NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Vanderbilt Commodores are hoping experience provides that little something extra against Mississippi.
These teams are very similar. The coaches are trying to turn struggling programs around: James Franklin going into his third season at Vanderbilt and Hugh Freeze coming off a successful first year. Both won bowl games last season and go into Thursday night's nationally televised season opener with high expectations.
The Commodores believe they have an edge.
This is their second straight year helping open the college football season hosting a prime-time game. They lost a year ago 17-13 to then-No. 9 South Carolina, but Franklin counts 75 percent of his roster played in that game. Now 13 seniors are slotted to start Thursday.
"We're a veteran group, a senior-laden team, so that's really going to help us tremendously," Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews.
Vanderbilt finished last season with a seven-game win streak that's not only the longest in the Southeastern Conference but tied for the fourth-longest nationally. The Commodores went 9-4 and beat North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl. Franklin lost quarterback Jordan Rodgers and the Commodores' all-time leading rusher in Zac Stacy, but he still has 14 starters back. The Commodores also have won five of the last six in this series.
Freeze led Ole Miss to a 7-6 record with a victory over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl, then he capped off possibly the best recruiting class in the program's history. He has quarterback Bo Wallace back after he threw for 2,994 yards among 19 starters returning.
But the Rebels list five sophomores as starters on defense along with freshman end Robert Nkemdiche, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation coming out of high school. Freeze also has freshman receiver Laquon Treadwell and tight end Evan Engram slotted as starters with a couple more freshmen expected to contribute early.
Freeze said his Rebels are very motivated, especially after Vanderbilt pulled out a 27-26 win last season in Oxford.
"We don't get a warm-up shot with a tuneup game," Freeze said. "We're going to have to do it for real in a tough environment against a team that's proven over the last few years that that opening game with them at home is something they're always ready for. No question coach Franklin and his staff have his kids ready to play. They're a play or two away from knocking a Top 10 team off last year. It's going to be a great challenge."
Here are five things to watch in this season opener between Mississippi and Vanderbilt:
EXPERIENCED QUARTERBACKS: Wallace is healthy after having his shoulder repaired this offseason, plus he ran for eight touchdowns last season for the most by an Ole Miss quarterback since Archie Manning. He also threw a career-high 403 yards in that loss last season to Vandy. Austyn Carta-Samuels now is Vandy's quarterback, and he got one start last season to go along with 21 starts at Wyoming.
CATCHING ON: Treadwell was the top-rated receiver by several services coming out of high school. Wallace also has Donte Moncrief back after he tied a single-season school record with 10 TD catches. Vanderbilt will be without junior Chris Boyd, suspended for allegedly offering advice on how to cover up a rape in a campus dormitory in June. Four players charged with rape in the case were dismissed. The Commodores do have Matthews, an All-SEC receiver who caught 94 passes for 1,323 yards last season.
UPTEMPO DEFENSE: Ole Miss likes to push the pace on offense, and Franklin said he saw 10 or 12 plays in the Commodores' game in Oxford last year where all Rebels weren't set when they snapped the ball. So the Vandy coach wants officials ready to make sure nobody's moving offensively that shouldn't be. But Franklin said he enjoys the coaching challenge. "We're going to run an up-tempo defense this year, which no one's ever heard of," Franklin said.
OLE MISS D: Vanderbilt has an experienced offensive line that will be tested. The Rebels ranked first in the SEC and fourth nationally averaging 7.9 tackles for loss season and second in the league with 2.9 sacks per game.
DEFENSIVE LOVE AFFAIR: Vandy had the nation's sixth-best pass efficiency defense in 2012, and cornerback Andre Hal may be the player who follows Casey Heyward and Trey Wilson with lots of interceptions. Franklin said he hopes the ball likes Hal as much as it did Heyward and Wilson.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/
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