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Saturday Predictions: Western Kentucky at Vanderbilt

These aren’t the Hilltoppers of old.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Western Kentucky Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Western Kentucky teams of days passed — that is, 2015 and 2016, had a knack for playing Vanderbilt tough. Fortunately for a Commodore team in desperate need of a win, this is a very different Hilltopper team.

WKU is 5-3 on the season, but the five teams they’ve beaten have only three combined wins among them. That includes two victories over UAB and one over UMass.. You can bring up the Minutemens’ ability to play teams from Tennessee embarrassingly close all you’d like, that’s still a mind-numblingly bad lineup.

And that’s great news for Vandy, because this is the three-game home stretch in which the ‘Dores either turn their season around, or burn this ship down to the water line. Derek Mason has followed up his 3-0 start with five straight SEC losses, only two of which were close. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig will have plenty of questions to answer after a perplexing two-minute drill left the program on the wrong side of a 34-27 defeat.

Western Kentucky should provide some shelter from that storm. Kyle Shurmur, after throwing four touchdowns last week AND STILL somehow losing, will have the chance to pick apart a secondary whose top passers have come from the Illinoises and Ball States of the world. Ralph Webb can regain his chops against a run defense that gave up 6.7 yards per carry to Florida Atlantic.

Lose Saturday, and torpedo the last remaining sliver of hope developed over the past two seasons. Win, and get back on track for a second-straight postseason appearance.

Christian D’Andrea: The Hilltoppers are a 5-3 team that plays like an 0-8 one on their worst days. While the Western Kentucky secondary has been moderately successful this fall, the team’s complete lack of a pass rush — no one in the FBS has tallied fewer sacks in 2017 than Western Kentucky — should give a rising Kyle Shurmur all the time he needs to pick his spots and march the Vandy offense downfield.

Granted, we said the same thing about Ole Miss and the Rebel-Sharks sacked Shurmur seven times, so who the hell knows.

When it comes to running the ball, Western Kentucky is allowing around 4.9 yards per carry -- which should provide a solid bounce-back setting for Webb. The senior tailback has had just one breakout game on the season, but with the Hilltopper defense likely focused on stopping Shurmur’s hot hand, he’ll have all the opportunities he’ll need to notch his second 100+ yard performance of the fall.

On the defensive side of the ball, a not-very-good Illinois D limited WKU to seven points, which I’d like to be the goal for Saturday’s contest. Mike White is a perfectly cromulent quarterback, but the Toppers’ lack of a run game should allow the Vandy secondary to load up and flourish. Of course, it would be extremely 2017 VU to allow an opponent that’s run for 2.6 yards per carry this fall to break away for 300 rush yards, but I digress.

There’s a lot that can go right on Saturday, and just a little that can go wrong. As much as my instincts want to focus on that second path, this is where the turnaround begins.

The pick: Vanderbilt 38, Western Kentucky 17

The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Southern Miss over TENNESSEE (-7.5). If Butch has to go, let’s at least have some fun with it.