Both Vanderbilt and Wake Forest are coming off disappointing seasons that featured some painfully close losses. The Commodores (2–9, 1–7 SEC) lost five games by five points or less (including four by three points or less), while the Demon Deacons (4–7, 1–7 ACC) lost six games by a touchdown or less, including two in overtime.
"They are a lot like us," said Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson. "They had a lot of close games that they felt they should have won last year."
Unlike Vanderbilt, however, Wake Forest has been able to break through in recent years and enjoy a winning season. In fact, the Deacs have won more than they've lost in two of Jim Grobe's four seasons, and the former Ohio head coach has a respectable 22–25 record during his time in Winston-Salem.
"They have a fine coach who has come in there and built the program," Johnson said. "They have been to two bowl games in the past (six years). It is an ACC school, a school that has the same scholastic ideals that we have. It's a great opener. If we win, it will be a quality win."
Vanderbilt and Wake Forest will be facing each other on the field for the first time since 2000, but the two schools have squared off frequently on the recruiting front, with the Demon Deacons holding the advantage of late.
"We do recruit a lot of the same players," Johnson says. "The winner (of this game) probably has a little in edge in recruiting for the next year or so."
One of the recruits Johnson and his staff lost to Wake Forest is tailback Micah Andrews, who will start Thursday night in place of the suspended Chris Barclay. Andrews averaged 6.1 yards per carry and scored six touchdowns on just 43 carries in a reserve role as a redshirt freshman in 2004. "They run the ball extremely well," Johnson says. "They are trying to improve their passing game, and they think Benjamin Mauk will be a good quarterback for them."
Mauk set national high school records with 6,540 passing yards and 76 passing touchdowns as a senior at Kenton (Ohio) High School. He played in 10 games (with three starts) as a redshirt freshman last season, completing 52.1 percent of his passes for 472 yards and three touchdowns. Mauk beat out former starter Cory Randolph during preseason camp.
There was no competition at quarterback at Vanderbilt, where Cutler will be making his 29th career start. There are, however, some other position battles that have been contested during preseason practice, though Johnson wasn't announcing any winners Monday afternoon. "We are going to decide (soon), but we aren't going to tell (the media)," said Johnson.
The open spots are at left tackle, left guard, placekicker, punter and the cornerback spot vacated by Sean Dixon's one-game suspension.
Senior Ryan King, who has been battling an ankle injury, is expected to get the start at left tackle over sophomore Chris Williams, while Josh Eames appears to have the edge over Merritt Kirchoffer at left guard in a battle of sophomores.
Redshirt freshmen Jared Fagan and Josh Allen were listed as co-starters at cornerback opposite Andrew Pace, but Fagan is expected to get the start. Both players will be seeing the first action of their collegiate careers Saturday night.
The all-important placekicking position is a two-man race between holdover Patrick Johnson and newcomer Bryant Hahnfeldt. Johnson got off to a nice start last year but struggled mightily down the stretch. Hahnfeldt has enjoyed an impressive preseason camp, but he has no experience kicking in a college game. The MBA product is also in competition to serve as the Commodores' punter. On the injury front, Johnson said defensive tackle is a "long shot" to play Thursday night, while Steven Bright, a quarterback-turned-fullback/receiver, will see action.
Bill Trocchi is the interactive editor for Athlon Sports.