As both teams enter this week's game, we now know the answer. The Commodores and Owls are both 2-0 this season, and have been quite impressive to say the least. For Vanderbilt, wins over MAC-favorite Miami (Ohio) and over then 24th-ranked South Carolina on ESPN have put the Commodores on the national radar screen. Meanwhile, Rice has tallied victories over SMU and Memphis with a dominating offensive attack, led by senior quarterback Chase Clement and senior wide receiver Jarett Dillard.
Let me just say this up front. Not to take anything from Rice, but Vanderbilt is the better team. There's no question about it. This is a different type of Vandy team, in that there are many more playmakers present this year. There are guys on the field that can completely change the game with one play, and that's what good teams need to succeed. D.J. Moore is a guy that can turn the tide in a matter of seconds, whether it is a punt return, or an interception. Chris Nickson can impact the game with his speed and his ability to get outside the pocket and take off down the field. These are things that teams have a hard time preparing for. There's really no way to prepare your team against a playmaker. You never know when guys like Moore and Nickson are going to step up and make a huge play that could change the outcome of the game in a split second.
If we look at what has happened so far this season with these two teams, it's really quite simple. Rice has faced two below average defensive units so far this season, and have been able to pass the ball at will. On the other hand, the Commodores have faced two above average defenses, and have still found ways to score points and pick up two wins in the process. Needless to say, the Owls will be facing a different type of defensive challenge this weekend, as the Vandy defense has looked solid, despite mounting injuries to the secondary. It's going to be a tough challenge to completely stop Clement and Dillard, but containing them should be the main focus. As talented as those two are, you're not going to just shut them down. But if the secondary can make enough plays to limit the gains from these two, Vanderbilt should pick up their third win in as many games this season.
On the offensive side of the ball for the Commodores, as long as Chris Nickson continues to play at a high level, there is no reason to believe that Vandy will have trouble putting up points against this defense. If they could move the ball against a strong South Carolina front, they should be able to move the ball against this Rice team. Make no mistakes about it; the Rice defense isn't exactly the "Steel Curtain." There are major holes on this defense, as there are really no guys that jump out and scare you within this defensive unit, and I'd look for the offensive staff to take some risks in this game. Running back Jared Hawkins will also play a crucial role in this game, as I'm sure the Commodores will look to establish the run early. If they can keep the ground game going, the passing game will continue to benefit by allowing for more play-action opportunities.
Special teams has always played a large role in the outcome of games for the Commodores. We can all remember situations where special teams have cost Vanderbilt in the end. But, so far, so good. The kicking game has been very solid, as has the return game. Using D.J. Moore to return punts always gives this team a chance to score off of special teams, as his breakaway speed is hard to stop. It wouldn't surprise me if special teams played a big factor in this game, particularly early on in the game. One long return in the early going for the black and gold would set a good tone for the rest of the game. The special teams unit has been solid in two victories and it will need to stay that way to pick up win No. 3.
This looked like a forgettable game in early August, but this is a game that Commodore fans could remember for a long time. Vanderbilt must win if they want to be taken seriously around the country, and to increase their chances of making it to a bowl game. As head coach Bobby Johnson made clear after the victory over the Gamecocks, the stakes have been raised. This is no longer just another game on the schedule. It's the most important game of the season at this point, and anything less than a Commodore victory will be viewed as a disappointment by most fans.
All in all, it comes down to this. Vandy is better football team at this point, and are the favorites heading into this ballgame. That's not usually the case, but with the way this team has looked in the first two weeks of the season, that may be starting to change for good. No, they aren't going to be favorites over Florida or Auburn any time soon. But after the win over Steve Spurrier and South Carolina, the Commodores have momentum, and should prove to be the best team playing this weekend on West End.
Rice could be in for a rude awakening on Saturday, as they aren't going to be facing SMU, and they aren't going to be facing Memphis. They'll be facing Vanderbilt. More specifically, the 2008 Vanderbilt Commodores.
And quite frankly, that's not a team I'd want to be facing right now.
Vandy Can Prove a Point versus. Rice
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