||AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Liberty Bowl Stadium
2:30 pm CST
Is there any greater paradox of Bama fan schadenfreude than thinking "SEC! SEC!" when realizing the only early season loss that the 9-3, co-Big East Champion Bearcats suffered was at the hands of the worst Tennessee team in our lifetime? Despite that sizable stain on their record the Bearcats took a 7-1 mark into November with designs on a conference title without being seriously challenged...until starting QB and big play threat Zach Collaros broke his ankle in a 24-21 heartbreaker against West Virginia, ultimately handing the conference's BCS Bowl Bid to the Mountaineers thanks to the head to head tie breaker. Cincy rebounded after a 20-3 loss at Rutgers with all name candidate backup Munchie Legaux under center with wins over Syracuse and UConn to finish 9-3 with a share of the Big East title.
The big question is whether or not Collaros will go today after a quicker than expected recovery and a return to practice. The Big East leader in passing yards and touchdowns last season, Collaros finished as the conference's second-rated passer for the second year in a row, completing 63.4 percent for 1,860 yards, 14 TDs and eight INTS while also rushing for eight scores. Whether he can put up similar numbers remains to be seen, but the Bearcats have both the luxury of a backup with recent starting experience and a much improved defense from last year.. The Bearcats allowed an average of 20.0 points in 2011 -- down from 28.0 last season -- and led the nation with 3.6 sacks and 8.9 tackles for loss per game.
Vanderbilt returns to the postseason for the second time in four years after a decades long drought. In James Franklin's first season the Commodores finished 6-6 after opening the season with three straight wins, including the conference opener against Ole Miss, before dropping their next five SEC games. A missed FG vs Arkansas and a controversial call in OT at Tennessee likely cost Vandy a pair of signature wins, but anyone who watched the 'Dores this season could tell Franklin's efforts in Nashville have Vanderbilt playing at a higher level than we've typically come to expect.
Defense has been critical all season for Vanderbilt, ranking 19th in the country giving up 324.6 yards per game, and is 27th in points allowed at 20.8 per game.
Offensively, junior Zac Stacy rushed for a combined 809 yards in 2009 and '10 before breaking Vanderbilt's single-season rushing record with 1,136 yards after averaging 125.8 over the final six games.