Vanderbilt football took a step forward in 2015. Derek Mason’s embattled team posted wins over Kentucky and Missouri to begin the rebound from an 0-8 bottoming out in league play the previous year. Now, he can notch a major accomplishment on Thursday by winning his first-ever season opener as a head coach.
Vanderbilt will host a rebuilding South Carolina team on September 1, giving the SEC its first conference game. The Gamecocks are in their first year under former Florida coach Will Muschamp, and the defensive wizard will have plenty of problems to address with the team’s offense. First and foremost; selecting a starting quarterback. As of Wednesday night, Vanderbilt’s pass rushers still didn’t know exactly who they’d be chasing down on Thursday.
Christian D’Andrea: South Carolina always seems like a winnable game, and then you look at the historical record between these teams: Gamecocks 21, Commodores 4. That seems more suited to Florida than USC, but it turns out lesser Carolina has absolutely owned Vandy since joining the league.
But Thursday’s game won’t feature the usual versions of either team. South Carolina is basically 2014-15 Vanderbilt. The defense is probably going to be pretty good, but no one knows who the quarterback is and the offensive playbook just says “HOPE FOR TARGETING PENALTIES” in size 52 font. Vanderbilt’s offense has fewer questions and greater stability, though not by much. Kyle Shurmur has plenty to prove against USC, and Ralph Webb will only be able to bail him out so much.
Shurmur is going to be the focal point of Thursday night. If he shows off the accuracy and composure that has defined his spring and summer practices, he can push the Commodores to a comfortable victory. 24 points is likely enough to start the season 1-0, and that’s a modest goal for a sophomore quarterback appearing in just his seventh NCAA game.
There’s less unease about Vanderbilt’s defense. While pressuring the quarterback is a grey area, Mason’s 3-4 hybrid setup features one of the nation’s best secondaries thanks to the presence of guys like Zach Cunningham, Nigel Bowden, Oren Burks, and Torren McGaster. They’re a tall task for any opponent to handle, let alone one that will be naming its starting quarterback via a game of potatoes before the coin toss.
Ultimately, I think Shurmur is good enough to get this team three touchdowns (two on the ground, one passing) and hit that 24-point barrier.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 24, South Carolina 16
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: UNC (+2.5) over Georgia. North Carolina kicked off its 2015 campaign with an inexplicable loss to a 3-9 SEC team. Now they’re playing an even better team in Atlanta and oh my goodness I can’t even get behind my own pick today
Tom Stephenson: It’s Week 1, which means that we haven’t actually seen Vanderbilt play football yet... which means we can all be optimistic before the reality of the season sets in. Sunshine, unicorns, and rainbows!
So we get to open the season facing a team that went 3-9 last year, then replaced Steve Spurrier with Will Muschamp, the football coaching equivalent of going from President Abraham Lincoln to President Andrew Johnson, and this is something that actually happened and we remember how that turned out. Muschamp has decided to open his career at South Carolina by moving last year’s most productive quarterback to wide receiver for no particular reason, then naming a former walk-on and two true freshmen (one of whom enrolled in college a year early) as co-starters. Yeah, this sounds like it will work.
HOWEVER, I have been reminded by several South Carolina fans that (a) South Carolina has a lot of talent (according to recruiting rankings, anyway, because they sure as hell didn’t appear to have much talent outside Pharoh Cooper if you were actually watching the games last year), (b) South Carolina has won seven games in a row against Vanderbilt, and (c) South Carolina leads the all-time series 21-4. To which I respond, YOU JUST INTENTIONALLY HIRED WILL MUSCHAMP. Vanderbilt’s defense will shut down South Carolina’s offense and Vanderbilt will actually have an offense themselves this year, because blind optimism.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 24, South Carolina 7.
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Appalachian State (+21) over TENNESSEE. Seriously, does anyone think Butch Jones won’t find a way to screw this up?
VandyTigerPhD: USC is one of three SEC teams this season we have a reasonable chance of beating this year. Our defense is unquestionably strong, victory is entirely dependent on our offense being more watchable than the movie L’uomo Puma. Now that I think about it, a wienie man in dockers with the power of a flying cat seems about the kind of superhero Vanderbilt would end up with.
USC is very much like us (they’re just not used to it). It’s easy to then predict a low scoring affair given we have two great defenses and two bad offenses. However, when you remember how many times USC and Vanderbilt gifted scoring opportunities to their opponents, it’s hard to get a good bead on what the score is going to look like. Finally, we both have a lot to prove though coaches and players alike; and, as CDA observed, neither team will look their normal selves.
With all these question marks, pretty much any prediction can be argued. I’ll go with Vanderbilt eeking one out thanks to the defense.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 17, South Carolina 13 (Note: not predicting a missed PAT)
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: While I will share Tom’s joy in seeing THEM fail to cover the spread against AppSt., I will instead go with LSU failing to cover the ridiculous 10 point spread @ Lambeau field against Wisconsin. Like us, there’s lots of rumors of LSU’s QB Brandon Harris being able to throw... I’ll believe it when I see it.