Vanderbilt, South Carolina kick off season with SEC opener
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Vanderbilt Commodores and coach Derek Mason know only too well just how big an opportunity they have in their season opener.
The can kick off the year with a win at home, and against a Southeastern Conference opponent to boot.
It's something they've failed to do in each of the past two seasons under Mason, and now they get to try again Thursday night when they host South Carolina on national television.
''We need momentum, and I think that's what we're talking about,'' Mason said. ''We're talking about a chance to see something we haven't had an opportunity to do since I've been here.''
Vanderbilt hasn't opened the season with a victory since 2011 against Elon. The Commodores bounced back nicely the last time they opened a season losing to an SEC team, going 9-4 in 2013 after losing to Mississippi. But Mason, who's revamped his coaching staff almost entirely since arriving on campus in 2014, is just 7-17 and is expecting to build on last year's 4-8 record.
''We're a team that's got to earn respect,'' Mason said. ''That drives this team.''
South Carolina has won seven straight in this series and even got its lone SEC win against Vandy last season after Steve Spurrier stepped down. Now Will Muschamp is in charge trying to turn around the Gamecocks after a 3-9 record that was the league's worst. It doesn't help that the schedule has the Gamecocks on the road for their first three SEC games to kick off the season, making this opener even more crucial.
''As all first ball games, you go in expecting anything and making sure your players are able to adjust to all the different things that pop up throughout the game,'' Muschamp said. ''There are going to be some new things and you've got to be able to adjust as the games goes. That's going to be really important, especially for us.''
Here are some things to watch Thursday night:
QB SHUFFLE: Muschamp has held off on naming a quarterback starter until game-time with nobody rising up to grab the job, and the coach says the Gamecocks could use at least two quarterbacks against the Commodores. Senior Perry Orth has the most experience, starting eight games a year ago with a 78-yard TD pass helping beat Vandy 19-10 in Columbia. Freshman Brandon McIlwain enrolled in January, while freshman Jake Bentley arrived in June.
VANDY'S QB: For a change, quarterback is not a question for the Commodores. The 6-foot-4 Kyle Shurmur won the job after starting both of Vandy's two SEC wins last season as a freshman.
GROWING UP: Mason keeps calling this an older team, and he has eight juniors or seniors on offense with the age difference most noticeable on defense where all 11 starters are at least juniors. That's in addition to eight returning starters on offense and as many as 11 who started multiple games on defense last season.
YOUNG RECEIVERS: Needing to replace play-making receiver Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina is looking at its youngest wide-outs. Sophomore Deebo Samuel and freshman Bryan Edwards will both start against the Commodores. Backups include Chavis Dawkins, Korey Banks and Radrecous Davis, all freshmen. ''I think they are all talented guys and in different ways,'' Muschamp said. Edwards enters with the most hype, a 6-3 leaper who earned a game-breaking reputation in high school.
DEFENSIVE VANDY: Mason is running the defense for a second straight season, and the Commodores expect to improve after ranking 28th in yards allowed in 2015. ''That was just a taste of what we can do defensively,'' linebacker and safety Oren Burks said. ''We've gotten a taste of that, and we're hungry for more.''
AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org and AP-Top 25 Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/AP-Top25
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker