AutoZone Liberty Bowl, December 31, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
The reality of coaching Vanderbilt was supposed to set in for James Franklin when he lost games at South Carolina and at Alabama by a combined score of 55-3. While the South Carolina game was more competitive than the 21-3 score suggested, it was still an example of a team with superior athletes being able to defeat Vanderbilt on talent alone. And the Alabama game was more of the same old Vanderbilt; outgained 419-190, the Commodores were never really in the game.
But something happened after those two waxings. Vanderbilt would never lose a game by more than a single score for the rest of the season, and while the 3-4 record was nothing to boast about, it was still enough to get Vanderbilt into the postseason in Franklin's inaugural season on the sidelines. Franklin is the first head coach to lead Vanderbilt to a bowl game in his first year.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, is no slouch. Most SEC fans probably ignored the Bearcats after Tennessee dropped a truck on them early in the season, then folded under the weight of injuries and a lack of depth. But Cincinnati rebounded nicely from that loss, won its next six and eight of its last 10 to put together a nine-win season. Sure, it's the Big East, but a narrow loss to West Virginia and a loss to Rutgers are not the worst thing in the world.
So how do you compare those kinds of seasons? For Big East fans, it's probably too easy to scoff at Vanderbilt because of its reputation and not the team's current trajectory. For SEC fans, it's probably too easy to look at the fact that Cincinnati plays in the Big East and got shellacked by a mediocre SEC team and consider the game a likely win for the 'Dores.
In a way, these teams are mirror images of each other. They lean on the run and defenses that are average for their leagues but good at some things. I'll go with Vanderbilt for the moment, but by the narrowest margin.
Vanderbilt 24, Cincinnati 23