Here's The Deal: Considering the Music City is usually the "Who wants to be here?" game, it's been really, really strong over the last several years with the last eight decided by one score and the last six all entertaining since it became an ACC vs. SEC matchup. Yeah, it's always a battle of also-rans, but it has also perennially turned out to be one of the strongest games of the bowl season.
The X factor this time around – in the game to kick off the final day of 2012 – is the NC State frame of mind in a transitional period. Last year, the Wolfpack came up with a terrific 31-24 win over Louisville in the Belk for the fifth bowl victory in six tries, and the sky appeared to be the limit. Head coach Tom O'Brien seemed to be hitting his stride, there was a good nucleus returning, and there was a thought that State could be the sleeper team in the ACC title chase. Instead, the program is in a holding pattern until new head coach Dave Doeren can take over.
It's not like the Pack was all that bad, and it came up with one of the most important wins of 2012 in a 17-16 comeback stunner over Florida State, but a rough patch of three losses in four games – with the defense allowing 138 points to Clemson, Virginia and North Carolina – O'Brien was out. Dana Bible has been O'Brien's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the last 14 years, both at Boston College and NC State. Now he'll be in the awkward position of taking the place of his good friend and mentor on the sidelines, and he'll have to make sure his team brings it against a Vandy squad certain to come in motivated.
The Commodores had a better season than they got credit for. It was supposed to be a bit of a rebuilding year after getting to the Liberty Bowl last year and losing a tough 31-24 battle to Cincinnati, but instead they came up with a brilliant season defensively and got enough out of the offense to get by. They were outclassed by Georgia and Florida, and couldn't turn long drives into touchdowns against Northwestern, but after a 2-4 start, everything started to click winning six straight against the easy part of the schedule.
It's Vanderbilt, so there's never really a true series of cupcakes in the SEC slate, but with blowouts over Tennessee and Kentucky, and good fights over Auburn and Ole Miss, the team managed to make it back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since … ever. This is only the sixth bowl game in school history and the third since 1982. This is a big deal for Vandy, but can NC State come in focused?
Recent history dictates that yeah, the two teams will show up to kick off a fun day of bowls.
Players To Watch: NC State senior Mike Glennon looks like a pro, acts like a pro and possesses the arm of a next-level quarterback. A classic, strong-armed pocket passer at 6-6 and 232 pounds, he sees the field well, and is improving at reading defenses. Perfect in the red zone last year, tossing 21 touchdown passes without a single pick, he took more of the responsibility on his shoulders this year throwing for 3,648 yards and 30 scores, but with 14 picks. When he's on, the team is on, but big numbers – like the 467 yards and five scores he came up with against North Carolina, and the 493 yards and five touchdowns he cranked out against Clemson – haven't necessarily translated to wins.
This is the final game in the solid career of Vanderbilt RB Zac Stacy, who carried the workload at times running for 1,034 yards and nine scores. A 5-9, 210-pound speed back, he's quick, slippery and fast in the open field, hitting the 100-yard mark three times including a 180-yard, two-score day against Wake Forest to close out the regular season. While he's not built to take a pounding, he proved he could handle himself as a workhorse and he should be fed the ball early and often in his final game.
While he was a bit of a disappointment early on in the loss to Tennessee, Wolfpack junior CB David Amerson came up with a solid season making 54 tackles with five interceptions, including a pick six in the win over Boston College. It wasn't the record-setting 13 interception campaign of last year, but he was still one of the ACC's better all-around defenders. At 6-3 and 194 pounds, with long arms, his future is as a fantastic free safety on Sundays.
Vanderbilt Will Win If: The defensive front does what it has all season long. No. 1 in the SEC and fifth in the nation in tackles for loss, and 36th in sacks, Vanderbilt has been aggressive and dangerous at getting into the backfield all season long. Everything defensively stems from the pressure, helping out an emerging secondary that rarely got bombed on and allowed just six touchdown passes all season long. NC State's offensive line has been abysmal, allowing 36 sacks and doing little for the ground game. D line is Vandy's biggest advantage, and it has to establish itself from the start.
NC State doesn't have a top-shelf ground game, and that's just fine with the Commodores. The four losses came in the four worst days of the year against the run, getting steamrolled over for 326 yards and three scores against Florida and 302 yards and five touchdowns against Georgia. This year, Vandy is 8-0 when allowing fewer than 190 rushing yards – NC State averages 117.
NC State Will Win If: The passing game is clicking right away. Yes, Vanderbilt has kept just about every good passer under wraps, but NC State has to go with its fastball, and that's Glennon. He has to get the ball out of his hands in a hurry and he has to be a good decision-maker from the start. More than anything else, Vandy can't get behind. The passing game might be solid this season, and the team is built to throw more than it has ever been in the post-Jay Cutler era, but this isn't exactly the type of team that like to get into firefights. NC State has no problem getting the offense going in shootouts, and that's what Glennon has to make this from the word go.
Vanderbilt might be great at getting behind the line, and so is NC State, who came up with 32 sacks on the year and was 13th in the nation in tackles for loss. The Commodore offensive line is good, but it's not a brick wall and the O could get stuffed early on if the Wolfpack has the defensive pressure dialed up. If State can get to Stacy and the backs before that get time to let things develop, the Vandy offense will bog down.
What Will Happen: The NC State offensive line will be a problem. There isn't enough of a Wolfpack running game for the Commodores to worry about, so the D line should be able to spend all of its time and efforts on getting to Glennon. The Vandy offense won't exactly be anything special, but it'll feed off a few turnovers and take advantage of enough opportunities to give the program its third bowl victory.
CFN Prediction: Vanderbilt 27 … NC State 20