Alabama’s SEC schedule kicks off with a visit from old friends from Music Row.
It will take about a quarter to determine whether this version of the Commodores is singing a different tune than usual.
Vanderbilt is off to a 3-1 start in the 2022 season, but whether that means anything is yet to be determined. In TideFans.com’s preseason preview, we had Vanderbilt 2-2 at this point on the way to a 2-10 record. Looking at the Commodores’ remaining schedule, the only real possibility for a win would appear to come Oct. 22 when Vandy visits a listless Missouri team.
There is optimism right now around this Commodore program, mostly because Vanderbilt has looked much better on offense than expected. They’ve also looked worse on defense than most observers originally thought they would, however.
And trying to figure out just how good the Vandy offense is, is an issue unto itself. Vanderbilt played Hawaii, maybe one of the five worst FBS programs in 2022, in the Week 0 opener. It followed that up by hosting FCS Elon and won that game by only 11 points. Then there was a loss to Wake Forest. Last week, Vanderbilt was locked in a battle with Northern Illinois for three quarters before finally pulling away.
There are elements here that would suggest improvement is coming; Vanderbilt has two viable quarterbacks, a good running game, and the ‘Dores are reasonably sound in the kicking game. But the defense is top-heavy, with two or three legitimate players and eight or nine other guys that might not crack the two-deep anywhere else in the conference, save maybe South Carolina. Speed is lacking, and so is dynamic ability.
Depending on which quarterback Vanderbilt plays, you’ll see a different offense. The Commodores have one dual-threat quarterback and one non-dual-threat quarterback and tend to lean toward or away from a pro-style attack depending on which one is calling the signals at any given moment. Vanderbilt ranks 21st in scoring, 29th in rushing offense and is 29th in passing efficiency … but also ranks 55th in total offense thanks to an overall passing offense rating of 93rd. Alabama is having its own issues throwing the ball, thanks to a receiver corps that hasn’t stepped up yet, but has substantially more weapons in its pro-style spread.
Vanderbilt will start either Mike Wright or A.J. Swann, but both are almost certain to play. Swann has 4 carries for 7 yards on the year, while Wright has carried the ball 32 times for 264 yards (8.3. avg.) and 4 touchdowns, and is the team’s second-leading rusher. That should tell you what you need to know about offensive style. Mobile quarterbacks tend to give Alabama greater trouble, so look for more Wright and less Swann. Passing numbers favor Swann; while the yardage is about the same (452 for Swann to 426 for Wright), Swann has gotten there in 20 fewer attempts and has a 46-point advantage in QB rating. Each quarterback has thrown 6 touchdown passes; Wright has an interception while Swann has been clean.
Alabama counters with Bryce Young, who has completed a higher percentage of his passes (68.2%, compared to about 60% each for Vandy’s two) but who is coming off a sloppy game against Louisiana-Monroe where he picked up 2 interceptions on poorly-thrown passes. What’s different about Young’s game this year has been the willingness to run, and he’s averaging almost 10 yards per carry. Jalen Milroe is the primary backup. While Swann and Wright have both been better than expected, they’re not ready to stack up against Young, who can do more things downfield, and who also wipes out Wright’s advantage over most quarterbacks on the ground. Advantage: Alabama
Vanderbilt will start either Mike Wright or A.J. Swann, but both are almost certain to play. Swann has 4 carries for 7 yards on the year, while Wright has carried the ball 32 times for 264 yards (8.3. avg.) and 4 touchdowns and is the team’s second-leading rusher. That should tell you what you need to know about offensive style. Mobile quarterbacks tend to give Alabama greater trouble, so look for more Wright and less Swann.
Passing numbers favor Swann; while the yardage is about the same (452 for Swann to 426 for Wright), Swann has gotten there in 20 fewer attempts and has a 46-point advantage in QB rating. Each quarterback has thrown 6 touchdown passes; Wright has an interception while Swann has been clean.
Alabama counters with Bryce Young, who has completed a higher percentage of his passes (68.2%, compared to about 60% each for Vandy’s two) but who is coming off a sloppy game against Louisiana-Monroe where he picked up 2 interceptions on poorly-thrown passes. What’s different about Young’s game this year has been the willingness to run, and he’s averaging almost 10 yards per carry.
Jalen Milroe is the primary backup. While Swann and Wright have both been better than expected, they’re not ready to stack up against Young, who can do more things downfield, and who also wipes out Wright’s advantage over most quarterbacks on the ground. Advantage: Alabama
Even though the Commodore passing game isn’t highly ranked, Vanderbilt has some skill at receiver. Most SEC opponents knew about Will Sheppard coming into this year because of his good hands and route-running ability on short and intermediate throws. He hasn’t disappointed, racking up 7 touchdowns already among 23 total catches and developing into a more complete threat.
The other development has been the emergence of Jayden McGowan as a legitimate second option. McGowan, a freshman, is tiny but fast, and can cause problems outside or out of the slot, the position at which he will start. What Vanderbilt doesn’t have is a third option. Quincy Skinner will likely miss this game with a hamstring injury, which elevates Wilson Long into a starting role if the Commodores go strictly off the depth chart. Long has yet to catch a pass in college.
The only other receiver with a catch is Devin Boddie, a senior, who has 3 of them so far. The Commodores won’t play more than four or five receivers, probably. What they can do, however, is get production out of the tight end group; Ben Bresnahan is a dark horse all-conference pick, and together with reserves Justin Ball and Gavin Schoenwald, have combined for 8 receptions and 2 touchdowns.
