Both teams utilize a three-man base front, and Vanderbilt has excelled, leading the nation in total defense, scoring defense and raw pass defense. The biggest “weakness” would be a ranking of 28th against the run. Alabama ranks 8th against the run, but the pass defense numbers have been mediocre at best. The defensive line is coming off a soft performance against Colorado State, and the pass rush has been greatly hurt by injuries to the linebacker corps.
Give Vanderbilt credit, they’re onto something with this lineup. Nosetackle Nifae Lealao made news earlier in the week with a “you’re next” message delivered to Alabama – but he can back it up. The defensive line as a whole has allowed Vandy to rank 13th in sacks and 2nd in tackles for loss, both conference-leading numbers, and Lealao’s presence in the middle has probably been the most important factor. Ends Jonathan Wynn and Dare Odeyingbo have been a pair of tough bookends as well. Senior Jay Woods gives Vandy some much-needed experience off the bench at tackle, but the reserve ends are all freshmen. Cameron Tidd and Josiah Sa’o are listed as second-team, but Tidd hasn’t recorded a tackle and Sa’o barely plays.
The real X-factor weapon here is Charles Wright, who is classified as a linebacker but who will often line up on the edge. He already has 7 tackles for loss and 6 sacks, as well as 5 QB hurries, which is a good career for many Vanderbilt defenders. For Wright, it’s three games. Alabama counters with Da’Ron Payne in the middle, flanked by Da’Shawn Hand on one side and a combination of mostly Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis on the other. Jamar King has begun to get more time at end, and Joshua Frazier has been steady as a reserve tackle.
It will be interesting to see whether Johnny Dwight gets more playing time in the coming weeks, as his play late against both Colorado State and Fresno State was notable for the amount of penetration he got into the backfield. Alabama is having trouble creating a pass rush from its group and until that gets fixed, it’s hard to ignore Vanderbilt’s statistical superiority. Advantage: Vanderbilt
If Charles Wright counts as a linebacker instead of a defensive end, it’s difficult to give Alabama the edge here. But he can’t count both places. Wright and fellow outside linebacker Josh Smith are both in the 6’3”, 245-pound range, making them versions of Alabama’s Jack and Sam positions – more ends than linebacker. The interior twosome of Oren Burks and Emmanuel Smith has been effective, mostly because Smith’s 28 tackles leads the team by 10 over the next-closest player. Burks has displayed some value against the pass, but this group mostly rises or falls depending on how Smith is playing.
It’s hard to say what Alabama will be like this week, but it’s a good bet it will look nothing like the near-disaster of the Colorado State game, where rookies were being called on to fill in for five injured veterans. Rashaan Evans returns this week, and will likely play weakside linebacker in base and strongside rush end in nickel and dime situations. Having Evans’ speed back on the field will be a major improvement over the last two weeks. Shaun Dion Hamilton, Mack Wilson and Keith Holcombe will split the inside positions when Evans has his hand down.
Evans coming back will allow Alabama to play Jamey Mosley situationally, rather than having to rely on him every snap. He’ll start at Jack, and Christopher Allen can move back to a backup role while he learns the spot. The wild card for Alabama is Anfernee Jennings, who is the designated run-downs Jack linebacker. If Jennings can play a few downs and give Mosley a break, everyone will be helped. The presence of Wright, whatever he is in most cases, can’t be overlooked, but the rest of Alabama’s starting unit bests Vanderbilt’s, and Evans’ return will be huge. Advantage: Alabama
Vanderbilt leads the nation in raw pass defense and is 3rd in pass efficiency defense, and is doing it all down a regular starter, CB Taurean Ferguson. Ferguson is questionable for this game as well, leaving cornerback to Tre Herndon and Joejuan Williams. Bryce Lewis and Donovan Sheffield are quality backups. At safety, Arnold Tarpley, LaDarius Wiley and Ryan White are all having solid seasons. Zaire Jones adds depth there.
Alabama will counter with Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace at the cornerback spots, and Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison at the safeties. Laurence Jones, Tony Dixon and Xavier McKinney provide depth at safety, with Trevon Diggs the third corner. Even though Wiley and White have played exceptionally well for Vanderbilt, Fitzpatrick and Harrison are more dynamic players. This one comes down to evenness and consistency across the board, and Vandy shines there. Alabama is still getting the mix right when extra DBs are on the field. If you want big plays, take Alabama, but the Commodores have made fewer errors. Advantage: Vanderbilt
Tommy Openshaw is 0-for-2 so far on field goal attempts, which was somewhat of a concern coming into the year for Vanderbilt but still a bit unexpected that Openshaw is still misfiring. He’s perfect on PATs, though, and definitely has the leg talent. Punter Sam Loy has been somewhat of a disappointment, kicking to only a 37.8-yard average and getting only 3 of his 18 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. The Commodores rank a dismal 117th in net punting.
Alabama on the other hand has been almost flawless in the punting game behind J.K. Scott, and placekicker Andy Pappanastos is hitting the ball extremely well at the moment. Vanderbilt slightly out-performs Alabama in both return games, but the difference is minimal and Alabama will likely pull ahead over a full season due to its superior team athleticism. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Vanderbilt in two, but both Vandy’s leads are thin ones. Alabama strongly controls the matchup of its DL against the Commodore OL, at least from a run-defense standpoint. When Vandy’s DL is on the field, the Commodores also lead its matchup, but by a much thinner margin.
And thus is the problem Vanderbilt faces here when gunning for the upset: the leads the Commodores do enjoy are just not big enough, and over a four-quarter game, the much deeper Crimson Tide is quite capable of wearing down Vanderbilt.
The lack of offensive explosiveness should prove to be Vandy’s weak spot. Unless Alabama continues to have trouble defending an I-based attack – which would be a first under Nick Saban, and is also much less likely now that Rashaan Evans and potentially Anfernee Jennings are back on defense – then this should be one of those typical SEC road games, a grinder of a matchup in which Alabama simply imposes itself upon the Commodores until the dam finally breaks sometime in the second half.
Vanderbilt’s only shot is to continue to hold the Alabama pass rush at bay and hope that its receivers have made the strides necessary to excel against Alabama’s defensive backs. If anything goes wrong, anything at all, the Commodores are sunk. There simply aren’t enough weapons on the home sideline this week.
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