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Must-win 2016 game: Vanderbilt Commodores

The margin for error is thin.

Just look at last season: if Alabama lost to Auburn on the final week of the regular season, then the Tide wouldn’t have played for the national championship. Thanks to a head-to-head tie-breaker, Ole Miss would have represented the West in the SEC title game, and there’s a chance that no one from the conference would have reached the playoff.

You see, sometimes it comes down to one game.

Predicting that must-win game isn’t easy, but that’s what we’ll attempt to do this week on the SEC Blog. We wrap up the series with the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Must-win game: Sept. 1 vs. South Carolina

Vanderbilt hasn’t won a season opener since 2011. The Commodores haven’t beaten an FBS team in their first game since 2008. Needless to say, they’re due.

But this year’s season opener is even more important. For one, it kicks off the college football season on Thursday night and will be televised on ESPN. Secondly, and more importantly, it’s against another SEC East team that is in need of some positive momentum. Like Vanderbilt, South Carolina missed out on a bowl game last year. And there’s a possibility that the winner of this game makes the postseason while the loser stays home.

The Commodores have a slight advantage playing at home, and they return eight starters from a defense that ranked top 10 nationally in defensive efficiency last fall. The offense remains a question mark, though there's hope at quarterback. Plus, the return of Andrew Jelks and C.J. Duncan will help.

However, this Vanderbilt team can’t afford to slip up in yet another season opener. Two years ago, they were trounced by Temple. Last year, they played better but still lost to Western Kentucky in a game that was decided by a failed two-point conversion. In back-to-back years, they were at home and favored to win. In back-to-back years, they lost.

There’s a decent chance that Vanderbilt will be favored to win again this year when the Gamecocks come to town. Will the result be any different?

Obviously, a loss doesn’t mean the season is over. Not that early. But if the Commodores want to get over the hump and take that next step as a program; if they want to compete in the SEC or play in a bowl game; then it starts by winning the first game.