The 9-3 Cincinnati Bearcats out of the Big East will take on the 6-6 Vanderbilt Commodores of the SEC in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday in a game that is sure to be nip and tuck throughout.
Cincinnati earned a share of the Big East Championship, but was not given the opportunity to play in a BCS bowl because they lost out to West Virginia on tiebreaker as the Mountaineers were ranked higher in the BCS standings.
Even so, the Bearcats have to consider 2011 a big success, and they'll look to end it in style.
Vanderbilt had to scratch and claw against a brutal SEC schedule to qualify for a bowl, and while they only went 2-6 in the conference, they were a tough team to play against. Losses of five, three and five points to Georgia, Arkansas and Florida, respectively, are a testament to that.
Both teams have bright futures ahead of them, so it would be a great springboard into next season for whichever squad is able to come out on top in the Liberty Bowl.
Where: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tenn.
When: Saturday, Dec. 31 at 3:30 p.m. EST
Listen: WLW 700 AM (Cincinnati) and WRQQ 97.1 FM (Vanderbilt)
Betting Line: Vanderbilt (-1.5)
Key Storyline: Can Jordan Rodgers Come Through in the Clutch?
His numbers may not be overly impressive with nine touchdown passes, nine interceptions and a completion rate of just 51.5 percent, but Vanderbilt junior quarterback Jordan Rodgers has spunk. Being the brother of Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers may be one reason for it, but the younger Rodgers seems to have some great intangible qualities.
Rodgers has impressed since taking over the starting quarterback job following the first month of the season. His passing is hit and miss, but Rodgers makes up for it with great mobility that ranks him second on the team in rushing yards.
It is clear that the Commodores are improving, but Rodgers will get to prove just how much against a nine-win team under the national spotlight.
Who Might Not Play for Cincinnati: QB Zach Collaros
Bearcats senior quarterback Zach Collaros has not played since Week 11 when he broke his ankle. While it is far from a sure thing, Collaros is listed as probable and expected to start, according to USA Today.
The game would be the final one in Collaros' impressive collegiate career. He paced Cincinnati with 26 passing touchdowns last season, and this year he had 24 total touchdowns in just eight full games.
While the Bearcats persevered in his absence, they would get a major boost if he could suit up and play against Vanderbilt.
Who Might Not Play for Vanderbilt: DB Eric Samuels
While Vanderbilt isn't expected to be without any starters on Saturday, one of its best depth players in safety Eric Samuels could be out of commission. According to USA Today, the junior defensive back is questionable with an ankle injury.
Samuels may not start, but he plays often and is a stalwart in nickel and dime packages. On top of that, he plays special teams and is capable of returning kicks.
It may not have a huge effect on the game, but being without a player as versatile as Samuels could certainly hurt a bit.
What They're Saying
Despite starting the season as a backup, Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers, brother of Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl champion quarterback Aaron Rodgers, has taken over the starting job and led Vandy to the Liberty Bowl.
While it wasn't easy at the time, Rodgers learned a lot by getting to face some of the nation's top defenses, including Alabama, according to Greg Sullivan of The Tennessean.
"They were big moments, I think, and looking back on it, it was getting thrown in the fire a little bit when I got in at Alabama," Rodgers said. "But those (games) just helped me become a better player and helped me get used to the game speed in a crash-course type way."
"I was thrown into it and I had to catch up as fast as possible."
Cincinnati Player to Watch: RB Isaiah Pead
As good as the Cincinnati defense was this season, it is hard to argue with the notion that no player was more important to the team's success this season than running back Isaiah Pead. Even when quarterback Zach Collaros went down with an injury, the team was still able to excel thanks to the play of Pead.
Not only did Pead lead the team in rushing with 1,110 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he was heavily involved in the passing game, reeling in 36 balls for 304 yards and three scores. Pead's dual-threat nature makes him invaluable to the team.
With Collaros back in the fold, Pead will still be integral in beating Vanderbilt in the Liberty Bowl.
Vanderbilt Player to Watch: RB Zac Stacy
As much talk as there is about quarterback Jordan Rodgers, the most important offensive player for Vanderbilt is running back Zac Stacy. The junior back had a monster season with 1,136 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the year.
While he struggled against top defenses like Alabama and South Carolina, he was key in almost every Commodore win.
Cincinnati's defense is a tough nut to crack, but Vanderbilt must commit fully to Stacy if it is going to have any chance of winning. While Rodgers is capable of making some plays, he needs support from the running game to be at his best.
If Stacy can get things going on the ground, it will open up the entire Vandy offense.
Key Matchup: Cincinnati Pass Rush vs. Jordan Rodgers
With 44 sacks on the season, no team in the nation was more successful at getting to the quarterback this year than Cincinnati. While some of that has to do with the level of competition, the Bearcats have a bevy of relentless pass-rushers that can make life miserable for opposing signal-callers.
You had better believe that pressuring Jordan Rodgers will be priority No. 1 for the Cincinnati defense on Saturday. While Rodgers is a junior, this is his first season in major college football and he has only started about half the season.
If the Bearcats can get to him, he may make some mistakes, but if Rodgers can use his mobility to his advantage, then the Cincinnati defense will be susceptible to some big plays.
Vanderbilt 27, Cincinnati 24
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