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Saturday Predictions: Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee State

The Commodores return to the field against a kinda-sorta rival.

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

As always, football season snuck up on us. While we were enjoying the sun, trips to the beach, and the deluge of summer weddings, Derek Mason and his team were pushing sleds through the humid July air in Nashville, working to build on last season’s six-win campaign. Vanderbilt returns a long list of starters looking to return to college football’s postseason in 2017. The first step on that long journey begins in Murfreesboro Saturday night.

The Commodores will open their season with a road game against Middle Tennessee State, a solid mid-major test to set the tone for the year. An emphatic win, like last season’s 47-24 victory over the Blue Raiders, could erase some of the doubts that follow the program into each September. With starters returning at each skill position of a rebuilt offense, Vandy has the chance to not just be successful in 2017, but to be exciting in the process.

Facing off with the Blue Raiders — a team that allowed opponents to score 34 points or more nine times last fall — could be just the spark the team needs. Here’s how the Anchor of Gold staff sees Week 1 shaking out.

Christian D’Andrea: The Vanderbilt defense has a major hurdle to overcome after All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham departed for the NFL, but I have faith in Derek Mason’s defense — no unit has been as consistent in his three years at the helm. Instead, the 2017 season will hinge on one man — Kyle Shurmur.

Shurmur was a major pickup on the recruiting trail, a four-star passer with NFL bloodlines and the frame/mechanics to be the team’s best quarterback since Jay Cutler. His first two seasons in black and gold have had their share of peaks and valleys, but a dismal start to 2016 gave way to an eye-opening late-season leap. Here’s how he finished the year, courtesy of SB Nation CFB guru Bill Connelly:

  • Shurmur, first 7 games (regular season): 51% completion rate, 10.4 yards per completion, 98.5 passer rating
  • Shurmur, last 5 games (regular season): 62% completion rate, 13.9 yards per completion, 141.7 passer rating

That’s great news -- except it’s invalidated by Shurmur’s awful postseason performance. North Carolina State made him look foolish, forcing him into three interceptions and a woeful 3.3 yards-per-attempt number in an anemic offensive performance.

That was not the kind of lasting impression he wanted to leave, but reports out of training camp suggest he’s continued to grow into his role behind center. Even better, 2017 will be the first season where he’s the unquestioned starter — there’s no chance of getting usurped while holding an early lead over a conference rival this fall. Shurmur’s game ebbs and flows with his confidence, and the fact he’s now the team’s rock-solid No. 1 option should do wonders in that department.

The bigger question is whether his offensive line can continue to offer solid protection despite graduating Barrett Gouger, Andrew Jelks, and Will Holden. Justin Skule and Devin Cochran will hold down the tackle positions, and I’m excited as hell to see what Cochran can do out there. If that duo can keep Shurmur’s pocket from collapsing, we could see a repeat of last year’s blowout win.

Unfortunately, I see some growing pains on the horizon. While Ralph Webb should be able to pick up where he left off, early struggles will slow the Commodore offense before the timing finally clicks. Vandy trails at the half, 10-7, then rallies to start 2017 off on the right foot.

The Pick: Vanderbilt 24, Middle Tennessee State 20

The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Florida over Michigan. Yes, I know the Gators have had to suspend just about every important offensive player they’ve got, but I want a Jim Harbaugh freakout, and I want it NOW.

VandyTigerPhD: The common refrain this week is that we’re a team that has never won an opener with Coach Mason. Without re-hashing the tired old arguments of the past, the big thing these analyses miss is that we never really got going in those first two seasons. Moreover, it took the off-week against a 1-AA team to get us going the second half of last season. I’m watching the game against THEM as I write this, and if this team shows up, we’re going to play well against MTSU Saturday. I happen to believe that this team finally believes in itself and that we’re going to win it. They also surely understand that this is the game that sets the tone for the whole year. A strong start is essential.

The Pick: I’m going to pull back from last year’s 47-24 drubbing, however, and peg us at winning 38-26 in a bit of a slow start but a solid win nonetheless.

The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: To hell with it, I’m going with the chaos reigns pick of #3 FSU shocking the #1 Crimson Tide to start the season off!

Tom Stephenson: It’s been six years since the last time Vanderbilt started the season 1-0.

Six. Fucking. Years.

That’s right — the 9-4 teams of 2012 (South Carolina) and 2013 (Ole Miss) both started the year with an L. The 2014 season opener, well, I don’t remember that happening and you can’t prove that I do. Then there were the heartbreakers against Western Kentucky (2015) and South Carolina, again (2016.) Of course, with one exception, the games were all close, which suggests that this is more like some kind of curse (the Curse of Larry Smith?) rather than anything more sinister.

So, with that said, I can see no reason to think Vanderbilt will lose this game. Middle Tennessee isn’t an easy out by any stretch, but they’re also a team that Vanderbilt has beaten each of the last two years. Just don’t lose this one, guys.

The Pick: Vanderbilt 31, Middle Tennessee 24

SEC Upset Pick of the Week: I will open the 2017 season by going full schadenfreude, and choosing GEORGIA TECH (+3) to beat Tennessee, thank you very much.