WESTERN KENTUCKY AT VANDERBILT
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT
TV: SEC Network
Las Vegas Line: Vanderbilt +2; O/U 64
This one’s equally important to both Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky, albeit for much different reasons. For Western Kentucky, the national stage playing on the SEC Network provides gives a platform for Heisman dark-horse quarterback Brandon Doughty.
The Hilltoppers can also stake an early claim to their worthiness at the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl bid. Western Kentucky is expected to challenge for the Conference USA title in 2015, which ostensibly means figuring into the G-5 race.
For Vanderbilt, Week 1 may set the tone for the entire future of the program. Last year, the Derek Mason era began with a thud. An opening night rain delay created a fittingly dreary atmosphere for the Commodores’ blowout loss to Temple.
Vanderbilt unquestionably improved as the season progressed, particularly on the defensive side, which is Mason’s hallmark. The Commodores held both Missouri and Tennessee to 24 points in last season contests; that’s the good news. The bad news is Vanderbilt mustered just 31 points combined in those losses.
Mason’s defense will apply pressure to Doughty in effort to make the nation’s most pass-happy offense go to the ground more. It’s a smart strategy, particularly with WKU running back Ace Wales sidelined for Thursday’s game.
However, even if Vanderbilt stems the tide on the Hilltoppers’ explosive offense, I don’t trust the Commodores to muster enough of an offensive attack to win. Vanderbilt has yet to announce a starting quarterback between Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck. Last year, McCrary completed just over 51 percent of his pass attempts and was intercepted eight times with just nine touchdowns. Freebeck threw one touchdown to five picks.
With screen pass guru Andy Ludwig now overseeing the offense, don’t expect Vanderbilt to recapture the Week 1 magic of 2013, when Jordan Matthews flambeed Ole Miss.
MY PICK: Western Kentucky 31, Vanderbilt 24