The baseball championship understandably put us behind on our post-spring previews, but now that baseball season is over (although the celebration, of course, rages on) and football season is getting closer, it's time to get started again. This week, let's take a look at the Vanderbilt Commodores. After their successful 2008 campaign, Vanderbilt returned to their mean with a vengeance, finishing 2-10 and going winless in the conference.That shouldn't be too surprising. Because of their talent disadvantages, Vandy needs to not only play its best but also get fairly lucky to compete for post-season play. That happened in 2008, when the Commodores' opportunistic defense led it to wins over a handful of teams that were, on paper, significantly more talented. In 2009, though, Vandy didn't get those opportune turnovers, and disaster struck. Even with a more talented team this year, I doubt Vandy has it in them to return to a bowl. They'll challenge for and maybe pull off an upset or two, but they'll also lose a lot of games.
Despite their troubles, Vandy again played the Gamecocks tough in a loss in Williams-Brice. Despite giving up almost twice as many yards as they gained, the Commodores led going into the fourth quarter before Stephen Garcia connected on a 40+-yard pass to Alshon Jeffery to give the decisive lead to the Gamecocks. This has been the narrative in this series over the past three years. Vandy often plays their best against us, particularly when it comes to keeping us off the scoreboard. No matter how many yards we gain, we seem to have a lot of trouble scoring against Vandy, having only scored 6, 17, and 14 points in the last three contests, respectively. It's a little unclear why this series has been such a tough one for us, although one assumes that it may have something to do with (1) Vandy coach Bobby Johnson being a Clemson man and thus putting a premium on the game, and / or (2) Vandy seeing this game as one of their best chances to pull a season-defining upset and thus playing their best game of the year.
Whatever the case may be, Vandy should be better in 2010 than it was in 2009, and with the game in Nashville, we'll again be risking falling prey to the upset-mided 'Dores.
Let's take a look at what Vandy brings to the plate.
Offense: Vandy's running game was actually fairly effective last year, as the 'Dores sported a talented backfield and an offensive line that, as usual, exceeded expectations. Quarterback, though, was a major problem, as it has been for Vandy since Jay Cutler graduated. That should be the case again this year. Vandy returns what it needs to have a great ground attack, and if it can get at least mediocre play out of Larry Smith or whoever is under center, it could put some points on the board. Whether that will happen, though, is far from certain.
Defense: Vandy has had solid defenses under Johnson. This year, though, they'll have to replace several departed starters, and even though potential All-SEC LB Chris Marve returns, that may spell a challenge for Johnson's staff, especially if depth becomes an issue. However, Vandy has seemed to do a decent job at finding solid defensive players from the slim pickings of their recruiting classes, so anything is possible.Player Whose Name You Should Remember: Warren Norman, RB / KR. Norman did what he could to help Vanderbilt keep the game close in Columbia last year by running the ball well and returning a kickoff for a touchdown. This diminutive but elusive, hard-running back accounted for nearly 2000 all-purpose yards in his freshman season, and he will surely play a major role in Vandy's offensive plans for 2010.
What to Expect: I'd like to say that we'll finally a breakout game in this series and embarrass Vandy on their home turf. The last three games in the series have been tough to watch for Gamecocks fans, and I'd prefer not to be sitting on the edge of my seat in the waning minutes again. Based on talent, we shouldn't have to do that. However, Vandy frequently plays above its head, and it seems to always do so against us, so until I see otherwise, I'm going to expect more of the same. Think a tight game with Vandy coming up with some key plays on defense and Carolina needing a score to put the game away late.
Prediction: While I think Vandy will keep this one close, I also think we should (1) have seen enough in this series to take anything for granted and (2) have enough talent to find a way to win. I'm calling for a 7-10 point Carolina victory.