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Thursday Predictions: Western Kentucky at Vanderbilt

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The college football season kicks off on Thursday night when the high-octane Western Kentucky Hilltoppers head to Nashville. Can Vanderbilt derail their dark horse BCS bid before it can even begin?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt opens their season at home tonight against Western Kentucky, and Derek Mason can only hope that it goes better than his last season opener.

Mason's first-ever game as an NCAA head coach went about as poorly as it could have. A rumbling thunderstorm delayed the game more than two hours past its scheduled starting time, then Temple - a team brought to Nashville for an easy matchup against an FBS program - wound up thrashing the Commodores on their home field. To make matters worse, Vanderbilt was penalized for wearing improper jerseys with "Anchor Down" printed on the nameplate, only to have that penalty overturned when Athletic Director David Williams presented officials with a printed e-mail that seemingly gave the team permission to use the bad luck jerseys.

It was surreal. And it was the beginning of the Derek Mason era.

Now, the second-year coach is banking on a revival behind a program filled with returning starters and four-star prospects. He was quick to dismiss last year's 3-9 season in a Tuesday press conference, and he's hoping that a win on Thursday will help convince fans to do the same. Standing in his way is a talented Hilltopper team that will boast one of the nation's best offenses this fall.

Brandon Doughty is looking to start off his senior season with a bang, and a big performance against the Commodores could be the beginning of his Heisman campaign. Will he be able to sling his way to 400+ passing yards against Mason's defense? Or will Vanderbilt bow up and send WKU back to Bowling Green with a loss? Let's get to the predictions.

Christian D'Andrea: I love that Western Kentucky is on Vanderbilt's schedule in 2015. I hate that this game is the team's season opener.

The Hilltoppers are a test for any team in the SEC. Their quarterback threw for more yards last season than anyone else in the country. Their tailback was a relative slacker, because he finished only 18th in the NCAA in rushing yards. Both those guys are back, and a victory over the Commodores would give them the beginnings of a dark horse New Year's Bowl campaign. WKU isn't just dangerous, they're also motivated. This 2015 team needs to make a major impact before losing their best players to graduation next spring.

Western Kentucky is the more experienced team, but they won't be the more athletic one. Vanderbilt brings a ton of talent to both sides of the ball this season. While most of those players are underclassmen, 18 of their projected starters for Thursday have started games for this team in the past. The defensive front seven is loaded with breakout players - Caleb Azubike, Adam Butler, Jay Woods, and Stephen Weatherly could all be All-SEC selections by the end of the season. The Hilltoppers will have to put a lot of faith in their offensive line against the Commodores. One slip up could lead to major losses in the WKU backfield.

No matter how well the Vandy defense performs, the spotlight is going to be on the team's offense. Andy Ludwig has his hands full in resuscitating one of the worst units in FBS football in 2014. Mason has promised stability at the quarterback position, but that won't matter if an embattled offensive line hasn't made major improvements since last fall. Losing their two most talented players - Joe Townsend to graduation and Andrew Jelks to a knee injury - certainly won't help things. If they can't protect their quarterback or open lanes for Ralph Webb then the Commodores won't stand a chance in their season opener.

I don't think it will be that grim, but I do think Vandy's starting QB - Johnny McCrary or Wade Freebeck - will be tested throughout the game. Ultimately, they'll show enough improvement to hang some points on a below-average 'Topper defense, and that will provide some optimism for 2015. The biggest question, for me, is whether or not this team can sustain the defensive improvement that they showed when Mason started calling out the plays in last year's game against Tennessee.

Ultimately, I can't back Derek Mason's defense based on one game from 2014. Stopping a WKU team that scored over 53 points per game in their final four contests is no minor task. Vanderbilt will be better, but I think they'll need more time to gel before they really show off that growth.

The Pick: Western Kentucky 34, Vanderbilt 31

The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI (+21) over Mississippi State. So. Miss. brought in every transfer that they could get their hands on in order to climb out of a neverending hole of football garbage. It's short term planning to raise the team's profile in the long run. I think it pays off here - even if it's just a case of covering the spread.

