With a new college football season on the horizon, Thursday night in Nashville holds myriad potential for the Vanderbilt Commodores and Ole Miss Rebels, along with plenty of change and the added pressure that comes with opening the season.
2012 finished on a high note for both schools. Vanderbilt enters the year on the heels of a bowl victory for only the third time in school history following a triumph in the Music City Bowl that earned the Commodores their first nine win season since 1915. Ole Miss snapped a three year postseason drought with a win in the BBVA Compass Bowl, and finished the season 7-6.
Despite the momentum carried over from the previous campaign, Vanderbilt will aim to meet last year’s mark without key departures on offense. Quarterback Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, graduated after a senior season in which he threw for 2,539 yards and 15 touchdowns. The program’s all-time leading rusher and sole 3,000 career rusher, Zac Stacy, will line up in the backfield for the St. Louis Rams after scampering for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012.
Stepping up in the wake of the successful duo is senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels and senior running back Wesley Tate. Carta-Samuels, a transfer from Wyoming, notched the starting role in the offseason and was named a team captain. Tate accounted for eight touchdowns last season and is expected to share carries with sophomore Brian Kimbrow.
Vanderbilt does return standout wide receiver Jordan Matthews. Regarded as one of the top targets in the country, Matthews was named to the Maxwell Award and Biletnikoff Award watch lists and was selected by both the media and coaches to the Preseason First Team All-SEC.
Fellow wide receiver Chris Boyd will miss the game due to a suspension stemming from his involvement in an alleged rape incident occurring on campus in June.
Defensively, the Commodores return only six starters, but retain cornerback Andre Hal. Hal accumulated 48 tackles last season, and comes into 2013 with high expectations. Named to the preseason watch lists for the acclaimed Nagurski, Jim Thorpe, and Bednarik Awards, Hal anchors a secondary which includes six of the Vandy’s top seven tacklers from 2012 and stalwart safety Kenny Ladler.
Head coach James Franklin is excited to kick off the season and build off of last season’s momentum.
Just as Vanderbilt is rising as a football program in the SEC East, Franklin acknowledges that Ole Miss is a rising program that can contend in the SEC West.
On the opposite sideline, the Rebels kick off a season with a Southeastern Conference foe for the first time in a decade, having lost in two of their last three season starting outings. Ole Miss returns nine starters on offense and 10 starters on defense, making the Rebels the most statistically experienced team in the conference.
Second year head coach Hugh Freeze can count on dual threat junior quarterback Bo Wallace for the second straight season. Wallace wound up merely six yards shy of 3,000 passing with 22 touchdowns, and rushed for 603 yards with eight touchdowns in 2012.
Junior Donte Moncrief will be the primary receiving target for Wallace once again. Moncrief’s 66 catches last season marks the third most in a single season in school history, and his 10 touchdowns tied the record for the most scores in a given year at wide receiver. Moncrief was named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list and figures to be at the center of the Ole Miss offensive attack.
Leading rusher Jeff Scott started nine games in his junior year, and should garner the majority of attempts in his senior year.
On defense, the only starter not taking to the gridiron due to graduation is Joel Knight. The ten other defensive starters from 2012 are back on the tenured unit, led by First Team All-SEC selection Denzel Nkemdiche linebacker and his brother, consensus number one recruit and true freshman Robert Nkemdiche.
The Rebels have never lost a game in August, compiling a record of 6-0 in the program’s 119 seasons of collegiate football.
Kickoff in Nashville is slated for 9:15 Thursday night on ESPN.