Ole Miss and Vanderbilt will go head to head in Nashville this Thursday night at 8:30 on ESPN. Both teams are riding on the highs of bowl game wins, recruiting successes, and young, confident coaches. But only one team can win this week. And that one team that does win, could go on to have a much more successful season than Thursday’s loser. Some thoughts…
Vanderbilt Football is seeing more success right now than it has ever seen before. There’s really no way around their dismal history, but Coach James Franklin has them on the right track. Back-to-back bowl appearances, a nine win season in 2012, and impressive victories (over Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Auburn) are all things that have fans in an uproar of excitement heading in to the 2013 football season. However, their matchup with Ole Miss to start the season is one of epic importance. The Commodores have had the Rebels’ number the past few seasons. And while Ole Miss hasn’t exactly been a picture of football beauty lately, folks in Oxford aren’t taking so many consecutive (3) losses to Vandy too well. Last year’s heartbreaker at the hands of the ‘Dores has Ole Miss looking for revenge.
A loss to Ole Miss puts Vandy at 1-1 heading into their game against South Carolina. They go into that game at 2-0, I think Vandy puts up a fight, but if they go in 1-1, I just don’t see them being able to even smell an upset. So, when UGA comes to Nashville in late October, Vandy will likely be a fine 4-2 instead of an impressive 5-1. But then they hit a tough patch with UGA and TX A&M* to pull back to an even 4-4. Then they head to Florida where they drop to 4-5. After a victory against Kentucky, the Commodores go to Knoxville trying to get bowl eligible, but I think UT will refuse to let that happen in Neyland. Vandy faces a must win against Wake Forest if they want to finish 6-6 and get to a third consecutive bowl. I imagine they will get that win, but 6-6 is not what Vandy fans had in mind going into the season.
Now, if Vanderbilt does beat Ole Miss, a lot of things change. They head into UGA 5-1 and potentially sneak an upset over either UGA or A&M* putting them at 6-2 with four games left. They still lose in the Swamp but have more confidence heading into Knoxville and end the season 9-3.
The difference in a 9-3 and 6-6 season is huge. One is a Cotton Bowl type season; the other, a Compass Bowl season. I know Vandy and its fans want more than 6-6. I know this team wants to go to a higher level than it’s ever been to before. The key to taking that next step all revolves around beating Ole Miss.
Ole Miss is on the rise. Ask anyone with knowledge of the game the trajectory that Ole Miss is taking in the next few seasons, and you will only hear “up.” Hugh Freeze is doing wonders in Oxford both on the field and on the recruiting trail, but most people think that the Rebs won’t be able to truly compete in the murderous SEC West for another year or so. Like Vandy, the difference in a win and a loss this Thursday is the difference in a big season and a disappointing season for Ole Miss. Here are my envisioned scenarios for both outcomes.
If Ole Miss loses to Vandy, they start the season 1-3 with losses at Texas and Alabama. They head to Auburn in early October and
will have a dog fight on their hands on the Plains. Guz Malzahn knows how to win and knows that he already has some talent to use. If the Rebels walk into a volatile environment at Auburn with their heads hanging low, then I don’t foresee the outcome being pretty for Freeze and his boys. The Rebels then go home 1-4 to face TX A&M* and then LSU. If Ole Miss starts the season 1-6 like it should in this hypothetical situation, it will take a miracle to win the next five, especially heading to Starkville for this year’s Egg Bowl. You don’t think Dan Mullen remembers having squandered the opportunity to squelch Ole Miss’ bowl hopes in 2012 in Oxford? You think he lets that happen again in 2013? No way. If Ole Miss loses to Vandy, there is a case to be made that the Rebels finish 5-7 and the hopes in Oxford get straightened back out heading in to 2014. Those hopes would still be high given Freeze’s recruiting successes, but they certainly wouldn’t be as high as they could be.
Now if Ole Miss beats Vandy, they head into Auburn with a 2-2 record, but with their heads held high and beat the Tigers. I then think the Rebs head home and beat Texas A&M* before losing an all too familiar heartbreaker to LSU. With a 4-3 record, Ole Miss runs the table and ends the season 9-3.
Again, like Vandy, the game this week has the ability to literally make Ole Miss’ season one for the ages or break their season down to a learning experience with a lengthy offseason to regroup.
Prediction: Ole Miss 27 – Vanderbilt 17
*The Texas A&M games for Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are both very much up in the air at this point due to the unknown status of Johnny Manziel.