Memphis, TN - 3:30 p.m. Dec. 31, 2011 - (ABC/ESPN3)
Cincinnati 9-3 (5-2)
Vanderbilt 6-6 (2-6)
The Liberty Bowl will be a matchup of teams making rapids ascents from 2010. In 2010, Cincinnati went from the Orange Bowl to a disappointing 4-8 season. In 2011, however, after competing for the Big East title for most of the season, Cincinnati's title run was cut short by the injury to quarterback Zach Collaros. With Collaros on the sideline, the Bearcats dropped a close loss to West Virginia and were dominated by Rutgers before rebounding to beat Syracuse and Connecticut to secure a tie for the Big East title. Still, the turnaround in year two has reinvigorated a program that was feared to have lost its momentum after the departure of Brian Kelly to Notre Dame.
Vanderbilt, traditionall a doormat in the SEC, has been revolutionized in less than a calendar year under new head coach James Franklin. The Commodores were able to win six games and earn bowl eligibility for just the second time in recent memory despite being one of the SEC's worst teams a year before. Franklin's background has been on the offensive side of the ball, but it has been transformation of the defense that sparked the improvement in 2011. Even in defeat, Vanderbilt was competitive in virtually every game it played and showed demonstrable improvement from the beginning of the season to the end, when it blew out teams typically considered its peers (Wake Forest, Kentucky) and played traditional powers Arkansas and Florida tough.
Likely due to the reputation it earned under Brian Kelly, Cincinnati is still perceived by many as a team that prefers to spread teams out and throw the ball. Nothing could be further from the truth. Under Butch Jones, Cincinnati has no hesitation about lining up and running the ball at its opponents. Tailback Isaiah Pead was the Big East offensive player of the year, rushing for 1,110 yards and, during the absense of Zach Collaros to injury, was the team's only real offensive threat. Pead isn't the only running threat, before his ankle injury, Collaros added 282 yards and 8 rushing touchdowns of his own. As a team, Cincinnati rushes for 175 yards per game, a stat somewhat depressed by the fact that in Collaros' absence, teams bailed out to stop the run down the stretch.
Defensively, after being a liability in 2010, the Bearcats front seven returned intact in 2011 and was the best in the Big East and one of the best in the nation. Led by lineman Derek Wolfe and linebacker JK Schaffer, the Bearcats were 6th best in the nation against the run, allowing just 93.67 yards per game and led the nation in both sacks and tackles for loss. While the Bearcats offense often gets the attention, the defense has been the quiet key to the dramatic turnaround. Against a somewhat pedestrian Commodores offense, that defense will tee off to stop the run and make Vanderbilt beat them through the air.
Beating teams through the air is not what Vanderbilt does. After 12 games, the Commodores finished the season averaging just 175 yards per game through the air. A figure that ranks 97th nationally and was 8th best in the SEC. Like Cincinnati, Vanderbilt is much more comfortable running the ball with tailback Zac Stacy, Stacy and the Commodores average 167 yards per game on the ground and to control the clock and the ball. Vanderbilt doesn't need a lot of points or a big offense because its defense has consistently been one of the nation's best in turning opponents over and providing short fields for the offense. For that reason, Vanderbilt has one of the nation's best scoring defenses (allowing just 20.8 points per game).
This game ultimately comes down to a strength vs. a strength. With Collaros making a miraculous recovery from a broken ankle, the Bearcats will have the full array of plays to attack Vanderbilt both running and throwing. If Cincinnati can approach that season average of 175-200 yards on the ground, then there's no reason they can't score enough points to beat a vastly improved Vanderbilt team that is still a year away from being able to win shootout style games on offense. If, however, Vanderbilt forces turnovers and the opportunistic defense gives the offense short fields or score points of its own, there's no reason Vanderbilt can't keep the game competitive.
Prediction: Cincinnati 28 Vanderbilt 13
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