By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Oct. 5, 2011
It would figure that Vanderbilt is enjoying its first signs of competency in years during the season in which the Commodores come onto Alabama’s schedule.
However, despite major improvement under new head coach James Franklin, the Commodores still lag behind Alabama in most, if not all areas of the game. Vandy doesn’t have the team speed of the other 11 SEC schools, and while depth is better than in the past, even Ole Miss and Kentucky trump Vanderbilt in this department overall.
Vanderbilt’s primary advantage is having had an off-week last Saturday, while Alabama traveled to Gainesville to battle with a physical Florida team. The Commodores’ only chance will be to catch Alabama flat-footed.
Vanderbilt has tried to get more multiple in its sets this year. The basic timbre of the offense is no longer a variant of the spread-option, but is now more rooted in the pro set. However, Vandy will use spread sets frequently, taking advantage of the mobility of its starting quarterback. Its effectiveness, however, leaves a bit to be desired. The Commodores are 77th in rushing offense, but only 116th in passing offense and 117th in total offense. Vandy also ranks 116th in sacks allowed, pointing to a continuing problem with its offensive line. Alabama counters with its two-tight-end-based pro-style attack that has been eating up the opposition on the ground. Alabama is 13th in the nation in rushing offense and 18th in scoring offense. The Tide is 38th in total offense but, like Vanderbilt, is weak through the air statistically (80th). Because Vanderbilt’s rush defense has been stout so far, look for more passing from the Tide.
Larry Smith has plenty of experience for Vanderbilt, but he’s just not a legitimate SEC talent. He is a good leader with strong character, and he’s mobile enough and can make plays with his head. But his arm strength is lacking, as is his accuracy. Smith is having a banner season so far by his standards, completing 50 of 87 passes (57.5%) for 412 yards, 3 touchdowns and 3 picks. Jordan Rodgers is his backup, and has showed flashes in limited work. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who didn’t do anything to wow the crowd last week, but who has improved steadily in 2011. McCarron is 75-for-120 (62.5%) for 919 yards, 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Backup Phillip Sims has gotten in far more work than Rodgers has for the Commodores, and has more talent. The only edge Vandy enjoys here is in experience, and that’s not enough. Advantage: Alabama
This would be closer than expected if Warren Norman was healthy for the Commodores, but a leg injury has kept him sidelined all year and probably will for this game as well. Zac Stacy starts in his place, and has put up good numbers (36 carries, 280 yards, 7.8 avg., 1 TD), but he is clearly lacking in speed compared to other SEC starters. Scatback Jerron Seymour is only 5’6” and oddly built, but he’s been a capable backup so far (35 carries, 159 yards, 4.5 avg., 2 TD). Wesley Tate and Micah Powell add depth, while Larry Smith will carry the ball enough to be mentioned here, as will receiver Jonathan Krause. Alabama answers with Trent Richardson, and not much more needs to be said. Eddie Lacy may be held out of this game due to turf toe, but Jalston Fowler is a capable replacement. Blake Sims figures to get some work, and depending on how much of a lead Alabama builds, walk-ons Ben Howell and Nick Tinker could be in for some work depending on whether Lacy can go. Fowler will play some fullback for Alabama during short-yardage situations, while Fitz Lassing and Wesley Tate handle that role for the Commodores. Advantage: Alabama
This has been a weakness for Vandy for a couple of years, and nothing is different in 2011. What’s worse, tight end Brandon Barden is a likely scratch for this game thanks to an ankle injury. That leaves Austin Monahan to start in his place. Monahan is almost as good as Barden, but if Barden can’t go, the Commodores’ two-tight-end sets get a lot less effective. Mason Johnston is Monahan’s backup. The team’s leading receiver in terms of yardage is Chris Boyd, who has some homerun ability. Jonathan Krause, Jordan Matthews and John Cole round out the top group along with Udom Udoh. Krause will likely see most of the action. Alabama counters with Marquis Maze, who is fast becoming a feared threat, and Darius Hanks as its starters. Kenny Bell, Brandon Gibson, DeAndrew White, Christion Jones and Kevin Norwood round out the usual suspects. The tight end duo of Michael Williams and Brad Smelley find themselves more involved in things every week. Chris Underwood is the primary backup to both. If Alabama can contain Boyd, there should be no problems. Advantage: Alabama
The Commodore offensive line has been pretty offensive so far. Kyle Fischer and Ryan Seymour are decent tackles, but the interior line is a question mark. Wesley Johnson starts at center flanked by Mylon Brown and Chase White at guards. White is a freshman, the other two sophomores. Alabama’s offensive line has really begun to come together lately, with William Vlachos at center flanked by guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen and tackles Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker. The guard slots are still a bit shaky from time to time, but Vanderbilt’s questions are much graver. The Commodores don’t protect the passer, and run blocking is scattershot. Advantage: Alabama
Vanderbilt has moved back to a 4-3 set, and finally the Commodores have the depth to run it up front. Vanderbilt has put up good numbers in 2011, ranking 4th in pass efficiency defense, 11th in total defense, 15th in scoring defense, 22nd in raw pass defense and 25th in rushing defense. It’s the first time since the Woody Widenhofer days that the Commodores don’t have a glaring weakness on this side of the ball. Alabama, though, is either leading the nation or almost leading in every major category. The Crimson Tide is 1st in rushing defense, 1st in scoring defense, 2nd in pass efficiency defense, 3rd in total defense and 5th in raw pass defense. Alabama operates from a base 3-4 over/under scheme.
