ROANOKE'S AROUND THE SEC- WKU WEEK

The previous three seasons Vanderbilt has opened its football campaign by losing a nationally televised Thursday night game. In two of those efforts the Commodores played impressively against talented opposition only to suffer heartbreaking, close losses. We went on to 9-4 records, bowl wins and national rankings in both of those seasons.

Last year we looked uninspired and unprepared in a turnover-plagued opening night debacle. Vandy stumbled from there to a 3-9 campaign with no SEC wins. This brief history reveals that how we play Thursday night is actually far more important than whether we win or lose. However, the opening night fiasco that inaugurated Coach Derek Mason’s Vandy tenure still casts a long shadow over this year’s opener against a very good Western Kentucky squad. On the bright side, there is absolutely no chance the Commodores will be taking anything for granted on Opening Night this time around.

The Hilltoppers boast a potent offense led by sixth-year senior QB Brandon Doughty, who may be the most talented signal-caller Vandy will face all season. Western Kentucky also returns its top running back, Leon Allen. While WKU’s passing game gets the majority of ink, Allen amassed over 1,500 years on the ground last year – running wild against Army and Marshall for 345 and 237 yards, respectively. WKU scored 34 or more points in every game last season but one, and seven starters from that offense return. WKU’s coach, Jeff Brohm, is a disciple of Bobby Petrino (and Howard Schnellenberger) and the former pro QB is coming off a bowl win in his first year as a college head coach.

As dominant as the Hilltoppers’ offense was last year, the defense was just that porous. In 2014 WKU gave up over 40 points in eight games – they still won four of them. WKU’s off-season focus was on defense and they return eight starters on that side of the ball. They also add star defensive tackle Jontavious Morris, a UAB transfer. Just the same, unless there is marked improvement, the Toppers’ defense offers Vandy’s offense a chance to spark right out of the gate.

Two games against undersized out-of-conference opponents from last year shed light on Vandy’s chances against Western Kentucky. Against Charleston Southern we could have run all night – but our offensive braintrust wanted to pass. Only when we were clinging to a 21-20 lead deep in our own territory with five minutes left did sanity prevail. When we earnestly turned to the run, we successfully grinded out the clock for significant yardage. Against ODU – a team that beat WKU last year – our o-line protected Johnny McCrary admirably and he connected on five TD throws to five different receivers. What we learn here is that a good offensive coordinator must take what is given – and must use the players that he has to fit a scheme they can execute. This is Football 101 – but something we did not do in 2014. I am confident new OC Andy Ludwig will restore order and logic to Vanderbilt football on Opening Night.

Ludwig is likely to map out a “run first” attack in his Vanderbilt debut. Our O-line would have held a significant edge here if Andrew Jelks had not been lost in the pre-season. The reconstituted line still has some veterans – but the unit has a lot to prove. Running backs Ralph Webb and Dallas Rivers should be busy – and Rivers showed significant success last year in bruising smaller defenders. Knowing our receiving corps is green, WKU is likely to sell out to stop the run – and that is where play action will be invaluable.

Johnny McCrary has had some accuracy problems in the past, but usually under duress. In 2014 he got a year of experience under his belt and WKU’s defensive challenges should give McCrary and his young receivers a chance to shine. Ludwig also tends to utilize “high percentage” passes to his backs – something Vandy utterly failed to do last year. Expect some early confidence-building throws mixed in with a strong dose of Ralph Webb. For play action purposes, McCrary needs to sell his fakes which, in the past, occasionally lacked true drama.

Shine or not, Vandy’s offense has to, at a minimum, hang on to the ball. Seven turnovers in the opener last year set the tone for a 2014 season where we did not win the turnover battle in a single game. Job one for this offense against Western Kentucky is ball control and clock maintenance. That means our O-line must play well – but it is worth mentioning that the O-line was hampered last year by a scheme that let opponents know what was coming and allowed them to pin back their ears and target the pocket. I fully expect that our O-line will do better this season when the play-calling is not telegraphed and the running scheme is not entirely between the hash marks. Still, losing Jelks hurts.

