Vanderbilt's last victory in the series, as most fans will remember, was a spine-tingling 37-34 overtime win at Oxford in 1999. That was David Cutcliffe's rookie season with the Rebs, and the unexpected win helped lift Vanderbilt to a 5-6 record, its best of the last ten seasons. Since 1999 the Rebels have beaten Vanderbilt four straight times but all four meetings have been close (an average margin of 6.5 points). Ole Miss is favored by 7 points.
David Cutcliffe's Rebels enter this contest a frustrated bunch, having lost 20-13 to a good Memphis team and 28-7 to Alabama last Saturday. With Eli Manning as signal-caller Ole Miss went 10-3 in 2003, won the SEC Western Division (tied with LSU) as well as a victory in the Cotton Bowl. But the 2004 start has Rebel fans grumbling, and the team's offensive woes have some loyal fans downright worried.
Starting quarterback Micheal Spurlock (yes, it's spelled with the "e" before the "a") struggled mightily against Alabama, completing just 5-of-15 passes and looking as though he was not entirely comfortable with his offense nor confident of his own abilities. Cutcliffe benched Spurlock in the third quarter for Nashvillian Ethan Flatt, who fared somewhat better, completing 5-of-12 passes and directing Ole Miss to its only score. Cutcliffe has announced that Flatt should start the game this week, but that both quarterbacks can expect to share the snaps.
The Commodores always seem to match up well with the Rebels, but what will it take for Vanderbilt to snap the current four-game losing streak? Here are some players and matchups to watch.
Ole Miss Players to Watch:
Quarterbacks Ethan Flatt (19) and Micheal Spurlock (16): At 6-foot-6, Flatt is easily able to see the entire field, stand in the pocket and heave it. As Lipscomb High School fans can attest, he has better-than-average mobility for a player his size. His abilities have not yet been tested in a close game, however. Spurlock, on the other hand, will remind many Vandy fans of former Rebel Romaro Miller, a mobile signal-caller who is always a threat to turn a bad play into a good play with his feet. Spurlock has struggled with his confidence, however, and may be anxious to prove himself when given a chance.
Perhaps the most interesting story line to this game will be about how Cutcliffe deploys his two quarterbacks, and whether one or both can spark an offense that has been rather lifeless thus far this season.
Kicker Jonathan Nichols (86) and punter Cody Ridgeway (97): This kicking tandem gives Ole Miss perhaps the best kicking game in the conference. Nichols was the difference in Ole Miss' victory over Vandy in Nashville last year, kicking field goals of 51 and 54 yards. Ridgeway, another Tennessean, is a deadly weapon who had two punts of 50 yards or more last week against Alabama
Receivers Mike Espy (11) and Bill Flowers (84): Star receiver Chris Collins graduated along with Manning, but the Rebels still have a pair of big-play receivers. Espy is also an exceedingly dangerous kickoff returner, who has a 44-yard return and a 36-yard return already this season.
Vanderbilt Players to Watch:
Tailback Kwane Doster (1): Doster should share the load again with Norval McKenzie (9) after an opening game in which Vanderbilt's rushing game was mostly shut down. But Doster's finest game as a Commodore came two years ago right here at Vaught-Hemingway. That day he set a school record with 344 all-purpose yards, which included 101 yards rushing and a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Defensive ends Aaron Carter (69) and Richard Freeman (93): Carter has been ailing with a bone bruise and may not dress. If not, sophomore Freeman should get the start after missing the South Carolina game with an injury. It's also likely that Vanderbilt fans could get their first look at true freshman Lamar Divens (98).
Chris Young (16): A senior captain, Young is from nearby Batesville, where he starred as an option QB for South Panola High School. Young caught four passes in the opener, where he was used mainly as the third receiver in a three-receiver set. What a story it would be if Young could catch a touchdown in this game!
Key matchups to watch:
Vanderbilt defensive end Jovan Haye (91) against Ole Miss right tackle Tre' Stallings (70): This is one of those best-on-best matchups, with both players likely advancing to the NFL in a few years. Stallings has started for two seasons, but was moved from left tackle to right tackle last spring and may still be adjusting to the move. Haye needs to introduce himself early to Messrs. Flatt and Spurlock if the Commodores are going to be successful on defense.
Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler (6) vs. the Ole Miss secondary: Ole Miss is solid up front on defense, but there's inexperience at linebacker and secondary. Vanderbilt's only chance to win this game is to outscore Ole Miss, but that could easily happen if Cutler is on his game. Cutler needs to set the tone early by hitting the short pass, and needs to eliminate the mistakes that were costly vs. South Carolina.
Vanderbilt safeties Kelechi Ohanaja (12) and Andrew Pace (36) vs. Ole Miss' quarterbacks: With Ole Miss's mobile quarterbacks and the constant threat of an option game, Vanderbilt's safeties will have to spy on the quarterbacks and prevent them from breaking the long run from scrimmage on a draw play or an option. Should Flatt or Spurlock break off a big running play early in the game, a la Dondrial Pinkins... (sigh) it's probably a sign it's going to be a long day for the Commodore defense.