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Saturday Predictions: Middle Tennessee at Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt can’t afford to lose this one, but the Blue Raiders aren’t an easy out.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Texas-San Antonio Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt’s season opener started with promise. It only took about an hour before devolving into Derek Mason’s standard in Nashville. Two quarterbacks played, no one but the Commodores’ tailbacks could move the ball, and a slowly gassing defense gave up backbreaking gains on plays it shut down two quarters earlier. South Carolina rallied with 13 straight points and the Vandy offense couldn’t find the extra gear it needed to kick off 2016 with a win.

Now Mason and his staff face nearly the same exact questions they did in 2014 and 2015. They can begin answering them on Saturday against Middle Tennessee State. Vanderbilt broke a three-game losing streak against the Blue Raiders last year when Johnny McCrary erased a 10-point deficit in the game’s final eight minutes. Now, All-Conference USA quarterback Brent Stockstill will look to avenge that loss by upsetting the ‘Dores in their home stadium.

Christian D’Andrea: Picking Vanderbilt as a 4.5-point favorite doesn’t seem like a logical bet. The Blue Raiders don’t have the same defensive chops the Gamecocks did, but Stockstill is a much more dangerous presence at quarterback than either of the players USC slotted in behind center last week. Ten points won’t be enough to win Saturday’s game, but can you trust this team to exceed last week’s point total after coming to the numbing realization nothing changed from November of 2015?

Fortunately, there are two compelling arguments for the Vandy offense taking a step forward against Middle Tennessee. Ralph Webb and Khari Blasingame were capable of driving this team’s offense in stretches, and even just a whiff of competent passing could push the ‘Dores into the red zone. If this team isn’t pinned deep in its own territory — where Andy Ludwig gets to get either too predictable or too cute — Vandy’s running back platoon can carry the team to a win.

That’s a shaky strategy, regardless of how talented the team’s backs are, but it’s basically all Vanderbilt has to work with right now. Darrius Sims and DeAndre Woods could return this week and give the offense some extra weapons, but after gaining just 3.2 yards per pass attempt against South Carolina I’m not sure it will make much of a difference.

The team’s defense should be as good as expected, but it won’t make a difference if that offense doesn’t improve. It should against a limited MTSU defense — the question is by how much?

The Pick: Vanderbilt 17, MTSU 13. Let’s run it back.

The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Arkansas (+7.5) over TCU. The Horned Frogs can sling the ball, but just gave up a basketball score to South Dakota State. Arkansas has to do work on the road and will have to hypercharge an offense that only scored 21 points against Louisiana Tech last week, but Bret Bielema has the talent to keep pace with a Big 12 foe.

VandyTigerPhD: The offense did not give me any reason to change my concerns about their ability to score. Fortunately, we’re also playing a team with a much worse defense. UNfortunately, we’re playing a team we’ve got a history of close games with. A team that treats as a Super Bowl. Fortunately, as CDA said, we have two running backs that can actually move the ball for us. MTSU has a considerably weaker defense, but that’s no guarantee.

My worry is whether we’re going to do something dumb strategy wise and/or do enough three and outs in a row that the defense gets gassed. This game actually feels harder than the USC game to pick.

The Pick: It’s hard to do this, but I’m going to err on the side of the running game actually doing us proud. Vandy 14 - MTSU 10.

The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: VaTech (+11) @ THEM. Tennessee had to cheat to beat Appalachian State last week by advancing a fumble forward into the endzone. Of course, it wasn’t called because of course THEY get the call. No one can blame me for saying at minimum they won’t cover this spread.

Tom Stephenson: Oh good, Middle is on the schedule. Middle Tennessee has an offense that’s pretty legitimate. Not an SEC offense, mind you, but it’s an offense that can score points and keep things interesting. Brent Stockstill is a legitimately good quarterback, though they don’t have much of a running game and their defense is strictly meh.

That said, Vanderbilt faced this same offense last year and held them to 13 points. Vanderbilt may not have improved over last season, but last season’s team was good enough to beat Middle and this year’s team should be as well.

The Pick: Vanderbilt 20, MTSU 14.

The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Arkansas State (+20) over AUBURN. What on earth did anyone see in Auburn last week that makes you think they should be a three-touchdown favorite over anyone?