Vanderbilt can exceed their win today from 2014 with a win on Saturday. They'll just have to get past the #18 team in the nation to get there.
The Commodores will travel to Texas to take on Houston this Halloween, and they'll have to [insert tired trick or treat joke here] to pick up the upset win. Vandy is a 12-point underdog against the undefeated Cougars, and they'll have to find a way to shut down the nation's #4 scoring offense. The 'Dores will have to be especially wary of Greg Ward Jr. The dual-threat quarterback averages more than 344 yards per game thanks to precise passing and a contain-ruining scrambling game. He'll keep Stephen Weatherly and Nehemiah Mitchell stuck to their posts at outside linebacker all day on Saturday.
However, if there's any team on the Cougar schedule that can shut their offense down, it's Vanderbilt. The Commodores have allowed only 35 points in their last three games and will bring a top-20 defense to their AAC opponent this weekend. Houston handled another strong defense earlier in the year when they beat Louisville 34-31 on the road, but they'll have to prove they still have that edge after grinding against AAC pincushions in their last four games.
So who will come out ahead in this battle of elite offense versus elite defense? Let's confer with the experts* and pontificate on Saturday's spooky-scary outcome.
Christian D'Andrea: Well, first off Happy Halloween:
Vanderbilt picked an appropriately scary opponent given the date; Houston has been able to find a way to score big on every opponent they've faced this season. The only problem is that six of those teams were Tennessee Tech, Texas State, Tulsa, SMU, Tulane, and Central Florida. That really only leaves us with a 34-31 win against Louisville to gauge what the Cougars can do against Vandy.
That Cardinal defense is no joke; in fact they outrank the Commodores' stout unit in total defense (by just over one yard per game). Houston had minimal struggles against UL - a pair of three-and-outs, one other punt - but they really began to shine as the game wore on. Ward and the Cougars took advantage of a tiring Louisville team to score on their final three possessions of the game. That, along with a kickoff return for a touchdown, sucked all the home team momentum out of Papa John's Stadium and led to the week two upset.
A tired defense is something that had plagued Vanderbilt in 2014, but enhanced depth and a more efficient offense has kept Derek Mason from sticking with a single unit for long stretches through the second half. They'll have to sustain drives to keep their defenders fresh; Ward's hyperactive running game is just the thing that can shred an exhausted unit. If the Commodores are held to a high number of three-and-outs it will be just as damaging for their defense as their offense.
In the end, I have no doubt that Vanderbilt can slow down Houston like they did another high-powered mid-major offense - Western Kentucky. However, the problem this team ran into against the Hilltoppers was scoring enough points to take advantage of the breaks their defense gave them. While I think Kyle Shurmur has all the tools to run this offense, he'll now be facing a defense that has game footage of him that they can break down. I think the Cougars will get to him and keep this Commodore offense from finally clicking - and that will be fatal to their upset chances.
The Pick: Houston 24, Vanderbilt 20
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Georgia (+2.5) over FLORIDA. Appropriately, Halloween is the day that the Gators season turns back into a pumpkin.
Tom Stephenson: Before the season started, I had this game circled on my calendar, mostly because I happen to live about five miles (if that) from Houston's football stadium but also because at that time, I suspected that it would be a game that Vanderbilt could win.
And now, Houston is 7-0. So much for that.
On the other hand, the Commodores are easily the second-best team that the Cougars have played so far. Maybe even the best, depending on what you think of Louisville, and Vanderbilt easily fields the best defense Houston has seen this year. And while the Cougars have looked like world-beaters against the likes of Texas State and Tulane, they were probably lucky to come away with a win against the one real team they've played this year (S&P+ pegs their win expectancy in the Louisville game at 32%.) What's more, Vanderbilt will be playing with a new quarterback and newfound confidence following their first SEC win since 2013. I'll be at this game, weather permitting, and I'm calling a Commodore victory.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 17, Houston 14
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: KENTUCKY (+9) over Tennessee. Because the Viles will blow this in the end, you just know it's coming.
VandyTigerPhD: I'm really thinking I shouldn't write anything this weekend. After all, no prediction and no tailgate - we won our first SEC game under Mason. In fact, if you think about it, we've been terrible since I started doing predictions. COINCIDENCE?
So I'm just throwing random shit out here in hopes it does not offend the football Gods either direction.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 6 - Houston 1. Yes, you can get 1 point in football. It's called a PAT-safety. Granted, it would take two turnovers from the team blocking the PAT to get it, but whatever.
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Why would anyone NOT take UK and the points here?