Both NC State and Vanderbilt were seen as programs on the rise entering the 2012 season, and yet both started off with disappointing losses on national television. What followed, however, is what defines them as they meet in the postseason. The Wolfpack, while managing to upset then-no. 3 Florida State, also struggled for consistency during a stretch that saw them beat just one winning team (FSU) all year. Vandy, on the other hand, would tally five SEC wins, though admittedly, just one against a bowl-bound squad (Ole Miss). So are both suspect teams, or just a product of their respective schedules?
Bowl Game: Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
First Year: 1998
2012 Participants: NC State Wolfpack (7-5) vs. Vanderbilt Commodores (8-4)
Last Meeting: Vanderbilt over NC State, 7-0 (1946)
NC State (previous bowl game: 31-24 win vs. Louisville in 2011 Belk Bowl)
Former State head coach Tom O’Brien told Wolfpack fans to expect big things in 2012, and yet the biggest occurrence ended up being his dismissal following a 7-5 campaign. Without O’Brien on the sidelines, the Pack will certainly be a different team as they head into their matchup with Vanderbilt, though admittedly, it’s hard to say if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. The former coach’s inability to assemble aggressive gameplans won’t be missed, but it’s questionable whether or not his players will be sufficiently motivated amidst the program’s upheaval. Luckily, they do possess strong veteran leadership, most notably in the form of senior quarterback Mike Glennon. In the shadow of Heisman-sized expectations, Glennon still managed to throw for over 3,600 touchdowns and 30 scores while leading a State team that relied primarily on the passing game. Averaging 304 passing yards per game, the Wolfpack were ranked 20th in the FBS, yet just 108th in rushing. The contrast — predicted given the team’s lack of true veteran presence or depth at the running back position — forced Glennon to shoulder most of the offensive load, and puts a glaring target on his back. With a defense that allowed 33 or more points five separate times, they’ll be calling on him once again. After the secondary finished 2011 campaign as the team’s biggest strength (27 interceptions), the group — led by star corner David Amerson — regressed mightily in 2012. Along with just 16 picks (an 11-INT drop from last year), State’s defense was ranked 97th in the country against the pass (versus 61st the year before).
Vanderbilt (previous bowl game: 31-24 loss vs. Cincinnati in 2011 Autozone Liberty Bowl)
The Commodores have won six straight games after starting 2-4. And yet, when you check the schedule, you’ll see that things aren’t necessarily as they appear. On the year, those six opponents went just 22-50, and only Ole Miss managed to win six games. So while we can certainly commend Vandy for winning the games they were supposed to, and outscoring those opponents by an average score of 38.2 to 14.2, please keep in mind the level of competition. Still, even with that in mind, we can’t just glance over the ‘Dores significant progress on the defensive side of the ball, and their impressive showing all season (18.3 points allowed per game; 14th in the FBS). The team was 17th in total defense on the season, and a phenomenal ninth against the pass. They were third in passing TDs allowed (just six), eighth in opposing completion percentage (52 percent) and fifth in yards allowed (2,110). If you’re looking for your big matchup for the game, it’s right there in front of you. Can Glennon work through a stifling defense like Vanderbilt’s, especially when there’s no running game to truly fall back on? The Commodores don’t really force interceptions (just eight all year), and don’t sack the quarterback with an alarming frequency either (26 sacks on the year). For them, it’s all about blanketing receivers while applying enough pressure to adjust a quarterback’s decision-making. The Wolfpack have allowed 36 sacks this year, and Glennon’s tossed 14 picks; so the State offensive line will happily create opportunities for that gameplan to be put into action.
Vanderbilt’s balanced attack on both offense and defense gives them a big boost against NC State, but as alluded to above, it’s all about the passing defense, and its ability to shut down Glennon. None of the Wolfpack’s receivers have performed with any consistency in 2012, with drops coming in droves during some of the team’s most frustrating losses. If State hopes to pull out a victory, they’ll need to execute in the running game, and protect Glennon. The Commodores will need to score points, of course. But quarterback Jordan Rodgers will have plenty of opportunities against NC State’s secondary. He’ll have to be wary of turnovers, but if he can keep the Dores’ offense two-dimensional, they’ll be able to pull out a victory in front of the home fans. Prediction: Vanderbilt 29, NC State 24