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GAME: USC at Vanderbilt, 7 p.m., Thursday
RANKING: Not ranked
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SERIES: USC leads 17-4
LAST YEAR: USC won 21-3 in Columbia as the defense held the Commodores to 77 yards, forced three turnovers and recorded six sacks.
COACH: James Franklin. He’s the only first-year coach in Vanderbilt history to lead his team to a bowl game. The Commodores finished 6-7 after a Liberty Bowl loss to Cincinnati.
QUICK TAKE: With 16 returning starters, nine on offense and seven on defense, the Commodores appear to be on the upswing. Their progress will be tested by the No. 9 Gamecocks, who also return an experienced team in this ESPN game that kicks off college football’s Labor Day weekend. In reaching its fifth bowl game in school history last season, Vanderbilt produced more points and total offense than its opponents for the first time in 28 years.
DANDY VANDY: Both the Vanderbilt offense and defense led the SEC in one-year statistical improvements from 2010 to 2011. The Sporting News placed Nashville 16th on its 2011 list of America’s Best Sports Cities. The Commodores’ 2012 recruiting class, considered the best in school history, was the first to include no players rated below three stars. The program will feature new white helmets and new uniforms this season. Last season’s six wins were two more than the previous two years combined.
S.C. CONNECTIONS: Senior placekicker Ryan Fowler, who attended Eastside High in Taylors, has made 28-of-41 career field goals and 61-of-62 career PATs. Junior linebacker Patrick Sutton attended Bishop England in Charleston.
Commodores to watch
TB Zac Stacy: The All-SEC second-team pick set school records last season with 1,193 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. He needs 631 yards to become the school’s all-time leading rusher.
WR Jordan Matthews: The 6-foot-3 junior led the SEC with 19 yards per catch last season, as he pulled in 41 passes for 783 yards and five touchdowns.
QB Jordan Rodgers: The brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, he passed for 1,524 yards and nine touchdowns and rushed for 420 yards and four touchdowns while starting seven games last season. The offense averaged 31 points in his starts.
CB Trey Wilson: The senior started every game last season and stepped up as a big-play performer with three interceptions and 30 tackles. He returned two for touchdowns.
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