Who would have thought two years ago that this week's SEC season opener between the Vanderbilt Commodores and the Old Miss Rebels would be considered the Battle of the Rising Stars?
When the two teams faced off in Week 3 of the 2011 season, both teams were coming off disastrous seasons. Their two records combined was an anemic 6-18 and 2-14 in SEC play. Fast forward to 2013, and Vanderbilt has the SEC's longest winning streak while Ole Miss had the largest jump in the win column of any SEC team in 2012.
Both teams return most of their starters on both sides of the football and believe Thursday's game will be the launching point for the next level in their program's progression.
Why Ole Miss could win this ball game
Vanderbilt should have a top-three SEC secondary this season and also returns five of its back seven on defense, including All-SEC cornerback Andre Hal. However, the Rebels enter the game with confidence knowing that Bo Wallace and the Ole Miss offense have already proven they can move the ball against the Commodores defense.
Last season, Wallace completed 31 of 49 passes for 403 yards and a touchdown against Vanderbilt. Moreover, the Rebels led Vanderbilt by as much as 17 in the third quarter. However, the Rebels kept settling for field-goal attempts instead of touchdowns and eventually surrendered the lead in the final seconds of the game.
The Rebels were second in the SEC last season in sacks and could be better this season. This is problematic for the Commodores because their quarterback, Austyn Carta-Samuels, will be making his first start in the SEC.
Carta-Samuels is a former Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year and threw for over 3,600 yards in two seasons with the Wyoming Cowboys. However, if the Rebels can get pressure on Carta-Samuels, it will be a long night for the Vanderbilt offense.
Why Vanderbilt could win this ball game
The Commodores will be playing at home, where they are 9-4 under head coach James Franklin and have been competitive in all four defeats, which were at the hands of nationally ranked teams.
The Commodores posted a home record of 5-2 in 2011 at Vanderbilt Stadium. Both Commodore losses were against nationally ranked teams in Arkansas and Georgia. Moreover, the two losses were by a combined total of eight points, and both games came down to the last play.
Vanderbilt was once again efficient at home in 2012 as it finished the season with a 4-2 record. The Commodores' only losses came at the hands of the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Florida Gators. Both teams finished the season ranked in the top 10 in the AP poll. Both games were close, with the Gamecocks needing a controversial no-call to defeat Vandy, and Florida was only up by a single touchdown with two minutes left in the game.
The bottom line is that in every home game under Franklin, the Commodores have played above their ability.
They were no match talent-wise against Florida, Georgia, Arkansas and South Carolina, but they played them to the final horn.
The Ole Miss Rebels are three points better than Vanderbilt on a neutral field after the suspension of wide receiver Chris Boyd. However, playing in Nashville should give Vanderbilt an additional six points.
I expect Vanderbilt to run the ball more than usual because of the suspension of Boyd. Instead of replacing Boyd on this week's depth chart, the Commodores have dropped the third wide receiver spot and added fullback Fitz Lassing in his place.
Look for Franklin to not only use sophomore running back Brian Kimbrow and senior running back Wesley Tate in an increased rushing role but in the passing game as well, and the moment that they sink in, Carta-Samuels will find Jordan Matthews for a big gain.
If Vanderbilt wins in the special teams department, they will win this game. However, if they don't, it will be a long night for Vanderbilt fans.
While I believe this game is a tossup, I can't go against Franklin at home.
Score prediction: Vanderbilt 27 Ole Miss 24
Stat line prediction: Ole Miss three turnovers
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