 38-35 win over then-#6 Georgia. Those are just two of the reasons that they are 21.5-point favorites on the road against a conference opponent.
The most damning evidence for a USC win comes from Vanderbilt's still-shaky offense. Robinette led his team to three offensive touchdowns last weekend. That pushed Vandy's season total to ...three. Mason has intoned that the sophomore QB is still fighting off a nagging injury that may or may not have prevented him from getting more snaps in the first two games of the season. As a result, there's a good chance that we see true freshman Wade Freebeck - who started last week's game before being pulled for Robinette - play a prominent role for the 'Dores. Freebeck only threw three passes in his first quarter of NCAA work and still looked as though he was struggling to adapt to the speed of the college game. That adjustment will only get more difficult now that he'll be staring down an SEC defense instead of a MAC one.
The Gamecocks will also throw a high-powered offense at a Vandy team that has yet to hold an opponent under 30 points this season. South Carolina has an efficient quarterback (Dylan Thompson) and several weapons that can create big plays even if the Commodore pass rush makes him uncomfortable in the pocket. The most notable threat will come from the tailback platoon of Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds. The duo has combined for 369 rushing yards through three games and have the power and speed to wear down Mason's defense - especially if Vanderbilt's offense can't sustain drives long enough to give their young D time to recover on the sideline.
Last year, USC got off to a hot start by scoring 21 straight points in the first quarter. Vanderbilt battled back, but ultimately fell short in a 25-35 loss. If the Gamecocks come out firing like that again, this game is much more likely to end up 84-0 than 35-25. Derek Mason will have to get his team up to score early and buck their recent trend of allowing long first-possession touchdown drives on the other side of the ball. If they couldn't do that against UMass, it certainly doesn't bode well for a matchup with a top-25 program.
So can the 'Dores find the extra gear they've been searching for (1st)? Or will Saturday's matchup be a blow-for-blow repeat of the Ole Miss game. Let's turn to the ...uh, well, not experts. Guys who write for this site is probably more appropriate:
Christian D'Andrea: The Vanderbilt defense gave up more points to UMass than anyone should be comfortable with, but there were definite signs of progress on that side of the ball. Caleb Azubike and Stephen Weatherly proved that they are talented enough to not only adjust to the 3-4, but quickly develop into disruptive playmakers. Even with Kyle Woestmann prospectively out for this game, the return of Vince Taylor should help the Commodores put consistent pressure on Dylan Thompson.
They'll need to, because this team's secondary got beat. up. against UMass last week. Tre Bell had about a dozen teachable moments in that game, and he'll have to be a fast learner if he's going to keep up with USC's receivers. Losing Oren Burks will hurt this team's last line of defense as well, but Jahmel McIntosh is a capable replacement who may offer more in coverage than Burks does. Still, facing a pair of high-level tailbacks was going to be tough even with the linebacker-turned-safety in the mix.
On offense, Patton Robinette will be tasked with sustaining drives in order to keep his starting role. The team hasn't been forthcoming about whether or not he's battling an injury or what body part has even been affected, but he looked solid against UMass. If Ralph Webb can be effective then the 'Dores can set Robinette up for success - something along the lines of a 14-24, 200 yard performance with the right playcalling. Of course, that last part is what Vandy has struggled with throughout the young season.
That's a lot of variables, and they could all break in Vandy's favor and still result in a Commodore loss. A defeat on Saturday is something Vanderbilt fans can accept. A defeat where this team shows zero signs of growth will not be.
The Pick: South Carolina 37, Vanderbilt 17. I don't feel very good about this game, even with an enthused Patton Robinette behind center, after hearing about plans to play multiple quarterbacks. That only seems to work when one of your QBs is a tailback, and even then it typically ended badly for the Commodores.
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Northern Illinois (+13.5) over ARKANSAS. NIU can score points (42 per game), so I feel like this line is a bit unfair to them. Arkansas has been steamrolling opponents behind a dominant running game (#BERT), but their two wins came over Nicholls State and the Fightin' Kingsbury Bros. Never count out the boys from the mean
streets cornfields of DeKalb.
Andrew VU '04: I've been getting a bit of flack from the commentariat of late for what's viewed as an overly pessimistic stance on this year's football team - specifically the coaching staff. For the sake of balance, today's preview will be entirely bereft of pessimism.
Let's start with a song:
And now, more optimism than you can shake a stick at: We got a win! A win is better than a loss! Let's not examine this too closely!
The Pick: South Carolina 52, Vanderbilt 6. Optimistic slant: Bourbon still exists! Huzzah!!! In all seriousness, last week's game in which South Cackalacky and Georgia went blow for blow pretty much cemented that in the East, there's UGA and SC... and there's everybody else. I fully expect at least one of them to hang half a hundred on UF, UK, UT, and us. I think this trend will start this week. In case you think I'm forgetting the 7th team in our conference, need I remind you:
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Mississippi State (+10) over LSU. This is a clash of 3-0 SEC teams, so it probably shouldn't be considered a massive upset. Wait, LSU's ranked #8 and The Fightin' Cowbells are not. In fact, neither the coaches nor the AP seem to think all that much of them. Go back and watch the LSU v. Wisconsin game (or summon it from memory). Wisconsin was running it down their throats, and sustained this dominance en route to a 24-7 3rd quarter lead, when, AGAINST ALL POSSIBLE LOGIC, UW coach Gary Andersen (not the kicker) decided to stop giving it to Melvin Gordon. He had hauled it for 140 yards at an 8.8 yard per carry clip, so of course, the coach thought, "Conventional logic dictates we should grind them into the ground, taking up as much clock as possible. We've got perhaps the best back in the nation, and LSU's one glaring weakness is their depth at defensive tackle. Or is that exactly what they'll be expecting?!?! We've got a weak-armed QB and wide receivers with middling speed. Throw at their cavalcade of NFL quality defensive backs. They'll never see it coming!" Call me crazy, but I think Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen watches that film. Cowbells eke out a close win on the road in Death Valley (or at least lose by less than 10).
VandyTigerPhD: I want to first apologize for not giving y'all a Talkin' Tape this week. It's been a hectic week. Anyway, you don't even have to have seen USC play any of their games to know we're gonna get stomped. We limped through the UMass game, and yeah we made progress, but nowhere near enough. The team showed fight, and for the first time this season, actually played like they believed they could win. Maybe Patton is the answer. Maybe he's the one the team needed to rally around. That said, we got plenty of help from dumb UMass mistakes. The good news is we probably would have blocked that FG if it were on target.
I've watched all three of the USC games this season. They're a FUN team to watch, so long as they're not playing you. Two weeks ago I'd have given some false hope because of LEast Carolina, but they just beat VaTech, so I can't even do that. The only way to win this game is to score a fuckton, because our DBs have not looked as strong as they should be lately.
The Pick: South Carolina 48, Vanderbilt 10. Even before the season, I had this as a loss. Now that I see what problems we're having, I just don't even see us being able to keep up with them. I hope I'm wrong, but I realize I'm probably not.
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Mississippi State (+10) over LSU. I am calling LSU to win this game, but by less than the spread. After thoroughly slaughtering ULM, SH St., and an exciting game against Wisconsin, we're faced with one question - which LSU will show up? This game against MSU will really show us which LSU is the one which LSU fans (like myself) will have to suffer with during SEC play. As VU04 just covered, State surely will play more to LSU's weaknesses than Wisconsin did. I now come to the simple fact that the chance of rain in Death Valley? Never. LSU barely loses at home, and so I'm calling this as another potential Death Valley classic.
Les Pulls out another ridiculous play to win the game by less than a score, State covers the spread.