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Better know a nonconference opponent: Georgia Tech

Today we continue our look at some of the SEC’s marquee nonconference games for 2016 with a snapshot of Vanderbilt's game at Georgia Tech.

Opponent: Georgia Tech

Date of matchup: Saturday, Sept. 17

Star players: QB Justin Thomas, LB P.J. Davis, RB Marcus Marshall, WR Ricky Jeune

Offseason storyline: How should we interpret what happened to the Yellow Jackets last season? Georgia Tech was one of the nation’s most impressive teams at the end of 2014, completing the season with an Orange Bowl win against Mississippi State. Paul Johnson’s team entered 2015 with sky-high expectations only to post a 3-9 record with nine losses in the final 10 games. Johnson points blame toward a boatload of injuries at running back and along the offensive line, which hindered quarterback Thomas' play considerably. If the Jackets’ vaunted option rushing attack is unproductive, everything falls apart for Johnson’s team -- especially when the defense is mediocre like Ted Roof’s bunch was in 2015. If Roof can find ways to pressure opposing quarterbacks and generate more turnovers, the defensive results will improve. But the key to Tech becoming an ACC contender again will be for the Jackets to regain their explosiveness on offense. If Thomas looks more like the quarterback (and 1,000-yard rusher) he was in 2014 and the big plays return to Tech’s offense, the Jackets should reach postseason play. Johnson has pulled off similar reloading efforts a couple of times before, but he’s coming off his most disastrous season since taking over for Chan Gailey in 2008. There is more uncertainty facing his program now than at any point in his nine seasons at Tech.

What's at stake for Vanderbilt? By the time Vandy visits Bobby Dodd Stadium in Week 3, the Commodores will already have had the chance to prove themselves to some degree. They will have eyeballs across the nation on their Thursday night opener against South Carolina in Week 1, and then will host Middle Tennessee (a bowl participant last season), on Sept. 10. Winning those games would be great -- heck, those wins might be necessities if the Commodores are to reach bowl eligibility -- but Georgia Tech will almost certainly represent Vandy’s toughest opposition in the first month of the season. That’s especially the case since it will also be the Commodores’ first road game. Derek Mason aims to lead Vandy back to the postseason, and the September schedule (the three games mentioned, plus a Sept. 24 visit to Western Kentucky) will be enormously important. If Vandy can start 4-0, it will almost certainly play in a bowl as long as it wins just one more conference game. Surely a 4-0 Vandy team would dream even bigger dreams than that, too. Let’s not get too carried away, though. Mason has not yet led Vandy to consecutive wins, much less four victories in a row. The Commodores expect to have their best all-around team in Mason’s three seasons, and if that’s the case, they should be able to compete with each of their first four opponents. A solid Vandy defense will have its hands full against Georgia Tech and another high-powered offense the following week against Western Kentucky. If Mason’s defense manages to hold its own in those two games, will an unproven Vandy offense score enough to win? It seems somewhat unlikely, but the clearest path to Vandy bowl participation almost certainly includes wins in nonconference games like these.