Ole Miss (0-0) at Vanderbilt (0-0)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Thursday, August 29, 9:15 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Dudley Field (40,550) -- Nashville, Tennessee. Television: ESPN. Home Record: Ole Miss 0-0, Vanderbilt 0-0. Away Record: Ole Miss 0-0, Vanderbilt 0-0. Neutral Record: Ole Miss 0-0, Vanderbilt 0-0. Conference Record: Ole Miss 0-0, Vanderbilt 0-0. Series Record: Ole Miss leads, 47-38-2.
GAME NOTES: The SEC schedule kicks off early for the Ole Miss Rebels and the Vanderbilt Commodores, as the two squads go toe-to-toe in the season opener on Thursday night.
After acting as the SEC bottom-feeders in 2010 and 2011, Ole Miss called for a changing of the guard in 2012, and Hugh Freeze's first season as head coach managed to bring the program back to relevance in the nation's most powerful conference. The Rebels finished the regular season at 6-6 and were bowl- eligible for the first time since 2009. In the BBVA Compass Bowl, they made easy work of Pittsburgh, 38-17, giving the team wins in five consecutive bowl appearances dating back to 2002.
Vanderbilt was also a pleasant surprise in 2012, as it very quietly put together one of its best seasons in program history, going 9-4 overall while winning five of its eight SEC contests. The team became bowl eligible for the second straight year for the first time in school history, and its 38-24 win over NC State in the Music City Bowl was just its third-ever bowl victory.
The 2012 campaign featured plenty of milestones for the Commodores. Their seven-game win streak to close out the season was the longest since 1948. It was also the first time they won five SEC games in 30 years, and they finished the season ranked in the AP Top-25 (No. 23) for the first time in more than 60 years, although they were left off the 2013 preseason poll.
With regard to the all-time series between these two, Ole Miss holds a 47-38-2 advantage. Vanderbilt has had the upper-hand in recent years with wins five of the last seven meetings, including a 27-26 verdict last year in Oxford.
The Rebels were one of the league's biggest surprises last season thanks to their better-than-expected offense, which racked up 31.5 ppg and 423.8 ypg while scoring on 91 percent of their red zone drives, and nearly the entire unit is back this season.
In his first season as the starter, quarterback Bo Wallace put together an outstanding dual-threat campaign, completing nearly 64 percent of his passes for 2,994 yards, rushing for 390 yards and combining for 30 touchdowns. He was turnover prone, however, with an SEC-high 17 picks.
Wallace developed an outstanding rapport with Donte Moncrief last year, who hauled in 66 receptions for 979 yards and a single-season school record-tying 10 TDs. Ja-Mes Logan (43 rec, 490 yards) and Vince Sanders (39 rec, 504 yards, four TDs) also return to round out one of the top receiving corps in the SEC.
Jeff Scott (846 yards, six TDs) was solid as the primary back in 2012 and will assume that role once again this season, although youngsters I'Tavius Mathers, Jaylen Walton and Mark Dodson could cut into his workload.
While Ole Miss' offense was at times spectacular, the team failed to reach elite status last season thanks to a mediocre defense. The unit allowed 27.6 ppg and 375.8 ypg, although it showed plenty of big-play ability with 38 sacks and 28 turnovers.
In a conference full of high-profile playmakers, Denzel Nkemdiche is one of the best. The linebacker shined as a freshman in 2012 (82 tackles, 13 TFL, three sacks, three INTs, four FF), and the sky is the limit for what he can achieve moving forward.
Safety Cody Prewitt (80 tackles, two INTs, two FF), linebacker Mike Marry (78 tackles, 10.5 TFL, INT), cornerback Charles Sawyer (63 tackles, INT), defensive tackle Issac Gross (10 TFL, 2.5 sacks) and defensive end C.J. Johnson (eight TFL, 6.5 sacks) bring experience to all levels of the defense, which all but ensures an improvement in 2013.
For Vanderbilt, the offensive production a season ago was modest at best in terms of yardage (379.7 ypg), but thanks to a low turnover rate, it managed to put up 30.0 ppg.
The Commodores' most dynamic playmaker is wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who was named a unanimous First Team All-SEC selection in 2012 after tallying 94 receptions, 1,323 yards and eight touchdowns. Chris Boyd (50 rec, 774 yards, five TDs) is also back to give Vandy arguably the best receiving duo in the conference.
Throwing the ball to Matthews and Boyd will be Austyn Carta-Samuels, who saw limited opportunities in parts of six games last season (14-of-25, 208 yards, TD). His production should be at least on par with the graduated Jordan Rodgers, who was unremarkable as a senior (.599 completion percentage, 2,539 yards, 15 TDs, five interceptions).
Zac Stacy (1,141 yards, 10 TDs) set many school records at running back during his career but is now battling for a starting job with the St. Louis Rams. Wesley Tate (376 yards) has been anointed the feature back, and while his yards per carry was lackluster in 2012 (3.5), he displayed a nose for the end zone with eight touchdowns.
In a conference filled with stout defenses, the Commodores were able to hold their own and then some, yielding just 18.7 ppg and 333.9 ypg to opponents, with their crowning achievement coming in a shutout of Kentucky on Nov. 3.
The two top defensive playmakers from a season ago are both back for another go, as safeties Kenny Ladler (90 tackles, two INTs) and Javon Marshall (83 tackles) return for their senior seasons and are the unquestioned leaders of the secondary. Linebacker Chase Garnham logged 84 tackles and was a menace behind the line of scrimmage as well with 12.5 TFL and seven sacks.
Linebacker Karl Butler (51 tackles, 11.5 TFL, two sacks), defensive tackle Rob Lohr (11 TFL), defensive end Walker May (10.5 TFL, three sacks) and cornerback Andre Hal (48 tackles, two INTs) were all key pieces to the defensive puzzle 2012, and all are expected to endure stellar campaigns yet again this year.
While neither the Rebels nor the Commodores are expected to compete for the SEC championship this season, both programs are clearly heading in the right direction and have high hopes for a bowl bid, and a win on opening night would go a long way in reaching that goal. On talent alone, Ole Miss appears to have the advantage, but a Vanderbilt squad under the tutelage of third-year head coach James Franklin (15-11, two bowl bids) will step up in front of its home crowd and use a strong defensive effort to propel it to victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vanderbilt 21, Ole Miss 20
08/28 10:55:58 ET