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VandyTigerPhD: I wasn't feeling great about this game even a month ago.  CDA has covered all the important points, but the heart of it is WKU is a high powered offense, averaging 350+ passing yards per game and ~150+ rushing yards per game last year.  You can point out the inferior defenses all you'd like, but hey, guess what?  We're one of those "not so good" defenses too.  I hope our defensive unit (which is far better than the offensive unit) can prove me wrong, but after  "A Clockwork Vandy" I'm not certain.  Our DBs improved a lot over the course of the season, but not enough to make me feel they are ready.  Our front 7 should do a decent enough job keeping the running game in check though.

Andy Ludwig, I'm keeping notes on you.  This offense was abhorrent last year, due in large part to mismanagement.  Webb was under utilized, and our players were being asked to play like a team they weren't.  While it clicked at times, it was just downright asinine.  This is your offense now, completely.  I was really impressed with the way you called out all the QBs when you got here.  It showed me you're not afraid to tell the guys how it is, and I very much approve of Spurdog method of call outs.  It also showed me something else - you recognized a deficiency and weren't afraid to comment on it.  Again, a Spurdog like tactic which shows me you demand excellence.  I want to see you demand excellence.

I want to be proven wrong here.  I really do.  Making predictions about footbaw teams before even seeing a snap is always hard to do unless you're one of those people paid to watch camp day in and day out.  I have no idea how the players look right now, so all my judgements are based on last year and what we've heard said.  All the words in the world mean absolutely nothing now.   Let's see some action.  I hope I'm wrong here, but I'm predicting another disappointing start to a football season here...

The Pick: WKU 38 - VU 10.  I refuse to pick our offense to do anything until they can prove to me they can.  Our offense sputters with entirely too many 3 and outs giving WKU a chance to tire out a defense that's already probably mismatched at WR/DB.

The Upset: FULL ON HOMERISM! Or maybe anti-homerism because it is an affront to all things good and holy with the Universe that Ohio State is champion, let alone was even allowed in the playoff.  They are a despicable football team, and I am allowing all reason and logic to go by the wayside.  VATECH will welcome the paper champions with a stunning upset at Blacksburg, overcoming a 12-point spread.  That's my STONE COLD LOCK OF THE CENTURY.... of the WEEK.

Oh, and UNC is going to beat USC, duh.

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Andrew VU '04: I just can't shake the feeling that Derek Mason is 90s era Rich Kotite 2.0.  Though many downplayed the odd press conference tid bit Mason revealed this week - that he had lost his "What to do in Vital Game Situations" Cheat Sheet - the fact that he cited finding it amongst his football library as a positive, as if not having this sheet was the reason he was so befuddled and comically unprepared in game-day situations last year, and having it this year will be a necessary safety net is, well, asinine.

Many successful coaches compile such a sheet, and the really successful ones have binders and computers filled with plans for exactly what they will do every step of the way if they ever receive a head coaching gig, so having the sheet is not the problem.

Losing it is not the problem, either.  Things get lost.  Should something important be backed up?  Absolutely.  However, something as easily re-done as "coaching strategies in key situations" should be, well, RE-FUCKING-DONE IF YOU LOSE THE CON SARN THING, RIGHT?!?!?!

Sorry for yelling, it's just I've seen this before.  In the 90s, Rich Kotite was Peter Principled up to Head Coach of the Eagles.  When he failed miserably, he was given a 2nd chance as HC of the Jets.  Both times he proved those who hired him must have had their heads hets up their collective asses.  The parallel with this situation is this: while leading the Eagles to a season of perdition, Kotite once allowed himself to be beaten by a little wetness and a frightening lack of foresight.  Rather than take the time to laminate his play sheets, Kotite once mismanaged a crucial extra point v. 2 point conversion decision because he couldn't read his conversion table when some light rain ruined the sheet.  Further, he then admitted it to the Philly media as if this absolved him from responsibility.  See the parallels?

Had Mason found this sheet before the Temple game, does anyone doubt it would have been rained on and rendered illegible?  I sure don't.

