Welcome to Upset Alert, a weekly column about a Saturday favorite liable to get knocked off by the underdog.
There were more exciting games we could have run with for Week 11 — Arkansas hosts LSU after beating down Florida, and Georgia hosts an Auburn team that looked human last week. But after so much success exploiting the SEC East in recent weeks, we had to stick with the weaker division.
The safest upset bid here is undoubtedly Vanderbilt over Missouri. The Commodores will enter Faurot Field on Saturday as 3.5-point underdogs, according to most books. But here’s why Derek Mason can finally reach the five-win mark as Vandy’s head coach (yes, that fact is very sad).
3. The Commodores are playing everyone close
Six of Vanderbilt’s games have been decided by seven points or fewer this season. The team is 2-4 in those games.
And this isn’t a case of Vanderbilt making the score look closer than it actually was during garbage time. The Commodores lost to South Carolina on a 55-yard field goal with 35 seconds left. They were stonewalled on the goal line by Kentucky trailing 20-13 with less than a minute left. And against both Florida and Auburn, quarterback Kyle Shurmur threw interceptions on potential tying fourth-quarter drives to end the upset bids.
At this point, there’s a slim shot Vanderbilt could still squeak into a bowl game. Doing so would be just the program’s eighth bowl appearance, and given how the past two seasons have gone, that would be a big point of pride for Mason and the players to rally around. I would imagine they’re pretty mad about falling short against Auburn, too.
Eventually something’s gotta give, right?
2. Zach Cunningham is a star
To be fair, the entire defense has been much improved lately. The Commodores have held opponents to a 32 percent third-down conversion rate since Week 4 (Auburn was 4 for 12 on Saturday). They’ve also forced seven red-zone field goals during that same span.
Vanderbilt is making plays when it matters, and that’s a big reason why Mason’s squad is only allowing 17.8 points per game over their last five.
But Cunningham, the junior linebacker who leads the SEC with 94 tackles, is a step above his peers. He earned national defensive player of the week honors for his 19-tackle performance in the Georgia win, and he’s been the conference’s best run-stopping linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus.
His athleticism will be big against a Missouri offense that likes to spread the ball.
1. Mizzou’s defense is a mess
The Tigers are allowing 470 yards per game — 14th in the SEC and 116th in the FBS — and recently lost a couple of standouts to ACL tears (linebacker Michael Scherer and defensive lineman Terry Beckner).
The struggles have been so bad that coach Barry Odom recently took over play-calling duties for defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross and “scrapped elements of Cross’ defensive scheme,” according to Dave Matter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Even offensively challenged South Carolina managed to put up 31 points and a season-high 428 yards against Missouri last week.
While the unit still has a couple of difference-makers in Charles Harris and cornerback Aarion Penton, the attrition and the scheme mismatches have been too great to overcome. Vanderbilt has struggled to score, but tailbacks Ralph Webb and Khari Blasingame should find enough room to run here.