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Saturday Predictions: No. 18 Kansas State at Vanderbilt

A win could mean being ranked for the first time in the Derek Mason era.

NCAA Football: Alabama A&M at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

If this week’s interactions with Kansas State fans are any indication, Nashville fans will have an entirely pleasant gameday experience when the Wildcats invade Vandyville. I got more positive responses I’ve ever gotten from a fanbase after this week’s “Better Know a ... Opponent” article than ever before, typically saying nice things about the article before going on to say EVEN NICER things about Manhattan. One guy even mocked up a “Kansas State Swamp Rabbits” poster for me.

Which, HELL YES. (Extreme credit to Erik Bowles for that one)

But Saturday night’s game isn’t just a chance for two polite fanbases to mingle. A win over the ranked Wildcats launches Vanderbilt face-first into the most successful season since James Franklin was in town. It represents the biggest win of Derek Mason’s head coaching career. It pushes the Commodores to the brink of the top 25 in advance of a showdown with Alabama.

A loss sends the team back to the drawing board and strips the program of an important step forward on its stride to the postseason. There’s no shame in losing to a very good Kansas State team, but a win sends a message to the rest of the SEC. Beat the Wildcats, and the buzz surrounding a potential East title intensifies. Lose, and allow Vandy to be discounted for the 40th straight season.

Christian D’Andrea: Kyle Shurmur is officially the NCAA’s top quarterback, but that statistical title is a byproduct of playing Middle Tennessee State and Alabama A&M. On Saturday he’ll face a Wildcat defense that’s only allowed 13 points per game — albeit to Central Arkansas and Charlotte. A powerful defensive line will force the junior passer to make decisions on the fly in Week 3, and his reactions will go a long way toward deciding Vandy’s fate not just against KSU, but for the rest of the season.

That puts a lot of pressure on an offensive line that has struggled to replace the contributions of Will Holden and Barrett Gouger early on. While Shurmur has faced pressure, the most apparent failure has been in the unit’s inability to clear space for Ralph Webb. In two games, the program’s all-time leading rusher has just 103 yards on the ground.

They aren’t the only trench unit under the microscope on Saturday. One of Kansas State’s greatest strengths in its two explosive victories has been its offensive line. The Wildcats have cleared room for Jesse Ertz to soar; he’s thrown for nearly 14 yards per attempt while completing 70 percent of his passes and avoiding any turnovers. While those big numbers came against two underwhelming opponents, it’s a solid preview of what the dual-threat QB can do.

The ‘Dores are going to need a big push up front to set the pace. Fortunately, they’ve got a dependable defensive line led by Nifae Lealao, who will occupy two blockers all evening. He’s bolstered by Jay Woods, Jonathan Wynn, and Dare Odeyingbo, a platoon of upperclassmen who can create the pressure and gaps the team’s linebackers need to thrive.

Ultimately, this game will come down to whose front seven can be more disruptive and force the opposing team’s breakout skill players into the bigger mistakes. Given Vandy’s veteran lineup, their hunger for a big, emphatic non-conference victory, and the setting of a home game, I’m taking the ‘Dores.

The pick: Vanderbilt 27, Kansas State 24

The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: CALIFORNIA (+3.5) over Ole Miss. The Golden Bears will enjoy these last few seasons of having a football program. They already beat a pretty good North Carolina team on the road; handling the only other Power 5 program that can claim to be as poorly run shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

VandyTigerPhD: A lot of the attention here is going to be on Kyle Shurmur who’s rated as the top NCAA QB right now. Sure, against inferior competition, but there’s plenty of QBs out there that have also played bad competition, so I don’t see that as much of an argument.

What interests me is that KSU may have a good line, but they live out of the nickel and don’t have a lot of LB depth. I can totally see us opening the rushing game up this game. Once the safeties come down to help, woosh over the top. Maybe Ludwig will stick to the pass first offense, but I don’t see why we wouldn’t run first against that kind of defense when we have one of the best SEC RBs of all time.

The KSU squad is no pushover, however, and our defense is going to have to be on their A game all night. They may be asked to go right out there after a three and out or two, and they’re going to have to step up. They did it all last season with an offense that was worse. Of course, they also had Zach Cunningham. The defense needs to look at this game as their first statement game.

Really, the whole team does. A lot of people saw this game as a coin flip before the season, and nothing has changed. It’s not going to be a slug fest, it’s not going to be a grind it out 10-7 game. Not to John Madden it up, but it’s going to come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes.

I mentioned this in comments this week, but I want to mention it here. I talked with a friend and former teammate of Khari Blasingame over the weekend. He was telling me the feeling in the locker room is electric and there’s a real feeling like this team can do something special.

We feel it too. Those guys really believe they can win. That’s something we haven’t seen in a Vanderbilt squad since THE COACH THAT SHALL NOT BE NAMED. They undoubtedly understand the importance of starting this 4-game stretch with a win. It’s a win they can get. They’ll keep focused, and it’ll be a great game.

The Pick: I’m going with VU win by one score. Vandy edges out the win, 24-21

The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: God so many trash lines this week, but most of them are at least correctly picking the underdog (at least with the SEC). Clanga only 7 point underdogs to LSU? Gimme a break. Not as retarded as that Clemson (-3) over Louisville spread, but close. There’s really only two choices here, Purdue (+7) over the hilariously awful Mizzou defense or THEM (+5.5) over UF. I’m rolling with THEM to come out with the win over Florida. The Cal-Mississippi game is going to be a coin toss, I aint touching that. I am going to get on the record though and say that if you’ve got a few bucks to burn DEFINITELY throw some down on ULL (+24) to cover against Aggie. Before you protest, don’t forget that Aggie only beat Nicholls 24-14. Nicholls. Oh that FG was with 3 seconds left.

Tom Stephenson: If there’s a disappointing thing here, it’s that we get a reference to the Kansas State Swamp Rabbits but no death rabbits, so that’s on CDA for not using his photoshop skillz.

Anywho, if you perused Bring On The Cats this week (which from the comments over there, it seems many of you did) then you’ve already seen my prediction for the game, so I’m not going to change that. While both teams have been impressive offensively thus far, this feels destined to be a defensive slugfest. Vanderbilt will have its usual suffocating defense, while Kyle Shurmur will look not quite as impressive when he faces a defense that is not Middle or Alabama A&M, by which I mean that his completion percentage will be held under 70 percent. Tommy Openshaw will redeem himself by kicking the game-winner in the fourth quarter.

In addition, last night at Flying Saucer I had a beer called Tallgrass Buffalo Sweat, brewed in Manhattan, Kansas, a place I did not know had a brewery. Cheers!

The Pick: Vanderbilt 17, Kansas State 14

SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Kentucky (+6.5) over SOUTH CAROLINA. South Carolina is riding high at 2-0 with wins over NC State and Missourah, but they’ve been outgained in both games. This is the game in which they remember that they are coached by Will Muschamp.

You might be tempted by Tennessee (+4.5) at Florida, but I cannot personally recommend you ever wish that team to win.