Commentary: Eyes Should be on Oxford Saturday

Ole Miss and Vanderbilt both tout improved teams with the annual game just five days away. The winner will be well on its way to bowl eligibility, and both clubs expect to take the contest Saturday. Go inside for more.

Excuse the media Saturday, but during the Rebels' cruise control victory over Samford, the scribes assembled allowed their collective attention to switch to other games across the country.

With different contests being viewed online by every computer, SEC and national scores were peppered up and down press row. However, two scores rose to the forefront quickly.

First and foremost was the Auburn vs. Mississippi State soccer match being played in Starkville – because of the SEC implications but also because of the sheer novelty of the outcome. You know the lowest scoring baseball game between Auburn and State last year yielded seven points (4-3). But I digress.

The other game that peaked interest was Vanderbilt entertaining Rice. Yeah, the Commodores are the Rebels' next opponent, but the curiosity went beyond that. Everyone was waiting to see if this was when Vandy was going to slip up.

Bobby Johnson has assembled a competitive team in one of the most difficult places to do so. A private school in the SEC could easily resemble a goldfish surrounded by piranhas – and the ‘Dores have at points throughout the last quarter of a century.

But Vanderbilt, home for the postseason every year since 1982, had compiled a standout resume up until Saturday night. A top-25 victory over South Carolina and a road triumph against a worthwhile opponent in Miami (Ohio) placed big implications on Vanderbilt hosting Rice.

The Commdores are used to flirting with bowl eligibility, but over the past few years, one week where a winnable game slipped away became the main idea of the story. A couple seasons ago, Jay Cutler would have been the savior, but a horrific loss to Middle Tennessee caused Vandy to finish with five wins instead of six.

So, would Rice, a bowl team from last season, be the first of seven losses? A track meet ensued early with the score tied at 21 by halftime. But in the second half, Vanderbilt locked down like a typical SEC team and shutout the Owls the rest of the way. Seventeen Black and Gold points later, and the ‘Dores are 3-0.

Ok, no it isn't totally surprising that Vandy beat Rice, but the media reaction was a little different than it has been in years past. There wasn't shock. It was almost expected. It has taken time, but Johnson no longer carries the perpetual loser card.

The process took longer that it does at most schools, but Vandy has assembled a full team of SEC athletes that actually believe.

In fact, Ole Miss will notice something Saturday: The Commodores and Wake Forest share more than a color scheme. Though not as seasoned yet, Vandy will resemble the Demon Deacs with smart (isn't that a given?) football and will not make many mistakes. Also like Wake, Vandy has made a living off capitalizing on opponent's miscues.

A plus-5 turnover margin and near-perfect red zone scoring percentage will win some games. The ‘Dores have secured points inside the 20 on all occasions except when simply trying to end the contest.

The yardage stats aren't impressive, as other teams have racked up passing yards to the tune of more than 250 per game, and Vandy runs an efficient attack that won't dazzle.

But so far it wins.

After the Wake loss, I've been asked many times "Who do you think Ole Miss will beat and get that first marquee win?" I wish I knew the answer, but there is one thing I do know. Although the majority of the public won't view it as such, Vanderbilt might be the game.

When the schedules came out, we all constructed a road map to six or more wins. Vandy was on all our lists I am sure, and it still should be, but this isn't Samford – or even the ‘Dores of the late 90s.

While Vanderbilt has always made a living out of biting Ole Miss, the ‘Dores have won two of the past three in the series and tremendously outgained the Rebels in the 2006 UM victory.

Vegas opened with Ole Miss as a 6.5-point favorite, and in my opinion, that means the Rebels are getting the respect they deserve. I have been harping on how much better Vandy is, but Ole Miss is just as or more improved.

To get to where they want to go, the Rebels have to expect to always take care of Vanderbilt. And that starts in 2008. Get to 1-0 in the SEC. Get past the ‘Dores. Get that ugly eight-game league losing streak to evaporate. Get to 3-1 heading to the Swamp.

Johnson has been stellar in his rejuvenation of the Vanderbilt program, but Saturday is about Ole Miss. The winner will be well on its way to bowl eligibility, and the Rebels don't need the setback a loss would present.

Like most in the series, this will be a fun game and probably won't be decided until at least the final quarter. But unlike the last couple years, it features two teams on the rise. All eyes will be elsewhere in the SEC thanks to a solid slate of games, but some focus should be in Oxford.

This may not be the Vanderbilt we are accustomed to, but this isn't the 2007 version of Ole Miss either. The Rebels' breakthrough may be just five days away.

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