NCF Nation: 2011-Liberty-Bowl-preview

Cincinnati (9-3) takes on Vanderbilt (6-6) in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Here is a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Cincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe. I have a feeling that very few in SEC country has ever heard of Wolfe, who had one of the best seasons for an interior lineman in the entire country. Wolfe ranked No. 6 in the nation in tackles for loss (19.5) and No. 11 in sacks (9.5), and is going to be an integral part of this game because he is disruptive both in the run game and in the pass game. His ability this season to get behind the line and cause massive disruptions has been a big reason why Cincinnati had the most improved defensive front in the Big East this season.

WHAT TO WATCH: Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros and his injured ankle. Collaros has been practicing for several weeks now, but he has not played in an actual game for two months. So how he handles the rust factor early on is going to be a big key. One other tendency he has is to throw at least one silly interception a game. He had at least one in five of his past six starts (minus West Virginia). Also, running back Isaiah Pead was much better with Collaros behind center. When Munchie Legaux started, everybody keyed on stopping Pead to make Legaux try and win it. But with Collaros and Pead in the backfield, Cincinnati should be much more balanced and much more difficult to stop.

WHY TO WATCH: In the all-important battle between conferences, you know it is highly important for a Big East co-champion to beat anybody from the SEC. Even a team that went 6-6 and does not have a prolific bowl history like Vanderbilt. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, all the folks in the SEC remember is the way the Bearcats played in a 45-23 loss to Tennessee in Week 2. Never mind the Bearcats are a much better team today than they were back in September. Those results matter, and so does this record -- Cincinnati is 2-17-1 against SEC teams since 1980.

PREDICTION: Cincinnati 27, Vanderbilt 21. From my predictions post Monday: The quarterback matchup between Jordan Rodgers and Collaros should be a good one as well, but I still give the advantage to the Bearcats. This is a team that was on pace to get to a BCS game before Collaros broke his ankle. Cincinnati has been terrific at getting after the quarterback and making tackles behind the line, and the secondary is much improved. The seniors are eager to win their first bowl game and eager to prove the naysayers wrong once again.

Liberty Bowl: Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt

December, 30, 2011
James Franklin has Vanderbilt in a bowl game in his first season as coach, and the Commodores (6-6) face co-Big East champion Cincinnati (9-3) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis. Here’s a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Vanderbilt junior quarterback Jordan Rodgers. The catalyst in Vanderbilt’s offensive turnaround this season, Rodgers entered the starting lineup in the seventh game against Army, and the Commodores averaged 32.2 points over their last six contests. Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, is a threat both passing and running. He also helped the Commodores generate more big plays in their offense. He passed for nine touchdowns and ran for four more during his six starts and developed a nice chemistry with sophomore receiver Jordan Matthews, who emerged as the Commodores' deep threat and averaged 19.5 yards per catch.

WHAT TO WATCH: Vanderbilt’s pass rush. The Commodores didn’t have a lot of big names in their defensive line entering the season, but they played big and finished fifth in the SEC with 24 sacks. Senior defensive end Tim Fugger led the way with 6.5 sacks, and getting pressure on the quarterback will be critical for the Commodores in this game. Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros is scheduled to return after breaking his ankle back in November, and Vanderbilt needs to set the tone early and keep him guessing. When Collaros is healthy, he’s also a threat to take off and run. He had eight rushing touchdowns this season.

WHY TO WATCH: The Commodores are trying to make history. It’s already the first time in school history that a senior class has gone to two bowl games. But a win would mark only the third bowl victory in Vanderbilt history and give Franklin a winning season in his first year on the job. Cincinnati is trying to keep from losing its third straight bowl game.

PREDICTION: Vanderbilt 28, Cincinnati 24. The Commodores have made enough offensive improvement to score with the Bearcats if this game turns into a shootout early and are capable of hitting big plays for touchdowns. But it's on defense where the Commodores will win it with their propensity to take the ball away and make key stops.