Vanderbilt football opens its 2016 season Thursday night with an SEC game against the South Carolina Gamecocks. Here are three matchups to watch in Thursday’s contest, as the Commodores look to win their first opening game since 2011.
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason vs. South Carolina coach Will Muschamp
As Vanderbilt’s head coach Derek Mason now enters his third year at the helm of Commodore Football, expectations are high, with many projecting Vandy to land a bowl game this year. Muschamp is in his first year leading the Gamecocks, so he will no doubt feel some added pressure to impress in his debut. Both coaches pride themselves on building strong defenses, so look for both Mason and Muschamp to try to outsmart the other’s offense. Also, with Vanderbilt securing two conference wins last year and South Carolina only one, this game could set the tone for the season with either team. Don’t be surprised if these coaches show a little more emotion than usual on the sidelines.
Vanderbilt QB Kyle Shurmur vs. South Carolina secondary
Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur will make his first season-opening start for the Commodores this Thursday and is fortunate to be doing so against a USC secondary that is scuffling. Muschamp announced yesterday that senior cornerback Rico McWilliams “decided to give up football” and is now off the team. This comes as a blow not only to the cornerback depth, but the entire defense as McWilliams was the most experienced player on that side of the ball. This should play well for Shurmur, as this secondary may allow some easier opportunities for the second-year QB to move the ball and dispel some of the early nerves. USC has preached “next man up,” but with a loss this close to the season opener it will be interesting to see how it responds.
Vanderbilt defense vs. South Carolina kicker Elliott Fry
Most teams don’t have to go into their season openers with the opposing team’s kicker on their minds, but USC kicker Elliott Fry may deserve that honor. Fry has been named to the preseason All-SEC second team and, per Muschamp, feels good inside 52 yards. That means the burden will be on the Vanderbilt defense to prevent South Carolina from reaching its own 45-yard line, or even closer. This will be a good matchup to watch in the event of a close game, as Fry could become the foil for the Commodores if they fail to stop the USC offense. Muschamp has lofty praise for the senior, calling him “as good a kicker as there is,” so there is little doubt that Fry will be called upon to action against Vanderbilt.