Sunday, December 4, 2011
AutoZone Liberty Bowl
By By Andrea Adelson and Chris Low
Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3) vs. Vanderbilt Commodores (6-6)
Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Cincinnati take from Big East blogger Andrea Adelson: Most everyone expected the Bearcats to be better this season, with veteran players returning at key positions on offense and defense. But just how much better was the big question. Cincinnati answered that early, jumping out to a 7-1 start to the season behind vastly improved play from its much-maligned defense. Then the season turned.
Quarterback Zach Collaros broke his ankle early against West Virginia and was lost for the regular season. All of a sudden, a team that controlled the Big East was no longer in control at all. The Bearcats lost to the Mountaineers and dropped one to Rutgers the following week, dealing them what would be a death blow to their BCS chances. What perhaps hurts most was this team had a lead on West Virginia in the fourth quarter and could not hold on for the win.
But the Bearcats can still call themselves Big East champions for the third time in four seasons, so that should help take the sting away. Running back Isaiah Pead had another terrific season, becoming the first Cincinnati back in 25 seasons to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. The defensive front played outstanding all season, stuffing the run and getting great pressure on the quarterback with 44 sacks and 106.5 tackles for loss. Defensive tackle Derek Wolfe was a load to handle inside, and linebacker JK Schaffer had 100 tackles for the third straight season.
This was also a team that made a complete turnaround when it came to turnover margin. Last year, the Bearcats were last in the Big East at minus-15 in this category. This year, they led the Big East at plus-11. The good news for Cincinnati is that Collaros is expected back for the bowl game, but he might remind everyone what could have been for the Bearcats this season.
Vanderbilt take from SEC blogger Chris Low: James Franklin vowed when he took the Vanderbilt job that he was unconcerned about what had or hadn’t happened in the past there.
Never mind that the Commodores had been the rest of the SEC’s punching bag. Franklin saw to it that they punched back, and they’re headed to a bowl game for only the fifth time in school history.
Vanderbilt earned that trip by going to Winston-Salem, N.C., on the final weekend of the regular season and routing Wake Forest 41-7 for its sixth win of the season.
The Commodores were agonizingly close to being an eight- or even a nine-win football team. They lost in overtime at Tennessee and lost three more close games to Arkansas, Florida and Georgia by a combined 13 points.
Vanderbilt leaned on its veteran defense early in the season. The Commodores intercepted 17 passes, which is tied for second in the SEC.
But where they made the most improvement was on offense, especially after Jordan Rodgers took over at quarterback in Week 7. He had plenty of help, too. Junior running back Zac Stacy set a school record with 1,136 rushing yards. The offensive line made major strides, and sophomore receiver Jordan Matthews became one of the SEC’s premier big-play threats in the passing game.