Ole Miss, Vanderbilt battle for foothold in SEC

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Two teams that consider themselves on the rise in the tough Southeastern Conference will see which has risen the most so far when Ole Miss visits Vanderbilt in a nationally televised season opener on Thursday (9:15 Eastern, ESPN).
Although neither team is ranked in the top 25 -- which is unusual for a game involving two SEC teams -- both coaches seem confident they are headed in that direction. The story line in this one is a clash between Vanderbilt's established history and an Ole Miss team that is building fast for the future.
After Vanderbilt posted a 9-4 record last year and finished in the top 25, coach James Franklin heads into his third season with .577 winning percentage (15-11) that is the school's best since Hall of Fame coach Red Sanders managed a .578 from 1940 to 1948. The only coach to get more than 15 wins in his first two years at Vanderbilt was Dan McGugin, who managed 16 in 1904-05 on his way to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Ole Miss was 7-6 in 2012, its first year under coach Hugh Freeze, who moved from Arkansas State after, well, actually during a 10-2 season there in 2011. Hughes, whose career college record is 37-3 including his time at NAIA Lambuth, fortified the Rebels, and their fans, with a recruiting class rated as high as fifth in the country.
The fact that Ole Miss is favored to win this game acknowledges respect for Freeze's accomplishments there in such a short time.
" I think it's great for the SEC, I know it's great for Nashville and Vanderbilt specifically," Franklin said of Thursday's season opener. "(Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are) two rising programs in the SEC."
He acknowledged his players are geared up for an Ole Miss team they know will be revved up to change things between these two programs. Vanderbilt won the last three encounters, including a 27-26 decision at Ole Miss last November after Jordan Rodgers threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Chris Boyd with 52 seconds left..
Franklin's success has hinged on his uncanny ability to keep his players focused through all sorts of distractions, not the least of which includes the demanding course load that comes with being a VU student. His abilities were tested in every way this summer when four Commodores -- Brandon Vandenburg, Corey Batey, Brandon Banks and Tip McKenzie -- were arrested for their role in a rape and kicked off the team.
Boyd, the wide receiver who caught the winning pass against Ole Miss last year, has been indefinitely suspended for a role in the aftermath of the matter. That mess may have taken a small toll on fan support also. As of Monday, the game remained just shy of a sellout, though the stadium seats only 40,350.
Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels begins the year as the clear starter after serving as Rodgers' backup last season. While many have assumed the Commodores were due to drop off at the position, Carta-Samuels showed a strong arm and tremendous accuracy through camp. There have been concerns over experience -- he hasn't been a full-time player in three years -- but on Monday, Carta-Samuels reminded the media that he is actually one of the Southeastern Conference's more experienced quarterbacks, given that he started two years at Wyoming.
Commodores wide receiver Jordan Matthews is in line for a record-setting year. The senior decided not to go to the NFL after last year's 94-catch, 1,323-yard season, and has been a near-consensus second-team All-American pick. With 86 catches, he can tie Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett for the SEC's career reception mark, and with 803 yards, he'll tie Georgia's Terrence Edwards for the career yardage record.
Ole Miss won't waste any time throwing several of its great 2013 signing class into the fire.
When the team's first official depth chart was released, it listed as starters three of those touted freshmen -- tight end Evan Engram, receiver Laquon Treadwell and, most important, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, rated by some as the top recruit in the nation.
Ole Miss coaches raved about the talented trio and worked especially hard to get Nkemdiche ready to hit the field early and often.
"Physically, those guys are as ready as any freshmen I've ever seen," Freeze said Monday.
Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace led the SEC with 17 interceptions a year ago but was also the catalyst for much of their offensive success. Despite just coming back from offseason shoulder surgery, Wallace's decision-making was once again scrutinized during preseason camp as he struggled at times to make plays with his arm.
In the loss to Vanderbilt last year, Wallace completed 31 of 49 passes for 403 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for a score. The main challenge for the Rebels will be to keep the junior gunslinger upright. In last year's meeting, Wallace was sacked three times.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story

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