On the flip side, Jeff Brohm is a coach on the rise, is an offensive mastermind in the making, has a 6th year QB who outpaced all other FBS QBs in passing yards and touchdowns (by a good margin on the last one), and won a hard fought bowl game against a pretty good Central Michigan Chippewas team.  Though his defense is a sieve, and we will surely possess the better collection of athletes, my crystal ball can't see Brohm's offense being held below 40, and there's no way in hell we score 40.  Further, this is not exactly a massive home field advantage, as WKU is 30 minutes down the road from Nashville, and will likely fill at least half the stadium with a series of amorphous bright red Grimaces.  Sorry, but if it goes the way I expect it to, we're in for another hard-drinking season.

It's not all bad, this week, though.  This exists, and it's the best thing the world has ever made.

The Pick: Western Kentucky 44, Vanderbilt 27.

The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: UNC (+2.5) over the SOUTH CACKALACKY GAME PENISES.  You have no idea how much I want to pick Louisville to upset Auburn, but it's just not likely.  When Steve Spurrier unleashed his satiric anti-coach-speak rant earlier this summer, while it was quite entertaining, I detected a bit of honesty in it.  In short, there's a good chance he was using humor to deflect from telling the truth about his team - that they're just not very good this year.  UNC is also not very good, and their entire team will be tired out from having to go to actual classes (in theory) instead of getting no-show work like an Italian living in New Jersey working in Waste Management.  I don't like them at all, but if I've got to pick a likely upset, I'll take the upper cackalacky team of idiots over the lower cackalacky team of idiots.

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VUFanInTX: As CDA and PhD mentioned, the defense will be critical to this game.  I have to believe one of two things will happen:  1) our defense will be better than advertised, making Doughty rush passes and make mistakes or 2) the defense will invariably shows signs of competence but still not be as aggressive or as disciplined as it needs to be.   I have to believe that Derek Mason did not forget how to be a defensive coach, though apparently he may have needed a lost checklist to do so (WHY SAY THAT DEREK, WHY?!).

On the other side of the ball, WKU's defense might be what this offense needs.  If we can shorten the game, sustain long drives and mix in timely throws and sweeps, we should be able to score on this defense - ALOT.  They might have been as bad as our offense last year.  If Coach Ludwig can get anything out of the QB position and stop WKU from selling out on the run, we will put up points in bunches.  The question will be if it will be enough.

If, as Coach Mason wants us to believe, last year's issues of youth on the roster mixed with poor execution from the coaches have been resolved, then the product on the field MUST be better this year.  If, however, there is a deeper issue (talent, discipline, chemistry, or basic coaching competence) that has not been identified, this game may signal it.  From the end of Jimmy's second year, I tagged Coach Mason as the guy I wanted here whenever Jimmy left.  I still believe in his abilities (albeit with some hair pulling).  As Coach Mason says, LET'S RIDE!

The Pick: Vandy to win 38-31.

The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: UNC over the 'Cocks.  While I do not think USC will be as bad as everyone is calling them to be, I just don't think they have it Week 1.  I think it will take a couple of weeks for the defense to gel and OBC to settle on his QB1.  I think UNC wins a close one.

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Tom Stephenson: While much of the focus has been on the WKU offense, let's talk for a minute about the WKU defense.  The Hilltoppers allowed 39.9 ppg last year, ranking 124th (out of 128 teams) in the FBS.  And that came against a steady diet of C-USA programs, a couple of MAC teams and Army and Navy.  Illinois, the lone power five team on the schedule last year, put up 42 points on the Hilltoppers -- and needless to say, the Illini were not very good last year.  Old Dominion put up 51 on them (albeit in a loss.)  The point is, even a Karl Dorrell-coached offense with Stephen Rivers at quarterback could put up 28 points on Western Kentucky.  Minimum.

The Andy Ludwig era should get off to a good start against a porous defense.  Even if the new quarterback (whoever he might be) has some struggles, Ralph Webb should run wild on this team, while the defense I'm predicting will make just enough stops to come away with the W.

The Pick: Vanderbilt 45, Western Kentucky 35

SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Arizona State (+3.5) over Texas A&M.  This technically qualifies as an upset even though the Sun Devils are ranked #15 in the country and the Aggies are unranked, but since the game's being played in College Station South (a.k.a. Houston) Vegas has A&M favored.  I just don't see A&M having made enough improvements on the defensive side of the ball.

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