Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Vanderbilt (6-6)
Saturday, December 31st, 3:30 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The Cincinnati Bearcats of the Big East Conference and the Vanderbilt Commodores of the SEC will celebrate New Year's Eve in Memphis by butting heads in the Liberty Bowl.
Cincinnati closed the regular season with back-to-back victories to finish at 9-3 and clinch a share of the Big East Conference title. Unfortunately for second-year head coach Butch Jones and company, tie-breakers prevented the Bearcats from representing the league in a BCS bowl game. Still, Jones was named Big East Coach of the Year and has orchestrated an impressive turnaround, as the program managed only four wins in his first season at the helm. This contest marks the 13th all-time bowl appearance for Cincinnati, which has won six of its previous 12 postseason tilts.
"We are pleased to accept a bid to the 53rd AutoZone Liberty Bowl," Jones said. "It's a great honor to be part of a game with the prestige and storied history of the Liberty Bowl. We look forward to a great number of Cincinnati fans being behind the team and helping us ring in the New Year in Memphis."
Vanderbilt is under the guidance of first-year head coach James Franklin, and the fact that he has led the group to six victories after it managed only two last season is a tremendous accomplishment. He was recently rewarded with a new contract that both increased his salary and extended his tenure. Vandy has made only four previous bowl appearances, so this season's success is certainly noteworthy. The Commodores' most recent postseason contest was the 2008 Music City Bowl, and that tilt resulted in a victory.
"We are extremely excited and honored to be coming to Memphis and playing in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl," said Franklin. "The University of Cincinnati will present both a huge challenge for our football team and a great opportunity at the same time."
This game marks the eighth meeting between Cincinnati and Vanderbilt on the gridiron, and it is the first since 1994. The Commodores own a narrow 4-3 series advantage, and they have won each of the last three encounters.
Cincinnati senior running back Isaiah Pead was chosen as the Big East Conference Offensive Player of the Year, as he ran for 1,100 yards to go along with 14 touchdowns. Pead was especially impressive down the stretch, helping the Bearcats stay the course after starting quarterback Zach Collaros was lost with a leg injury. It seems unlikely that Collaros will be available for this bowl game, so Munchie Legaux figures to be under center once again. Legaux has only completed 47.4 percent of his passes this year for the Bearcats, who are far-less-formidable without Collaros. Overall this season, Cincinnati is posting 33.5 ppg and 393.2 total ypg, and Anthony McClung is dangerous at receiver.
The key to Cincinnati's nine-win campaign has been the play of the defense, which leads the nation in sacks per game (3.6) and TFL per contest (8.9). The Bearcats rank sixth nationally against the run, yielding a mere 93.7 ypg. Widely regarded as the best player on the defensive side of the ball for UC, senior defensive tackle Derek Wolfe was recently named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and a Second-Team All-American. Wolfe leads the conference with 19.5 TFL, including 9.5 sacks. The Bearcats are yielding 20.0 ppg and have come up with 30 takeaways.
"After last year, it shows how hard we've worked," says Wolfe of the turnaround this season. "I think we have a great chance of winning this bowl game."
Challenging Wolfe and the defense will be a Vanderbilt squad that is scoring 26.9 ppg while racking up 342.8 total ypg. Of the 38 offensive touchdowns the Commodores have notched, 24 of those have been of the rushing variety, and Zac Stacy has scored 13 times on the ground to go along with his 1,136 rushing yards. Jordan Rodgers, the team's QB, is the brother of NFL superstar Aaron Rodgers. The younger signal caller has completed just 51.5 percent of his passes this season for 1,498 yards with nine TDs and nine INTs, but he does pose a threat as a runner (387 yds, four TDs). When Rodgers drops back to pass, he is usually looking for either Jordan Matthews or Chris Boyd. Matthews has racked up 722 yards and five TDs on just 37 catches, while Boyd has 404 yards and seven scores on 29 grabs.
"We'll be aggressive and we'll have some schemes like we do every week, but I don't want to have any more than we typically do because that's when you have kids playing tentatively and not playing fast."
Opponents are scoring 20.8 ppg against Vanderbilt, which is permitting only 324.6 total ypg this season. The Commodores are surrendering a modest 123.0 rushing ypg at a clip of 3.4 yards per attempt, and they have notched 17 interceptions as well to go along with 10 fumble recoveries. Vandy has done a solid job of pressuring the QB as well, notching 24 sacks to date. Chris Marve leads the defense with 84 total tackles, including seven TFL, while Casey Hayward has five interceptions.
While Vanderbilt has been to four bowl games in 121 years, Cincinnati has participated in four bowls the last six years. Still, the less experienced postseason team gets the nod here, as Franklin's group is clearly on the upswing.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Vanderbilt 27, Cincinnati 24
12/29 10:48:26 ET