By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 23, 2017
By the early stages of the second quarter, it was clear Vanderbilt wasn’t ready for Alabama’s prime time.
By the early stages of the fourth quarter, it was clear Vanderbilt either wasn’t ready for FBS-level football at all, or that Alabama truly is operating on a different plane of existence.
If you’re MTSU, Alabama A&M or especially Kansas State, you’re wondering how in the world you left your own matchups with Vanderbilt as losers. Saturday, Alabama never let Vanderbilt cross midfield. The Crimson Tide’s offensive line pummeled Vanderbilt’s defensive line into submission, then kept pummeling. Alabama’s sixth-team running back got within 2 yards of scoring a touchdown before Nick Saban ordered the backups to call three straight kneel-downs right at Vanderbilt’s goal line.
So if not for Saban’s generosity, the final score of this one would have been 66-0, and most Commodore fans probably swore they saw a third “6” somewhere on the Tide sideline.
As it was, 59-0 was more than enough to make the statement Alabama needed to make. After a sizable win over Florida State – albeit one fueled by a flurry of FSU mistakes within a brief window – and ho-hum victories over Fresno State and Colorado State, a resurgent Vanderbilt program, at 3-0, thought it actually had a chance. So did plenty of national pundits.
Well, someone was wrong. Multiple someones were wrong. Alabama looked to be in a different league than Vanderbilt – because it is. There’s big boy football, and then there’s BIG BOY FOOTBALL, capital letters and emphasis added, and the Commodores got to experience the latter first-hand, over and over, for 60 minutes.
Forget about winning the game, Vanderbilt couldn’t even escape it. Three key starters – linebackers Oren Burks and Charles Wright and quarterback Kyle Shurmur – all left the game with various injuries. Burks appeared to strain a knee, Wright’s also hurt a leg, while Shurmur’s official injury description on next week’s call-out sheet will probably be listed as “Questionable – Shellshocked.” By the end of the game, the only Vanderbilt fans staying around were the band, family members and the kind of people who keep a VCR around just so they can watch their own copy of “Faces of Death.”
Alabama won by such a margin that it didn’t even learn anything. How good is this team, really? Ole Miss and its mobile quarterback Shea Patterson will be a test, but the entirety of the SEC right now has question marks. Alabama’s biggest point of question Saturday was at what point would it stop scoring.
Vanderbilt will get better. Derek Mason has already gotten better. But this is the kind of game that sets programs back a year, simply because it’s hard to forget a beating of this magnitude.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Vanderbilt:
1. This was the best game Alabama’s offensive line has played since facing Notre Dame in the 2013 BCSNCG. Florida State had given Alabama’s tackles a rough time in the opener, then the guards flailed a bit against Fresno State and Colorado State. Everyone gets A’s this week. At one point in the game, Alabama had made more than 4 yards on 13 of 17 first-down plays. The Crimson Tide racked up a school-record 38 first downs, put up 677 total yards of offense, including 496 on the ground, and kept possession of the ball for nearly 43 of the 60 minutes. Jalen Hurts could have played quarterback in his pajamas and never been in danger. In the process, Vanderbilt nosetackle Nifae Lealao, he of the infamous Alabama’s-next controversy earlier in the week, was rendered a complete non-factor. Before you dismiss these numbers as being against “just Vanderbilt,” remember that this team ranked 1st in scoring defense, passing defense and total defense nationally coming into this game. Alabama only tallied 181 yards passing, but that’s because there was no need to throw. It all goes back to OL play.
2. The return of injured linebackers was a key factor in the Tide’s defensive success. While the offense was busy running the Indy 500, the defense managed to hold the Commodores to 78 total yards, and the 599-yard differential in yardage was the most for Alabama football in more than 40 years. Vanderbilt has struggled to run the ball all year, thanks to issues along its offensive line, but the return of injured linebackers Rashaan Evans and especially Anfernee Jennings gave Alabama a presence it had lacked the last two weeks. If you want to see what “setting the edge” means for outside linebackers, watch Jennings play the run. It’s the reason that despite Terrell Lewis’ superior pass-rush ability, Jennings was named the starter at that post after fall camp. Evans didn’t play much, but he didn’t need to. And having Jennings back allowed Alabama to not be forced to over-use Jamey Mosley, whose size makes fatigue a key factor in his performances.
3. Tagovailoa gets critical experience that will help him the rest of the year. The ability to essentially play a backup quarterback for an entire half – some of that time spent with the first offensive line and the primary skill groups – without having have him come through in a critical moment is something that can’t be overlooked. Tagovailoa had a rough outing against Colorado State, to the point Alabama re-inserted Jalen Hurts into the game late. Nick Saban was unhappy with the lack of focus from the backups last week, but there were no such issues this week. Tagovailoa threw two touchdown passes, inclduing a highlight-reel, Johnny-Manziel-esque throw to DeVonta Smith, and also placed several other balls in tight windows, the most notable of those a third-down pass to TE Major Tennison.
4. Alabama’s running backs haven’t really been slowed yet. In addition to the improved play from Damien Harris, Alabama has gotten a command performance from backups Bo Scarbrough, Najee Harris and Joshua Jacobs this year. After this game, you can add Brian Robinson and even Ronnie Clark to the list. Burton Burns has long been one of Alabama’s most valuable coaches, consistently getting the best performances from the players under his watch, and this year is certainly no exception. The explosiveness of Damien Harris, the power running of Scarbrough and the freshman exuberance displayed by Najee Harris when he’s in the game has made for a good mix. As Jacobs continues to recover from nagging injuries and be part of the offense, especially in passing situations, Vanderbilt won’t be the only SEC team to have problems with this group. The offensive line did a spectacular job, but it takes good running backs to capitalize on their efforts, and Alabama certainly has that.
5. Lots of redshirts come off. Tight ends Major Tennison and Kedrick James both got their first action of the year. Brian Robinson played first at H-back, taking over the role previously filled by the injured Miller Forristall, then later made an impact at tailback. Offensive lineman J.C. Hassenauer had played early but sat against Colorado State, with the thought being he might take a senior-year redshirt; that now looks unlikely. It’s somewhat odd but not completely unbelievable to watch players de-redshirt this far into a season – especially tight ends, as Brad Smelley didn’t play right out of the gate his freshman year in 2008. The only veteran left to watch in regards to getting a post-freshman redshirt at this point is OL Dallas Warmack, who appears to be behind at least five other players at guard. Forristall should be able to get a medical-exception redshirt as well.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN