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Vanderbilt vs. N.C. State, 2012 Music City Bowl preview: Can Wolfpack overcome de facto road game?

Vanderbilt is trying to win its second bowl since 1955, and N.C. State is trying to win one for the old coaching staff. can the Wolfpack overcome Vandy's homefield advantage to pull the upset? Noon, ESPN.

Stacy Revere

5 Players To Watch

David Amerson (CB, N.C. State, Jr.). In 1996, North Carolina cornerback Dré Bly came out of nowhere to pick off 11 passes. In his next two seasons, he picked off just 10. Call it the Deion Sanders Effect. At some point, your INTs dry up because teams won't even pretend to throw your way. David Amerson should have learned all about this after his oddly fantastic 2011 season (13 interceptions, five passes broken up). There was a little bit of luck involved with his absurd number of interceptions -- on average, there is one interception for every four PBUs, and even a defensive back with great hands should expect something in the neighborhood of a 50-50 split, not 72-28.

To a certain extent, then, Amerson's 2012 season was almost as impressive as last year's. He only intercepted five passes, but he broke up 11 others, meaning he defensed nearly as many passes as he did last fall, and on what were likely far fewer opportunities. Amerson takes risks and can get burned occasionally, but his battle with Vanderbilt's go-to guy, Jordan Matthews (see below), should be really, really fun to watch.

Mike Glennon (QB, N.C. State, Sr.). N.C. State threw a lot in 2012. Part of that was because the Wolfpack couldn't run the ball, and part was because outgoing head coach Tom O'Brien and his staff very much trusted Glennon, the 6'6, 232-pound senior, to distribute the ball well. And distribute it, he did. Three difference State receivers (Quintin Payton, Bryan Underwood, Tobais Palmer) were targeted at least six times per game, and five others were targeted at least 2.5 times. Only the top three were really dangerous (Payton averaged 9.4 yards per target, Palmer 9.3), but the Wolfpack will test the depth of a secondary. That said, Vandy's got a pretty deep secondary.

Andre Hal (CB, Vanderbilt, Jr.). In all, Vanderbilt is still learning how to be a good football team. James Franklin has completely changed the program's mindset and recruiting. He has taken the Commodores to as many bowls in two years as they had attended in the 36 years before his arrival in Nashville. There's a reason why just about any school with an opening tried (and failed) to go after him. But the Commodores are still just 14-11 in two seasons under Franklin, and they still ranked 50th or worse in most advanced offensive categories and in run defense. The Commodores have some growing still to do, but they are either elite or nearly elite in one specific area: pass defense. They rank 16th in Passing S&P+, they cover well, they tackle well, they harass the quarterback, and in Andre Hal, they have a corner capable of fighting to a draw against most of the nation's No. 1 receivers. State doesn't really have a No. 1 receiver (they have three), but whatever Glennon wants to do with the ball, he better locate the junior from Port Allen, LA, first.

Jordan Matthews (WR, Vanderbilt, Jr.). The Vanderbilt offense is confident and opportunistic, but it is not incredibly consistent. Running back Zac Stacy might destroy you (48 carries for 349 yards versus Wake Forest and Auburn), and he might look awfully average (53 carries for 158 yards versus Missouri and Florida). Sophomore wideout Chris Boyd may elevate the offense (18 targets, 13 catches, 274 yards versus Missouri, Georgia and Kentucky) and may drag it down (10 targets, two catches, 46 yards versus Florida and South Carolina). But in 6'3 junior Jordan Matthews, quarterback Jordan Rodgers has a true go-to threat in the passing game. Matthews was targeted 10 times or more in nine of 12 games this season and had a catch rate worse than 67 percent just three times. He caught 10 of 13 passes for 144 yards against Wake Forest, eight of 12 for 147 against South Carolina, eight of 12 for 131 versus Florida and seven of 10 for 115 versus Tennessee. He is big-time. Can't wait for Amerson vs. Matthews.

Zac Stacy (RB, Vanderbilt, Sr.). Are bowling-ball running backs your thing? Then you'll enjoy Stacy, who goes 5'9, 210 pounds and runs tough. He is not always successful at running the ball, but his toughness sets the tone for the tough Commodores, who have proven that, if nothing else, they will continue coming at you, even if you stop them a few times. And if you don't stop Stacy, you simply aren't going to have much of a chance.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. Because James Franklin wants you to watch. Few teams have so quickly adopted the personality of their head coach. He has quadrupled Vanderbilt's toughness -- he seems to have successfully adopted Jim Harbaugh's "brains and toughness as an underdog tactic" mantra from when Harbaugh was at Stanford -- and he oozes charisma. And he does things like this.

(I hadn't had a reason to post this video in months!)

2. Active secondaries are fun. Led by Amerson (18 passes defensed) and safeties Brandan Bishop (nine) and Earl Wolff (eight), N.C. State has an aggressive secondary that gets burned just enough for opponents to keep throwing the ball, evidently. The Wolfpack rank a decent-not-great 38th in Passing S&P+, but you are guaranteed some big plays one way or another. Meanwhile, Vandy is almost as active and more effective.

3. Amerson vs. Matthews. Star vs. star.

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. Vandy vs. Passing Downs. Jordan Matthews is a true star, but Vanderbilt is still only decent on standard downs, in part because Rodgers' pass protection is far from amazing. N.C. State, meanwhile, rushes the passer well with ends Darryl Cato-Bishop and Art Norman and tackle T.Y. McGill (combined, the three have 16 sacks, and the team has a healthy 32) and has a corner capable of giving Matthews fits. Vanderbilt is capable of both exploding (96 points versus Tennessee and Wake Forest) and getting completely shut down. The Commodores scored fewer than 20 points in six games, and their success will be determined, in part, by how they perform when they fall behind schedule.

2. No pressure, Mike Glennon. Thanks to the emergence of freshman Shadrach Thornton (76 carries for 329 yards and 12 catches for 114 yards in the final three games of the regular season), the State running game improved dramatically late in the season. But the Wolfpack still live and die by the pass, and pass defense is still Vandy's greatest strength. If Glennon can average at least 7.5 to 8.0 yards per pass attempt, this will be an exciting ball game. But if State can't pass, State probably can't win.

3. Win it for Coach! N.C. State head coach Tom O'Brien was let go at the end of the regular seasno, and while former Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren gets ready to take over, interim coach Dana Bible (O'Brien's offensive coordinator) will lead the Wolfpack onto the field in Nashville. State is about the 114th team with an interim coach in this bowl season, and one never, ever knows how a team will respond to this. The Wolfpack could rally and play beautifully for the old staff, or they might fight disorganization and rudderless tendencies. With the former, State is certainly good enough to make this game a tossup at worst. With the latter, the Wolfpack could be whipping boys for an always-motivated Vandy squad in front of a home crowd.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: Vandy by 8.3.
Bill's Pick: Vandy by 13. State is certainly talented enough to make this interesting, but to me, "James Franklin vs. Interim Coaching Staff" throws the edge dramatically toward the 'Dores.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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