Reasons to believe: Vanderbilt vs. Missouri

Now comes the heart of Vanderbilt’s schedule.

Saturday’s game against Missouri at Vanderbilt Stadium (6:30 p.m., Comcast Sports Southeast) is the first of six straight against SEC opponents and the second of three straight at home.

If this is going to be a special season, a victory in this one is critical. The Commodores (3-2, 0-2) got rolling last season when they defeated the Tigers (4-0, 0-0) the first weekend in October, and this matchup offers similar potential to serve as a springboard.

Three reasons to believe the Commodores will have success Saturday

• James Franklin: The third-year head coach has proved himself capable of blocking out distractions – both for himself and for his team. All the talk about him as a leading candidate for the now-vacant USC job won’t be a problem. Plus, if he’s really interested in that job he’ll do what he can to showcase himself this week, when a lot more people suddenly are paying attention, and pull out all the stops to win this one.

 Sack dance: Vanderbilt is one of three SEC teams with more than 10 sacks, and four of its 11 came against a conference opponent (Ole Miss). Missouri has allowed nine sacks through its first four games. Only Kentucky has given up more. That’s a formula that could result in the defense creating a lot of favorable down-and-distance situations.

• Unproven commodity: Missouri was just 2-6 in conference play last season, its first as an SEC member, and one of those victories was in four overtimes against a terrible Tennessee team. It is the only member that has yet to play a conference game this season, so there is little evidence to support the notion that it is an SEC-caliber program.

Three reasons to believe the Commodores will struggle Saturday

James Franklin: Arguably no player in the SEC outside of Johnny Manziel is more important to his team than the Tigers’ senior quarterback. He was knocked out of last season’s meeting early having thrown just nine passes and having gained 23 yards on his only rushing attempt. Franklin currently ranks third in the conference in total offense and can be a difference-maker if he plays from start to finish this season.

• Winning ways: Say what you will about the caliber of competition, but Missouri is undefeated and has won all four of its games by a comfortable margin. It is the seventh time under current coach Gary Pinkel the Tigers started 4-0. They finished with at least six wins in each of the previous six and three times got to at least 10 victories.

Backs a’plenty: Missouri is the only school in the country with four different players who have rushed for 215 yards or more and its 1,049 rushing yards is nearly twice what it gained in its four non-conference games a year ago. Vanderbilt is one of five SEC teams that allow more than four yards per carry.

The bottom line

This game is a toss-up. Vanderbilt barely won last season when it didn’t have to contend with Missouri’s Franklin, and it has yet to prove that it can deal with a running quarterback for an entire game. The Commodores are at home, though, and despite the fact that they’re 0-2 in conference they’ve been competitive against teams that look to be better than the Tigers.

Expect it to be close and down to the wire just like the Ole Miss game, although it’s doubtful there will be as much late-game drama.