Bill Trocchi: Cincinnati-Vanderbilt Liberty Bowl preview - Sports Illustrated

Bowl Breakdown: Liberty

Publish date:

Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Vanderbilt (6-6)Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Reason to watch: Can a 2-6 SEC team beat a Big East co-champ? Well, a 1-7 SEC team (Tennessee) already beat the Bearcats by 22 earlier this season. Cincy gets a second shot at a lower-division SEC team in Memphis, and it will be yet another slap in the Big East's face if Butch Jones' team fails to put away a lower-rung SEC East opponent. The Commodores are thrilled to be back in a bowl game after a pair of 2-10 seasons, and vibrant first-year coach James Franklin has matched his surprising on-field success with some equally surprising successes on the recruiting trail. Vanderbilt has an almost impossible hill to climb in the SEC, but Franklin and Co. seem determined to go where no Commodore team has gone before.

Keep an eye on: Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros. The senior broke his right ankle against West Virginia on Nov. 12 and was ruled out for the regular season and possibly a bowl game. But when the Bearcats started practicing in December, Collaros was back and taking a majority of the snaps. He may not be 100 percent, but Collaros looks like he will start against Vanderbilt. The Steubenville, Ohio, native has started 24 games over the last three years, including four as a sophomore during the Bearcats' run to the Sugar Bowl. Munchie Legaux started Cinicnnati's last three games, during which the Bearcats averaged 22.7 points after averaging 32.8 against FBS teams under Collaros.

Did you know: Vanderbilt only improved from 1-7 to 2-6 in SEC play from 2010 to 2011, but a closer look at the numbers reveals the Commodores' progress. In 2010, Vanderbilt was outgained in SEC play by 245 yards per game and outscored by 22 points per game. Those numbers shrunk to 28 yards per game and two points per game in 2011.

Final analysis: This is an even matchup on paper. Both teams feature 1,000-yard rushers (Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead had 1,110, Vanderbilt's Zac Stacy 1,136), confident quarterbacks (Collaros and Vanderbilt's Jordan Rodgers, Aaron's kid brother) and tough defenses. Cincinnati's numbers are slightly better, but the competition in the Big East isn't as stiff as it is in the SEC. When a bowl matchup is even, it often comes down to which side is more excited to be there. Cincinnati is disappointed it did not play its way to a BCS bowl, while Vanderbilt feels this is the first step toward an exciting future.

The pick: Vanderbilt 27, Cincinnati 24