By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 19, 2017
By now, everyone has seen the internet meme going around noting that Kentucky, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are all 3-0 for the first time in more than 100 years. While a noteworthy happening, the real question – especially regarding Alabama this week – is whether the Commodores are truly ready for the big time.
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Until now, most of Vanderbilt’s big wins the last few years have come over transitional programs – either teams in the process of moving from one tier to another in terms of prestige and respect, or larger programs undergoing great change (see: Georgia, 2016). The most impressive wins of Derek Mason’s “good era” at Vandy are Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee in 2016. And two of those programs, Ole Miss and Tennessee, were dealing with substantial turmoil by the time Vanderbilt got to them. Ole Miss was embroiled in an NCAA investigation big enough to sink even the most iron-sided ship (and had lost starting QB Chad Kelly besides), while Tennessee had lost half its defensive playmakers and was in the middle of a mental meltdown that probably is still ongoing.
What the Commodores haven’t done yet is beat a team like Alabama, an unquestioned powerhouse and one playing pretty good football at that. So far in 2017, the Commodores have wins over a halfway decent mid-major (MTSU), a bad lower-division team (Alabama A&M), and one solid win over a very good program (Kansas State), albeit one that has tended to fold up at times against quality non-conference opponents lately.
There is no disputing the ’Dores’ defense is good. Vanderbilt is ranked on or at the top of most NCAA defensive statistical categories … but again, MTSU, Alabama A&M and Kansas State. How much of this success is for real, and how much of it is as fleeting as a ghost ship on the horizon?
Vanderbilt’s strongest suit coming into this game may not be its defense, but rather its offense. Alabama got a mouthful of Colorado State’s somewhat I-based attack last week, and the Crimson Tide had problems dealing with it. Vanderbilt brings the same offensive style, albeit with a better offensive backfield. On the other hand, it hasn’t necessarily been a good offense yet. The Commodores are a just-OK 58th in passing offense, but compared to the rushing attack (111th nationally), this is the run-and-shoot. Scoring is 78th and total offense is 103rd … against MTSU, Alabama A&M and Kansas State. Alabama brings its hybrid pro-style attack to this one, featuring pro-style route trees set against the backdrop of a read-option backfield. Alabama is 24th in rushing and 44th in scoring, but only 107th in passing. Pass efficiency, however, ranks 27th, and the Crimson Tide knows how to roll up a big play or two.
Vandy’s Kyle Shurmur and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts couldn’t be more different if they tried. Shurmur is a pro-style quarterback to the core coming off a 2016 season where he threw more interceptions than touchdowns. But he’s come out firing in 2017, completing 49 of 69 passes (71.0%) for 704 yards, 8 touchdowns and most importantly, 0 interceptions. His rating of 194.9 helps the Commodores rank 11th in the category overall. He is no threat to run, however, but unless Alabama’s pass rush wakes up that might not matter. His backup is a freshman, Deuce Wallace, who so far has shown he needs work.
Alabama’s Hurts has passed for 472 yards and run for 312 so far, the truest definition of a dual-threat QB that there is. He’s completing approximately 68 percent of his passes and like Shurmur, has also yet to throw a pick. True freshman Tua Tagovailoa is Hurts’ backup, but while he has a superior arm, he’s not quite ready for prime time just yet. This really boils down to whether you favor a pure passer, or a dual-threat QB who can make plays when the call breaks down. So far, Hurts has shown more potential. Advantage: Alabama
The most shocking failure of the Vanderbilt offense this year has been in getting Ralph Webb off a sidetrack. Webb came into the season garnering quite a bit of all-SEC consideration, but so far has rushed for only 149 yards on 58 carries, a horrendous 2.6-yard average. He’s scored only twice. The other issue for Vanderbilt is starting fullback Bailey McElwain is listed as questionable, and a good fullback is a necessity to make this offense run. Senior Dallas Rivers will start there, but he’s not quite the player McElwain is. Option B is big Khari Blasingame, who is Webb’s backup at the tailback position but who is pushing 240 pounds. Blasingame has averaged 4.9 yards on 19 carries but hasn’t scored; expect him to see a greater role in this game.
Alabama counters with a stable full of backs, led by the emerging Damien Harris. Harris has racked up 158 yards on 26 carries (6.1 avg.) while splitting the position with bruiser Bo Scarbrough. Jalen Hurts is obviously a huge part of Alabama’s running game as well, as he is the team’s leading rusher. Najee Harris backs up Scarbrough and Damien Harris, and Joshua Jacobs saw his first action of the year against Colorado State and is now healthy. Alabama doesn’t use a fullback. Unless Webb has been waiting for this game to put up a breakout performance, this really isn’t close. Advantage: Alabama
Height isn’t everything in receivers, which is good for Vanderbilt because the Commodores don’t have it. What they do have, though is some thickness: both starters, Trent Sherfield and C.J. Duncan, are 200-plus pounds and can battle with even the most physical corners. Sherfield is off to a strong start in 2017, catching 12 passes for 234 yards (19.5 avg.) and a touchdown so far. Duncan has done most of his work in short bursts. The one glaring issue Vandy has is a lack of depth. Kalija Lipscomb is the only reliable target off the bench. Caleb Scott and Trey Ellis haven’t made much of an impact yet. The X-factor for this team has been the tight ends. Jared Pinkney has snagged 9 passes already and is a load. Nathan Marcus provides good depth there.
As for Alabama, the Crimson Tide has begun to spread things around more in recent weeks, but Calvin Ridley remains the focus, with 15 catches for 219 yards (14.6 avg.) and 2 touchdowns. Cameron Sims, Robert Foster, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and Derek Kief make up the supporting cast. The tight end position may feature a new face or two this week with the loss of Miller Forristall to an ACL injury. Irv Smith Jr. and Hale Hentges will get the majority of the snaps at H and Y, respectively, but with Forristall now out, there is no depth. Two true freshmen, Kedrick James and Major Tennison, have been redshirting up to this point, but if one or both get into this game, it won’t be a surprise. Ronnie Clark could be an option at H only; he is essentially a large running back but not necessarily a lead blocker. Alabama has struggled to find a place for him to contribute despite him being a good athlete.
Alabama has had good luck this year integrating walk-ons into its defense, so it might try to go down that road again. The most likely would seem to be someone capable of playing the H position more than the Y, so Hunter Bryant and Jacob Parker are probably at the head of that list. Even with Alabama needing a third tight end to step forward, the Crimson Tide has a major depth advantage elsewhere. Advantage: Alabama
The Commodores have done a good job of keeping Kyle Shurmur upright, ranking 9th nationally and 2nd in the SEC in fewest sacks allowed. But run blocking is another matter. While the Commodores curiously rank 9th in fewest tackles for loss allowed, the running game has been most ineffective. Bruno Reagan anchors the line from the center position, and Ean Pfeifer offers experience at left guard. Left tackle Justin Skule has a lot of potential but needs to be more consistent.
The right side of the line is where Alabama could exploit some holes. Sophomore Jared Southers and freshman Devin Cochran are just getting their feet wet, and even though Alabama’s defensive line is coming off a rough outing, expect the Tide to make a little noise here. Alabama will start Bradley Bozeman at center, flanked by guards Ross Pierschbacher and Lester Cotton and tackles Jonah Williams and Matt Womack. Alabama is coming off one of its best performances in recent memory, and as long as the Tide doesn’t ask too much of its tackles in pass protection, all should be well. Depth is strongly an Alabama edge, in both numbers and experience. Advantage: Alabama
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