Bowl Battle in The Grove
By Matt Smith
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin. Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page
Either Vanderbilt or Ole Miss will become bowl eligible with a win on Saturday.
Vanderbilt at Ole Miss
Saturday, 7:00 ET/6:00 CT
TV: ESPNU (Clay Matvick and Matt Stinchcomb)
A battle of surprise teams takes place on Saturday night when Vanderbilt (5-4, 3-3 SEC) travels south for its annual clash with Ole Miss (5-4, 2-3) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford. The Commodores have won three straight since falling to No. 4 Florida four weeks ago, while the Rebels were humbled last Saturday at Georgia after a huge win at Arkansas a week earlier. Despite Vanderbilt winning just three SEC road games between 2008 and 2011, the Commodores won both of their trips to Oxford during that stretch, and have now won four of five overall in the series. With bowl eligibility going to the winner, let’s look at five questions for Saturday night’s contest in Mississippi.
1. Was Ole Miss exposed by Georgia last week?
Things were going according to plan early on for the Rebels in Athens, storming to a 10-0 lead in the second quarter. Georgia then reached deep into its bag of tricks, calling its patented play-action pass where the quarterback stands with his back to the line of scrimmage for a second or two before throwing a deep pass. It worked perfectly for the Bulldogs, resulting in a 66-yard touchdown pass to Marlon Brown. Ole Miss didn’t score again in a 37-10 defeat. 11 different receivers caught passes for Georgia, as Aaron Murray picked on a Rebels pass defense ranked No. 12 in the SEC. Will Vanderbilt’s Jordan Rodgers be able to do the same? Given that only 10 Commodores have caught more than one pass this entire season, it isn’t likely.
2. Has Vanderbilt simply feasted on bad opponents?
Ole Miss’s 5-4 record is certainly more impressive than Vanderbilt’s. The Commodores’ three SEC wins have come over teams that are a combined 1-18 in conference play, while Ole Miss has beaten Arkansas and put a major scare into Texas A&M. James Franklin still lacks a signature win in his 22 games as head coach, and a win in Oxford might vault right to the top of the list of Franklin’s most impressive wins. That said, the ‘Dores’ five wins have come by an average of 30 points, so something is working right in Nashville. That has shown in close losses to South Carolina and Florida, as it took both teams 60 minutes to finally dispose of Vanderbilt. However until, Franklin beats a team with a pulse, some doubt will persist.
3. Which running back will do the most damage?
Besides both being extremely productive, Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy and Ole Miss’ Jeff Scott are completely different backs. At just 5’7” and 175 pounds, Scott does his damage with his quickness, having run for 100 yards in back-to-back games against Texas A&M and Auburn. Stacy has decent speed, but is more of a power back, giving the Commodores a physical presence that they have lacked through the years. Both defenses are in the middle of the pack nationally against the run, but the edge here goes to Stacy. Scott is more likely to hit a home run, but Stacy is more effective at getting the extra yard or two, critical on first and second down runs for a team that has struggled all season in third-and-long situations.
4. Who has the advantage in the trenches?
Neither offensive line will blow you away, but the Rebels pass protection is the biggest concern, with 26 sacks allowed through nine games. The Commodores have ramped up their pass rush of late, with 10 sacks over the past three weeks, including five against Auburn. There’s no elite pass rusher off the edge, but middle linebacker Chase Garnham has been a pleasant surprise as a blitzing threat with a team-high five sacks. While he’s not the most famous member of his family with his brother, Robert, the No. 1 recruit in the nation, Rebels linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche has emerged as the team leader in both tackles and tackles for loss. Nkemdiche, along with defensive end C.J. Johnson and tackle Isaac Gross, have solidified the Ole Miss front seven and will present some problems for Vanderbilt. There’s been more consistency from the Commodores, but the Rebels are a bit more dynamic up front.
5. Is there an X-factor?
Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews and Ole Miss’ Donte Moncrief haven’t gotten the accolades that they deserve, but there’s little doubt that the teams’ respective pass defenses will key in on Matthews and Moncrief. If you’re looking for a true X-factor, it might be the Rebels’ quarterback-turned-running back-turned wide receiver Randall Mackey. The senior has finally found his role on the team as a weapon in both the running and passing games. He’s second on the team with 274 yards receiving, third in rushing yards with 225 and is always capable of throwing a pass on a trick play. The Commodores have struggled with versatile players at times this year, and Mackey could be a bigger challenge than Moncrief for Bob Shoop’s defense.
Bonus: Who wins?
It’s hard to find a deciding edge in this game. Both teams are what their records say they are – middle-of-the-pack SEC teams. Home field hasn’t been a factor either in this series, with the home team winning just twice in the past five meetings. With team as even as these two, the deadly turnover is what will likely decide the game. Ole Miss forces more turnovers, but also gives the ball up more frequently. Expect Rebels quarterback and middle Tennessee native Bo Wallace to make one crucial late game mistake to swing the game in favor of the Commodores. Vanderbilt 26, Ole Miss 23.