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Saturday Predictions: Vanderbilt at Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech handled Boston College’s ferocious defense. So what can Vandy do that the Eagles couldn’t?

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt is one win away from having its first-ever winning record under Derek Mason. Standing in the Commodores’ way is a hungry Georgia Tech team eager to play Jermaine Dupri for the weekend and welcome them to Atlanta.

A 1-1 Vandy team faces a long road to bowl eligibility, but a road win against the Yellow Jackets wouldn’t just make its path to six wins easier — it may just be the biggest victory in Mason’s tenure in Nashville. His teams have yet to defeat a Power 5 opponent on the road. They’ve never beaten a non-conference Power 5 program.

Derailing a 2-0 Tech team would check a lot of boxes off Mason’s list, but it won’t be easy. The Yellow Jackets outlasted a tough Boston College defense in Dublin before rolling over Mercer in week two. They’ve proven they can handle a lockdown offense and emerge victorious. Now, they’ll have the momentum of a home crowd behind them as they aim for a fourth straight victory over their former conference mates.

Christian D’Andrea: If Kyle Shurmur completes more than 55 percent of his passes, avoids interceptions, and throws for more than 200 yards, Vanderbilt wins this game. Unfortunately, the sophomore quarterback has done that exactly zero times in his seven games as a Commodore. Shurmur has the talent to meet those modest milestones, but he’ll need help from his offensive line against a defense that will be significantly better than the one Vandy dropped 47 points on last week.

The Yellow Jackets will test Vanderbilt, but they aren’t as accomplished as the South Carolina team that held the ‘Dores to 10 points in the season opener. Georgia Tech ranked just 79th in total defense last season. It’s 45th through two games this season, but those came against FCS program Mercer and a Boston College team that has served as a punishment for hopeful high school quarterbacks the past three seasons.

That means Shurmur will have opportunities. After Derek Mason proved his faith in the young quarterback despite a shaky start in week two, he’s prepared to take advantage of them. Shurmur made the right reads against MTSU, checked down to open receivers, and showed off an improved touch on his downfield passes. He’ll need to be even better on Saturday to carry Vandy to a win, but his performance in week two showed he can get there.

If he can’t, Vandy can still turn to a deadly tailback platoon to carry this offense in stretches. Ralph Webb is currently the nation’s No. 4 rusher. Expecting another 200+ yard day is unreasonable, but there’s no reason he can’t gash a Tech offense that’s allowed more than 130 rush yards per game against underwhelming opponents. He’ll be bolstered by Khari Blasingame, who seems like a safe bet to find the end zone in his third straight game.

If Webb and Blasingame live up to expectations and Shurmur protects the ball while providing occasional defense-testing completions downfield, Vanderbilt can win this game. With the confidence and momentum of a 47-point explosion the previous week, I say they will.

The Pick: Vanderbilt 24, Georgia Tech 22. How do the Yellow Jackets get to 22? Several special teams abominations, I imagine.

The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Vandy’s a 6.5-point underdog on Saturday, but if we’re not counting that, let’s go East Carolina (-3.5) over South Carolina.

VandyTigerPhD: I was moderately pleased with the result of the MTSU game. The offense did move, though it took literal divine intervention to get it going. Shurmur may have only throw for barely over 100 yards, but something clicked after the delay. Short, modest throws are always a good method to get a QB’s confidence back up. It’s especially true when you don’t have NFL WRs out there to save your butt.

Nonetheless, Shurmur’s performance after the delay really helped take the pressure off our run first offense. That’s what we are. We are going to be a run first offense, and use that to open the passing game. Expect to see a lot of power and counter trey runs against Tech. The whole point of runs like that is to hit a LB with a lineman and get him tired. He can’t cover the middle as well then and we can get some solid short-mid range throws attacking the middle that way.

Passing games are sexy and make headlines, but our identity right now is a team that has two great RBs who can carry the offense. All we need from Shurmur is to keep calm. Another game without interceptions will be a big help, but what we need most from him is to just make a few throws to keep that defense honest. We may not even need 200 yards from him (though I’m not turning that down).

I’m not nearly as worried about the GT offense as I suppose I should be. Why? Because despite your feelings on Coach Mason, he has done a phenomenal job keeping offenses in check. We’ve played bigger offenses than GT and surprised a lot of people. The big wrinkle is how we’re going to handle the triple option. I’m moderately optimistic.

The Pick: Vanderbilt 31 - Georgia Tech 24. You may argue that’s a little low for Tech considering CSU scored 20 with inferior talent and a triple option. My counter to that would be that while the talent is better at Tech, our defense has gotten way better too. 4 scores for Tech seems fair. I’m hoping our explosion against Middle will lead to some big confidence in an offense that sorely needed it.

SEC Upset Pick of the Week: I’m going to regret this, but I’m going to go with Alabama failing to cover an absurd 11 point spread over Mississippi. Too much recent history there for me to not be tempted to look like a moron with that pick.

Tom Stephenson: Did you know Georgia Tech runs the option? And that most college football teams in 2016 don’t run the option? And that Vanderbilt doesn’t see the option very often? And that Vanderbilt has only had a week to prepare for it?

Ahem. With one week to prepare, Mercer, an FCS team, held Georgia Tech and its vaunted option attack to 35 points. Granted, the Bears might be a decent FCS team; the week before, they faced The Citadel, slayers of the Game Penises, and lost by just one point. Still, this is an offense that has scored 52 points in two games after scoring 17 on Boston College — granted, BC has a great defense (and an offense worse than Vanderbilt’s, but still.) So it seems that these are no longer Paul Johnson’s salad days, when the Yellow Jackets would regularly hang 40 or more on hapless opponents.

Really, forget the option for a moment: the important question going into this game is whether Vanderbilt can generate enough offense to beat the Yellow Jackets. It is, in other words, the same question it always is. While the offense did score 47 points against Middle Tennessee last Saturday, (a) Middle has a bad defense, (b) the Commodores generated just 4.71 yards per play, and (c) a lot of the scoring resulted from short fields created by big plays from defense and special teams. In other words, on an afternoon where Middle wasn’t screwing up so much, Vanderbilt might have scored more like 28. Which is still better than anything we saw in 2014 and 2015, of course, but that wasn’t the offensive explosion we thought it was.

Ultimately, I think Vanderbilt will slow Georgia Tech’s offense down enough to give themselves a puncher’s chance in this one (read: cover that 7.5-point spread.) But there are still too many question marks on the offensive side of the ball for me to pick Vanderbilt to win this one.

The Pick: Georgia Tech 21, Vanderbilt 17.

SEC Upset Pick of the Week: MISSOURI (+6.5) over Georgia. Last week’s narrow scrape against Nicholls showed that the Bulldogs still have some kinks to work out, while Mizzou managed to go for 61 points (against a hapless opponent... but still.) I’ll call for Mizzou to throw the East race into chaos with a win.