It's Week 9 in Nashville, as your Vanderbilt Commodores travel to Durham to face the Duke Blue Devils. For the Commodores, the Duke game is a chance to get a game within .500, and keep their bowl hopes within reach. For Duke, at 0-7, it's one of the last best chances to just get a win.
The two schools have much in common, both being elite private schools focused on high academic performance. Vandy is in the SEC, and Duke is in the ACC, arguably the two best football confrence in college athletics.
In addition, since Bobby Johnson came to Nashvile via Furman, Vanderbilt has regularly mined the Carolinas for recruiting talent. Ted Roof, since taking over the Devils' program, has won his share of recruiting battles, but Johnson has gotten the best of him in the most recent class.
But the similarities begin to fade when you look at the stats from this year. VU, under the multiple option attack of OC Ted Cain and QB Chris Nickson, have put up 164 points, while the defense has allowed just 154. Duke, by comparison, has managed a meager 66 total points on the season, and have allowed 201. No wonder the Devils are 0-fer this season.
VU, on 474 plays, has rushed for 1183 yards, and passed for 1287. Duke, on 485 plays, has rushed for just 499 yards, while passing for 1279.
Duke has had its moments this season, most notably last weekend where they took Miami (FL) deep into the fourth quarter before falling 20-15. But, this is the same team that opened the season with a humiliating 13-0 loss at home to 1-AA Richmond. After playing Wake Forest to a 14-13 loss, they went out and got blanked by Virginia Tech (36-0) and Virginia (37-0).
It's hard to know which team will be more motivated today. Vanderbilt is looking to bounce back from its most decisive defeat of the year, a 31-13 drubbing at home versus South Carolina. Duke, however, knows it's chances to get a win are getting slimmer by the week. After today, Duke travels to Boston College, to Georgia Tech, and then finishes at home against archrival North Carolina.
The line today shows Vanderbilt as a decisive 8.5 point favorite, on the road no less. But the last time Vandy was a road favorite, they dominated Ole Miss but still found a way to lose.
Vanderbilt's offense vs. Duke's defense Mike Rapp: Statistically, this should lean to Vanderbilt. But, the VU offense is only as good -- or as bad -- as Nickson makes it. When he's hot, the offense is almost unstoppable. When he's not, VU has no chance. Nickson has talent, but he is maddeningly inconsistent. On top of that, Cassen Jackson-Garrison has not been nearly as intimidating as we had thought, stutter-stepping rather than charging downfield. Plus, VU's offensive line has been a walking M*A*S*H unit of late. I give VU an edge here, but not as big an edge as many might think.
Chris Lee: The keys here: capitalize on red-zone scoring chances, get Nickson completing at least 55% of his tosses, and win the turnover battle. If Vandy takes care of these things, they win.
Jake Lowery: Vandy's defensive line has been a positive suprise for them this year, but no aspect of their defense has been dominant over their previous foes. They play a relatively conservative style of defense, but have enough talent at cornerback to take advantage of any big mistakes in Vanderbilt's passing game. With Nickson's speed neutralizing much of the quickness of Duke's pass rushers, give the edge to Vanderbilt. This could be a game where Cassen Jackson-Garrison can have a big day, as there will probably be clear gaps to run through on the line of scrimmage. Don't expect big changes to the playbook, but do expect more success on the scoreboard.
Tommy Crockett: Vandy's offense had been thought to be on the right track before a complete derailment last Saturday in Nashville. Defensively from time to time John Talley has led his squad to keeping to opposition honest on his way to currently ranking 7th all time in ACC interceptions. The heart of the defensive line isn't anything to take lightly for the Commodores. Vandy's rush first, balance at all costs offense will not be able to take the Blue Devils for granted. Vanderbilt will work the quick slants early and often in an effort to establish the line of scrimmage advantage in their favor.
Andrew Kerr: Vanderbilt's offense was listless last week against a talented South Carolina team at home. Working behind a patch-work offensive line, Nickson played his worst game as a starter completing a total of six passes with two going to guys in the wrong colored jerseys. The Duke defense has some individual talent like senior cornerback John Talley but overall the group is hardly fearsome. Vanderbilt should be able to establish balance on offense and give Nickson some time to get his talented receiving corps involved.
Duke's offense vs. Vandy's defense MR: Who'd-a-thunk-it? VU's much maligned defense from last year was thought to be the greatest weakness this year. Instead, they have controlled and sometimes dominated every game this year, when the offense has given them a chance. Duke basically has no running game, and that won't change today.
CL: The Blue Devils don't run the ball well, and Vandy's second in the SEC in forcing turnovers. If the Commodores keep doing what they do well, that bodes well for a road win.