Finally, Vanderbilt knows what having depth feels like. The Commodores have so much of it, in fact, that T.J. Greenstone, a tackle who garnered some attention on preseason all-SEC ballots, doesn’t start. Colt Nichter and Rob Lohr are the top tackles, with Greenstone the primary backup, and all three are good-sized players. Jared Morse adds depth. Tim Fugger is one of the conference’s most underrated and unknown ends, and Johnell Thomas is a matchup problem at the other end slot for opposing offensive tackles who lack good footwork. Thad McHaney and Walker May provide depth there. Alabama counters with Josh Chapman in the middle and Damion Square and Jesse Williams at end. Chapman and Williams have been especially effective as of late. Nick Gentry offers a spark off the bench at tackle, while Quinton Dial, Undra Billingsley and Ed Stinson back up the end slots. This category is actually very close, perhaps the closest on the board, but Alabama has better versatility and depth. Advantage: Alabama
Chris Marve is undoubtedly Vanderbilt’s best player, and he currently leads the team in tackles. Marve would easily start for Alabama. He has good size, top-level speed and good instincts. Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, the ‘Dores will be without the services of Tristan Strong this week. Strong suffered a knee injury against South Carolina and is out for the year. Archibald Barnes moves up to a starting role along with Chase Garnham. Alabama counters with Dont’a Hightower and Nico Johnson in the middle and Courtney Upshaw and Jerrell Harris outside. There’s been no official word on C.J. Mosley’s status for this week, but the smart money says he sits. If he does, Trey DePriest and Tana Patrick become the backups inside, with Alex Watkins and Adrian Hubbard seeing most of the action at outside linebacker. Even though Marve is every bit as good as Alabama’s linebackers, the Tide has better quality across the board, and is much more able to withstand the loss of Mosley than Vandy is to overcome the loss of Tristan Strong. Advantage: Alabama
Vanderbilt was hoping its veteran secondary would take the next step up in 2011, and it happened. Safeties Sean Richardson and Kenny Ladler are among the league’s biggest, while corners Casey Hayward and Trey Wilson also have good size and can run. Depth is in good shape with former starter Eddie Foster available at corner along with Andre Hal, while Eric Samuels, Karl Butler, Andre Simmons and Javon Marshall bolster the safety positions. Alabama counters with Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner at corner and Mark Barron, Robert Lester and Will Lowery at safety. Phelon Jones also adds to the depth at corner, while Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri may see some time at safety. The Commodores already have a whopping 14 interceptions this year, helping them to rank 5th nationally in turnover margin. This is a deep, opportunistic unit. But it lacks the top-gear athleticism of Alabama’s secondary (with the possible exception of CB Casey Hayward), and Alabama’s group is better across the board in run support. Advantage: Alabama
Vanderbilt is a respectable 27th in net punting thanks to a good start by Richard Kent, while Casey Spear has yet to miss a kick. Punt and kickoff returns, however, are middle of the pack or worse, and kickoff coverage is in the middle of the conference standings (although two spots higher than Alabama). The Crimson Tide got a good effort from punter Cody Mandell against Florida, and field goal kicking has been solid. Jeremy Shelley will handle the short kicks, while Cade Foster will handle the longer kicks plus kick off. Foster’s kickoffs, however, have been too short. Alabama is among the tops in the nation in both kickoff and punt returns, thanks largely to Marquis Maze. Field goal kicking is a push, Vandy rules the punting game, but Alabama holds such a clear edge in the return game that the Tide wins the category. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in all eight categories. Alabama also strongly wins a comparison of its DL to Vanderbilt’s OL. Alabama doesn’t hold much of an edge in a matchup of Tide OL to Commodore DL, though.
This is a typical, scrappy Vanderbilt team that can be expected to play over its collective head against Alabama. Except this time out, the Commodores actually have a defense to pull off an upset if all the bounces go their way. Recording 14 interceptions in four games should tell you what you need to know about the Commodores’ ability to flip a game on its edge.
But the ‘Dores also have to play against the Crimson Tide defense, and that’s where this game is most likely to turn. Look for Alabama to struggle early with the Commodores, but the Alabama defense should wear down the Vandy offense as the game goes along, and even though Vanderbilt has better defensive depth than it has had in decades, Alabama can still outlast it.
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