As for our young, super-talented defense, the WKU match-up creates a conundrum. I am a firm believer in pendulum swings and moderation over time. Last season’s inexplicably vanilla schemes were frustrating, given our talent. The staff’s passive mind-set cost us games. We let mediocre teams pick us apart and gain confidence amidst large cushions and few blitzes. Coach Mason’s decision to take over the defense – and his talk of a new, aggressive tone – is welcome. WKU’s quick-strike offense, however, is the type of attack that punishes over-aggressive mistakes. Breakdowns will invite long plays. It will be an interesting chess match – one where a few early disguised blitzes and hits on Doughty could make a difference. Much like last year, the success of the Dore defense will depend mightily on competent play from the offense. If Ludwig’s unit can win time of possession, eliminate turnovers, and establish the ground game, they will keep Doughty on the sideline. If Coach Mason’s defense can get just a little help, we should win this game. Pick: Vandy 38, WKU 34.

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Several other SEC squads face character-building openers, too. When the weekend is over, a couple of them will wish they could have found a cupcake instead.

Alabama has opened the previous three seasons with marquee wins over Michigan, Virginia Tech and West Virginia – so opening with an entrée and not a cupcake is routine. This season’s opener versus Wisconsin, however, poses a significant challenge as Bama re-tools almost its entire offense. For that matter, Bama’s defense gave up over forty points in two of its final three games last year – so the Tide enters this game amidst more question marks than usual. Vegas says “Bama is still Bama,” and favors the Tide by ten. Will Jake Coker step up and finally take this job? Pick: Bama 34, Wisconsin 17.

The Auburn Tigers have had issues in recent out-of-conference openers, losing to Clemson in 2012, and sneaking past Utah State and Washington State in 2011 and 2013. Auburn opens in Atlanta against a big-name Louisville squad; but Bobby Petrino’s team is replacing a lot of starters. It is likely good to catch this Louisville club early. Auburn qb Jeremy Johnson will get his season off on the right track. Pick: Auburn 44, Louisville 24.

The North Carolina-South Carolina opening night match-up in Charlotte should be a tense affair. Both teams have a lot on the line and neither can afford this out-of-conference loss as they drift away from the upper echelon of their respective leagues. Vegas likes the Gamecocks by 3, but I see this as a bad match-up for South Carolina. UNC returns ten starters on offense and the Gamecocks’ defense was bad last year – and particularly susceptible to the pass. UNC’s qb Marquise Williams and receiving corps should have a big night – and I am not sure SC can keep up in a track meet. The last time these teams met, SC dominated 27-10 in 2013; can SC’s lines control this game? Pick: UNC 41, SC 35.

As if lining up against the SEC West was not tough enough, Texas A&M decided to open with talented Arizona State. The Sun Devils were 10-3 last year and return 16 starters. The Aggies opened last season by absolutely dismantling South Carolina with their quick-paced offense – an attack which is a handful for anyone on opening day. Vegas, again, likes the SEC team – by three. Maybe the fact that the game is in Houston is worth a few points for A&M? Maybe the addition of John Chavis as DC is worth a couple more points? Even with Chavis, Texas A&M is still a year away on defense – and many West Coasters see Arizona State as a legitimate threat to win the PAC 12. Pick: Arizona State 37, A&M 34.

Rounding out the SEC schedule, there will be an abundance of big pay-days for non-BCS schools. The Vols invade Nashville to take on a respectable, but overmatched Bowling Green squad. Pick: Vols 48, BG 24. Ole Miss hosts UT-Martin (Mrs. Roanoke’s alma mater) – the Skyhawks have some talent, especially on their defensive unit – but not enough to compete against Ole Miss’ shut-down defense. Pick: Ole Miss 49, UT-Martin 7. Mississippi State visits Southern Miss as a 23½ point road favorite. Pick: MSU 45, Southern Miss 14. Georgia tries to figure out its qb dilemma against UL-Monroe. Pick: Georgia 52, ULM 7. The Jim McElwain era begins in Gainesville amidst another qb controversy – New Mexico State tends to make a lot of qbs look good. Pick: Florida 49, NMSU 12. Kentucky faces a decent UL-Lafayette squad – it may be tight for a while before the Wildcats pull away. Pick: UK 31, UL-L 13. LSU pummels a feisty McNeese State that almost beat Nebraska last year. Pick: LSU 51, McNeese 10. Arkansas should dispatch UTEP easily. Pick: Arky 56, UTEP 17. Missouri’s annual early season cakewalk kicks off with SEMo. Pick: Mizzou 42, SEMo 13.

There is a lot of logic to opening the season with a cupcake at home. Perhaps that is what we thought we were doing when we scheduled WKU several years ago. Instead, we face an offensive juggernaut that is coming off a bowl win. Of course, we are only one year removed from back-to-back bowl wins ourselves – those days just feel like a long time ago. It will be healthy for this program to get 2015 started – and to put the disappointment of 2014 far behind us.

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