JL: This is where it pays off to play a tough SEC schedule. Duke's quarterback has good mobility, but he is not the equal of Syvelle Newton. He has good accuracy, but in that department Vanderbilt has seen better quarterbacks this season as well. With the mobile quarterbacks Vandy has played this season, expect fewer mistakes in containment. Duke's offense is not overpowering, but they will punish Vanderbilt's mistakes. Don't expect Duke to get a consistant running game, but do expect them to consistantly complete short passes unless Vandy's usual 8 to 10 yard cushion shrinks.
TC: The clear favorite in this match-up has to be the Vandy defense. While this isn't the same Duke offense that logged a negative 21 yards rushing against Virginia they have often looked lost in their offensive scheme. Last week Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis went 14-22 for 162 yards and a TD in the closing period as they mounted a furious comeback against the suspension laden Hurricanes. Still this has been an offense that has been up and down all year in both the rushing and passing categories.
AK: Vanderbilt's defense comes into the Duke game healthy and still playing well despite giving up their largest point total of the year last weekend. The defense had the tough job of defending short fields all day last week and was not able to get off the field on third downs. However, they did continue to force turnovers and put their offense in a position to stay in the game. After struggling last week against second and third teamers from post-brawl Miami, the Duke offense suddenly woke up in the fourth quarter and put together three impressive drives which nearly produced a stunning upset. With the Vanderbilt's offensive confidence shaky it will be up to the Vanderbilt defense to set the tone for this game and not let Duke carry over any momentum from their latest moral victory.
Key matchup: MR: Nickson vs. Nickson. Bottom line is, if Nickson has a good game, VU will win. Fortunately, VU will probably not need to pass the ball much to win this one.
CL: Earl Bennett vs. Duke corner John Talley, who's one of America's best. Nickson needs to get the ball to Bennett and not Talley, who can not only make interceptions, but return them for scores.
TC: The Commodores must break out and punish the inside defensive line of the Duke defense. So that that vein I feel that Cassen Jackson-Garrison must be able to run toward and over Duke's Bailey if Vanderbilt is to dominate the rushing game and establish the pass. While Talley has proved outstanding in the interception department he has been less that effective in terms of tackles this season. If he does, indeed, cover Bennett then that will be the key match-up in terms of yards after catch.
JL: Gatewood and Booker vs the Duke backfield. It is hard to establish containment while stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback, but both defensive ends will need to do all three of those jobs. With a true dual threat quarterback, you can't just force him to become a pocket passer -- if you do that, he will become a pocket passer and he will beat you. Don't expect Gatewood and Booker to collect multiple sacks, but do expect them to force quick throws without giving up the corner.
AK: Duke center Matt Rumsey is a fellow Marist alumni and good family friend so I will be watching (listening) to see how he is able to direct the Duke offensive line against Vanderbilt's improved front seven. Freshman quarterbacks generally do not handle pressure well, so it will be up to Rumsey and his boys to protect the quarterback from all angles if Duke is to have any hope of snapping their embarrassing losing streak.
What's at stake: MR: Recruiting bragging rights. Vandy fell behind Duke immediately after Roof took over, but more than regained their footing this past year. A solid win over Duke would only help solidify their position as the better option for key academically-minded blue chippers this side of the Mississippi.
CL: Pride for both teams, a possible bowl bid for Vandy. The Commodores don't want to be the team to snap Duke's 15-game losing streak. A Vandy win keeps bowl hopes alive if the 'Dores can win at Kentucky and upset either Florida or Tennessee at home. This one's a bit scary. Duke's gaining confidence and just needs to get a big win--like Vandy got at Wake a year ago--to get things going. Duke probably believes that if they can play with Miami, they can beat Vandy, and on one would blame them, but I'll go with the team that's demonstrated they know how to win.
JL: A measure of the progress of the program. The consensus view at this time is that, despite the perception that Vanderbilt will probably not win six games this season, the program's ability to lose Jay Cutler without becoming "same old Vandy" is sure progress. Beat Duke, and Vanderbilt will still be compared on the national stage to Northwestern and Wake Forest. Lose to Duke, and Vanderbilt will be compared to, well, Duke. It's time for Vandy to prove that they can win games that they should win.
TC: For Duke the prospect of staving off a perfect reverse season is coming down to just perhaps beat Vandy or go zero and twelve. For Vandy the differences between being viewed by the world and future recruits as a team on the rise or for want of a better phrase the same old Vandy.
AK: I agree with Mike -- bragging rights in recruiting. These two teams both heavily recruit the Atlanta area and the southeast in general for top notch athletes that can also think. A dominate win by either team could pay big dividends on the recruiting trail. Vanderbilt has more to lose in this game as a loss to Duke would erase any momentum the program had after a the big upset win at Georgia.
Prediction MR: Vanderbilt 13, Duke 6 CL: Vanderbilt 20, Duke 13 JL: TC: Vanderbilt 27, Duke 16 AK: Vanderbilt 24, Duke 17