College Football Picks: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Vanderbilt Commodores

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Vanderbilt Commodores
Vanderbilt Stadium – Nashville, Tennessee
Thursday, September 3, 2015, 8:00 pm Eastern, TV: SEC Network
Opening Line: Vanderbilt -2 1/2
Current Line: Western Kentucky -2
Opening Total: 66 1/2
Current Total: 64 1/2
Opening Money Line: Vanderbilt -145 / Western Kentucky +105
Current Money Line: Western Kentucky -130 / Vanderbilt +110

Western Kentucky is a 2 point road favorite against Vanderbilt Thursday night.
Western Kentucky is a 2 point road favorite against Vanderbilt Thursday night.

Mid-major teams are very rarely if ever a road favorite at SEC schools. However, that is exactly the scenario we have as the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers are 2 point favorites at the Vanderbilt Commodores Thursday night in Nashville. Western Kentucky is one of the favorites to win Conference USA, while Vanderbilt could be the worst team in the SEC.

Vanderbilt leads the series 3-0 against Western Kentucky. Despite the two schools being roughly 70 miles from each other, they haven’t played since 1938. The teams will play each other in three straight seasons starting with this game. The Commodores will travel north next season, and the Hilltoppers make the return trip to Nashville in 2017.

Western Kentucky is coached by Jeff Brohm. The Hilltoppers went 8-5 last year in Brohm’s first season. They ended the season on a five game winning streak. The last two were two of the wildest and most memorable games in recent memory.

In the regular season finale, Western Kentucky upset previously unbeaten Marshall 67-66 in overtime.  Brohm went for two in overtime instead of kicking the extra point and the Hilltoppers pulled off the upset. Both teams combined for 133 points and over 1,400 yards of offense.

You wouldn’t think a bowl game played in the Bahamas on Christmas Eve sponsored by a fast food chicken joint between two mid-major schools would create a memorable bowl. However, that is exactly what happened as the Hilltoppers took a  49-14 lead into the fourth against Central Michigan. The Chippewas would stage a furious rally, including a three lateral 75 yard touchdown on the last play of the game to pull within one point. This time Central Michigan would attempt  to win the game on a two point conversion but they missed and WKU held on for the 49-48 win. Both teams had over 600 yards of offense.

Vanderbilt is coached by Derek Mason also in in his second season. The Commodores went 3-9 last year. The only wins were over Massachusetts, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion. Apart from a 7 point loss to rival Tennessee, every other loss was by double digits.

Western Kentucky went 6-7 ATS and the total was 9-3-1 last year. Vanderbilt was 6-6 ATS and the total was 5-7.

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Western Kentucky was #4 nationally in offense at 535 yards per game, including 374 passing yards and 160 rushing yards. The Hilltoppers were #2 nationally in passing. WKU was #6 nationally in scoring at 44.4 points per game. The defense was beyond awful last year. The Hilltoppers allowed 510 yards per game including 289 passing and 221 rushing yards. WKU was #111 or worse in all three categories out of 128 teams. The Hilltoppers were #121 in points allowed at 40 points per game.

The NCAA granted quarterback Brandon Doughty a sixth year of eligibility. Last year, Doughty threw for 4,830 yards with 49 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He led the nation in passing yards and touchdown passes. Last year’s back-up Troy Jones has transferred to Akron. Nelson Fishback is the back-up this season, but Doughty took all but five snaps last season.

Senior running back Leon Allen is also back after rushing for 1,542 yards on 272 carries with 13 touchdowns, along with 51 catches for 476 yards and 3 touchdowns. However, two arrests during the off-season for public intoxication could lead to disciplinary action. Anthony Wales had 82 carries for 518 yards and 5 touchdowns, along with 15 catches for 127 yards. No other running back had more than 10 carries last year, and that shouldn’t change in 2015.

Most of Doughty’s top receiving targets are back including the running backs. Jared Dangerfield had 69 catches for 825 yards and 11 touchdowns. Taywan Taylor had 45 catches for 767 yards and 7 touchdowns. Willie McNeal has graduated after making 56 catches for 666 yards and 8 touchdowns. Antwane Grant had 41 catches for 509 yards and 6 touchdowns. Mitchell Henry, Joel German and tight end Tyler Higbee each had 4 touchdown catches last year and all three are back.

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Last year, Vanderbilt was completely inept on offense. The Commodores averaged 289 yards per game on offense, including 179 passing and 110 rushing yards. Vanderbilt averaged 17 points a game. The Commodores were #107 or lower out of 128 teams in all four categories. It also didn’t help that the Commodores were -16 in turnovers with 29 giveaways. Last year, the Vanderbilt defense allowed 402 yards per game including 218 passing and 184 rushing yards. The Commodores were #107 in points allowed at 33 per game. The defense had to stay on the field for long stretches due to the offense being so terrible.

Sophomore quarterbacks Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck have competed since the spring. McCrary has a slight edge so far but both could see action. True freshman Kyle Shurmur (son of long time NFL coach Pat) could also be in the mix. McCrary completed 51.3% of his passes for 985 yards with 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Freebeck threw for 376 yards with a touchdown and 5 interceptions.

Running back Ralph Webb is back after rushing for 907 yards on 212 carries with 4 touchdowns, and also making 10 catches. Sophomore Dallas Rivers rushed for 218 yards on 61 carries with 2 touchdowns and will get most of the back-up carries. The Commodores are thin at running back behind Webb and Rivers, if anything were to happen to either.

Tight end Stephen Scheu had 39 catches for 525 yards and 4 touchdowns last year. He broke his leg in spring practice though and might not be ready for the regular season. Receiver C.J. Duncan, a converted quarterback, had 28 catches for 441 yards and 4 touchdowns last season as a freshman. He is out for the season with a leg injury.  Junior Latevius Rayford had 36 catches for 350 yards and a touchdown. Chandler Dorrell, Trent Sherfield and Ronald Monroe will also get some catches.

Western Kentucky is 5-1 ATS in Thursday games and against SEC teams, and 4-9 in road games. Vanderbilt is 4-0 ATS against Conference USA teams, and 25-11 in September.

It is hard to imagine the WKU defense or the Vanderbilt offense being any worse than they were last year. Still, the Western Kentucky offense should still be explosive. I think the Hilltoppers win a high scoring game.

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