FACTS & STATS: Site: Vanderbilt Stadium (41,600) -- Nashville, Tennessee. Television: CSS. Home Record: Northwestern 0-0, Vanderbilt 0-0. Away Record: Northwestern 0-0, Vanderbilt 0-0. Neutral Record: Northwestern 0-0, Vanderbilt 0-0. Conference Record: Northwestern 0-0, Vanderbilt 0-0. Series Record: Vanderbilt leads, 1-0-1.
Northwestern took another step forward last year under coach Pat Fitzgerald, earning back-to-back bowl bids for the first time in 15 years. The highlight of the year was a 17-10 victory at then fourth-ranked Iowa on November 7th, as it marked NU's first win over a top-five opponent since 1959. Some key contributors have been lost for the Wildcats, who now feature a young squad despite a school-record 56 letterwinners. Northwestern is 11-4 in season openers over the last 15 years, and the program has won 17 games the last two seasons, which ranks as the third most victories in any two-year period in school history.
This game will mark the first for new Vanderbilt head coach Robbie Caldwell, who is one of 11 new FBS program leaders. The Commodores managed only two wins in 2009, so Caldwell doesn't exactly inherit a group ready to contend in the loaded SEC. In regard to season openers, the Commodores are 77-39-4 all-time, but they have won just 10 of their last 25 openers. With only eight seniors expected to contribute in this opener, the Vanderbilt roster is loaded with youth.
Vandy owns a 1-0-1 series advantage over Northwestern.
This opener marks the beginning of the Dan Persa era for Northwestern. The redshirt junior takes over for Mike Kafka, who excelled under center for the Wildcats and moved on to the NFL. Persa's resume' includes only 34 career pass attempts, although one of those netted a key touchdown during the team's upset win over Iowa. At Big Ten Media Day, coach Fitzgerald said he isn't worried about the transition to a new quarterback.
The receiving corps was severely depleted by graduation, so Persa must rely on players such as unproven Jeremy Ebert. Somehow, the Wildcats must find a way to improve the nation's 95th-ranked rushing offense (117.6 ypg) with largely the same personnel. Several starters return to the offensive line, but it is hard to be too optimistic at this point,
On defense, the Wildcats welcome back six starters, although it can be argued that the three best defenders from a year ago are gone. The strength of this unit will be at linebacker, where they are loaded with talent and depth. Senior Quentin Davie has been a three-year starter at both outside linebacker positions and last year led the team in tackles (90), tackles for loss (11.5) and sacks (five), while also forcing four fumbles. Redshirt junior Jordan Mabin has made 24 straight starts at cornerback, but he'll need to step up his play with three new starters joining him in the defensive backfield.
Vanderbilt's starting quarterback job was put up for grabs by Caldwell this offseason, and incumbent Larry Smith separated himself from the pack. Smith struggled mightily as a sophomore, completing only 106-of-227 passes for 1,126 yards with four touchdowns and seven interceptions. The hope is that a year of experience under center will pay dividends. John Cole is the top returning receiver for Vandy, and while his 36 catches for 382 yards and one touchdown in 2009 didn't scare many opponents, the fact that he was productive in the SEC as a freshmen is promising.
Even with a shaky offensive line in front of him last season, tailback Warren Norman showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, rushing for 783 yards and three touchdowns on 145 carries. Zac Stacy, a fellow sophomore, actually beat out Norman for the starting job in 2009, but an injury allowed Norman to emerge. Stacy is back healthy for VU, but Norman has a knee injury that has him listed as questionable for this opener.
For the last couple of seasons, Vanderbilt has benefited from a deep and fairly talented defensive line. Now, because of graduation and injury, there will be many fresh faces in the rotation early on. Fortunately, that is not the case for the linebackers, as Chris Marve is a special talent in the middle. As a sophomore, Marve posted 121 total tackles, and he earned All-SEC recognition. Moving to the secondary, Vanderbilt returns Casey Hayward at corner and Sean Richardson at strong safety. The 2009 defense ranked third in the SEC and ninth nationally in pass defense a year ago, and the secondary should undoubtedly be the strength of this unit.
Northwestern figures to take a step back in 2010, while Vanderbilt doesn't have much room to step backwards after a miserable 2009 campaign. Give a narrow edge to the Wildcats in this opener, as they will spoil Caldwell's debut.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Northwestern 24, Vanderbilt 17
The game can be seen in Chicago on CSN Chicago at 6:30 pm CDT.