Game time: 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT
TV: CBS Sports Network
Online streaming: CBS Sports
Odds (via oddsshark.com): Vanderbilt is a 3.5-point favorite. Over/under is 58.
All-time series: Vanderbilt leads, 14-3
Last meeting: 2016, Vanderbilt won 47-24
On Saturday night, the Vanderbilt Commodores will open the 2017 football season by making the short trip to Murfreesboro, where they’ll face the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders -- a team the Commodores beat in both 2015 (17-13 in Murfreesboro) and 2016 (47-24 in Nashville.)
Of course, in the early 2000s, the Blue Raiders were a nemesis for the Commodores, winning three in a row from 2001-05. Granted, the 2001 and 2002 wins came against awful Vanderbilt teams, but Middle Tennessee’s 17-15 win in 2005 on a blocked field goal (Vanderbilt fans swear up and down that MTSU had 13 men on the field) ultimately denied the Commodores their first winning season in 23 years.
Suffice to say, there’s a bit more bad blood between these two than you’d expect between an SEC team and a C-USA team, and only some of that has to do with proximity. These two don’t particularly like one another, and while the 2016 game wound up being a blowout, the 2015 game was a barnburner that Vanderbilt won on a late TD by quarterback Johnny McCrary.
This game probably won’t be so low-scoring — MTSU averaged 39.7 ppg last year, after all, and Vanderbilt’s offense showed signs of life late last season (and also torched a pair of C-USA defenses early on.) But it’s a pretty good bet that this one will go down to the wire. Here are three things to watch for.
Was Vanderbilt’s late-season offensive surge a mirage?
At the end of 2016, Vanderbilt scored 38 points against Ole Miss and 45 against Tennessee. To that point in Derek Mason’s tenure, Vanderbilt had averaged 17.2 points over 34 games. So the final two games of the 2016 regular season amounted to an offensive explosion.
Which is the real Vanderbilt offense? If you’re an optimist, Kyle Shurmur had been playing better for a few games prior to that, and the passing game coming alive in those two games was the culmination of something that had been brewing for a while. Ralph Webb had been the rock for most of Derek Mason’s three years, but the passing game had been decidedly below average. Getting even average production from the passing game was a godsend.
If you’re pessimistic, it’s a two-game sample size that came against two depleted defenses. Vanderbilt fell right back into an offensive rut in the Independence Bowl loss to NC State — granted, Shurmur was injured early in that game — and 35 games of (mostly) bad offense is probably a better indicator than two games.
Of course, Vanderbilt scored 47 on Middle Tennessee last year, so this game might not be a great barometer. But whether the passing game is clicking is something to keep an eye on.
How will Vanderbilt replace Zach Cunningham?
But improved offensive production only means so much if the defense backslides — and there’s some chance of that. Linebacker Zach Cunningham, the heart and soul of last year’s defense, is now playing for the Houston Texans, and defensive lineman Adam Butler is now with the Patriots.
Vanderbilt does have three senior starters — Jonathan Wynn, Nifae Lealao, and Jay Woods — on the defensive line. But Woods has been fairly injury-prone, and the depth behind them is unproven. Former safety Oren Burks has now moved to linebacker full-time, and the Commodores will be breaking in two new starters in the linebacking corps. The good news is that the secondary is experienced, and Derek Mason has earned some benefit of the doubt on the defensive side of the ball. There are, however, far more question marks than you’d like going into a matchup against a team that can put points on the board.
This is (probably) a game Vanderbilt absolutely has to have
After a breather against Alabama A&M in Week 2, here’s Vanderbilt’s schedule: Kansas State, Alabama, at Florida, Georgia, at Ole Miss, at South Carolina. Lose to Middle Tennessee, and suddenly a 1-7 start — if not likely — is in play for Vanderbilt. You don’t have to squint too hard to figure out that Vanderbilt doesn’t have too many realistic paths to bowl eligibility without beating Middle Tennessee. This is a big game for Week 1.