It's possible for Ole Miss and Vanderbilt to both have solid seasons regardless of which way this game goes. There are enough winnable games for both programs to get back to a bowl game even if they lose tonight, and for these programs, the goal right now is simply to keep themselves in the hunt for a postseason berth and use that to boost their recruiting.
But to have a little bit more, to have the kind of season that would continue Ole Miss' climb in the SEC West and cement Vanderbilt as the fourth-best team in the SEC East, a win in this game is critical. If they can't beat the Rebels at home, it's hard to see Vanderbilt getting to four SEC wins, which means it's hard to see them at or above .500 in the conference. And without a win tonight, Ole Miss faces the possibility of ending the month of September with one win -- against Southeast Missouri.
Of course, there are also plenty of other narratives in this game. How will Vanderbilt respond to the sexual assault and cover-up scandal that marred the offseason? Can Ole Miss' offense keep up the second-half surge that seemed to indicate that Hugh Freeze's no-huddle system might work well in the SEC after all?
Those themes, though, can't really be answered with any confidence until the season is over. We've seen time and again that Week 1 games tell us that a team will be one thing or another, only to have the 11 games that follow remind us that the college football season is still three months long. Ole Miss' offense will face more and likely better defenses determined to shut it down, and Vanderbilt could be dealing with the fallout of the crimes of its former players for weeks, months or even years.
The one thing we know -- or can fairly reasonably assume -- is that the outcome of this game will dictate just how good a season each of these teams can have. And on that note, expect Vanderbilt to get things rolling in the right direction.
Vanderbilt 17, Ole Miss 14