Alabama will start Traeshon Holden and Jermaine Burton at two of its three spots, and either Kobe Prentice or Ja’Corey Brooks at the other. Holden has done well this season and Prentice has made an impact as a true freshman, but Burton has struggled, and Brooks needs to be more consistent when the ball isn’t coming to him. Alabama has a host of other true freshmen in the queue, with Kendrick Law, Isaiah Bond, Shazz Preston and Aaron Anderson all options. Law drew attention last week with his blocking skills, which is a quick path to playing time at Alabama for young receivers. Bond has burner speed but has been inconsistent catching the ball. Christian Leary and Thaiu Jones-Bell add depth, but neither has cracked the main rotation. With Anderson back, the only name still on the wounded list is Tyler Harrell, who probably will sit another week.
This category would have actually been given to the Commodores had it not been for the re-emergence of TE Cameron Latu, back from injury and visibly bigger and more dynamic than he was a year ago. With H-back Amari Niblack also starting to emerge as an option, Alabama takes this one by the slimmest of margins. Advantage: Alabama
This has been by far the biggest shock out of any Commodore group: The OL ranks 5th in fewest sacks allowed and 2nd in fewest tackles for loss allowed, despite losing left tackle Tyler Steen to Alabama as a transfer over the offseason. And it’s not like Steen has struggled at Alabama, or was a problem while he was at Vandy, either. The kicker? Vanderbilt is still experimenting with different lineups.
What’s certain is that Ben Cox and Bradley Ashmore will be the guards, and Gunnar Hansen will start at left tackle. Jacob Brammer will probably get the call at right tackle, although Junior Uzebu could get in the mix there. Center will be either Julian Hernandez or Delfin Xavier Castillo. Gage Pitchford will also probably play some at guard. Castillo and Hansen are both freshmen.
Alabama is also still mixing and matching. Tackle is solidified, with Steen on the left and J.C. Latham on the right. The rest is a bit less exact. Darrian Dalcourt will probably handle center, although Seth McLaughlin is still pushing. The guard position will come down to four players – Emil Ekiyor Jr., Javion Cohen, Tyler Booker and Kendall Randolph. Randolph started the Louisiana-Monroe game as an inline tight end and could do the same here. Booker, a freshman, appears to be the catalyst for potential lineup change right now. Expect Ekiyor and Cohen to start, but Booker to play a lot on both sides.
Vanderbilt deserves a lot of credit for getting this unit to play good football, but admittedly, we’re young in the season, statistical anomalies are a thing, and it’s very possible opponents like Hawaii and Elon skewed the stats a bit. We will cautiously take Bama here. Advantage: Alabama
Vanderbilt and Alabama both operate from a 3-man base front, although Alabama makes greater use of a 2-4-5 sub alignment, while Vanderbilt tends to stay to a true 3-3-5. This is where the difference in athleticism starts to show up, as the Commodores have poor defensive metrics. Vandy is 102nd in total defense, 70th against the run, 108th against the pass, 96th in efficiency defense and 87th in scoring defense.
The Commodore defensive line is just kind of … there. Vanderbilt ranks 85th in sacks and 68th in tackles for loss, although this is an all-senior starting unit. Malik Langham and Nate Clifton have been underwhelming, but reasonably reliable. The playmaker here is Christian James, if it’s anyone; James has 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack, which exceeds the production of the other two starters combined. Miles Cecil provides depth at tackle and Elijah McAlister at end, and Kevo Wesley and Bradley Mann are also available.
Alabama can both out-depth and out-execute the Commodores up front. Jaheim Oatis has more or less taken the nosetackle job from D.J. Dale, although Dale will continue to rotate in. Tim Smith, Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe handle the defensive end roles along with Jamil Burroughs. Tim Keenum, Damon Payne and Jah-Marien Latham might also see time in this game. This one’s not particularly close. Advantage: Alabama
Anfernee Orji is a legitimate NFL prospect on the weakside of the Commodore defense, and his name will be called often. He’s already logged 39 tackles through 4 games and can rush the passer, and if he were on Alabama’s roster, he would probably be a starter. There’s a big step down, however, to Ethan Barr, the current starter in the middle, who has about a third of Orji’s production. Kane Patterson will rotate with him and also backs up Orji. The news is a bit better outside, where all three of Vandy’s top edge players – starter Michael Owusu and backups Darren Agu and B.J. Diakite – have proven able to get penetration.
Alabama will start Henry To’o To’o and Jaylen Moody inside, with Deontae Lawson rotating a bit with Moody. Will Anderson, Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell will rotate at outside linebacker, with Quandarrius Robinson and Demouy Kennedy also available. Kendrick Blackshire provides depth inside. Orji is a true star, but he can’t do it alone. Alabama simply doesn’t have the holes Vanderbilt has in its unit. Advantage: Alabama
When Alabama moved Terrion Arnold ahead of Khyree Jackson at cornerback, it seemed to be the last piece of the secondary puzzle. Jackson was hurt late against Louisiana-Monroe and probably will sit for this game, making Eli Ricks the default third corner behind Arnold and Ga’Quincy McKinstry. Alabama’s safety group of DeMarcco Hellams and Jordan Battle as the deep safeties and Brian Branch and Malachi Moore as the Star and dime, respectively, is just about unmatchable among SEC teams.
If Alabama needs another cornerback for this game with Jackson hurting, it will probably be Jahquez Robinson. Vanderbilt was supposed to be strong in the back end of the defense, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Max Worship has taken a step forward at one of the safety spots, and he and the other deep safety, De’Rickey Wright, have combined for 6 PBUs. Jaylen Mahoney will be the nickel and Tyson Russell the primary cornerback, but there is still competition at the other spot between B.J. Anderson and Jeremy Lucien. Anderson appears to have the job for now.
The concern for Vanderbilt here is that no one in this group has shown to be adept at stopping opposing running games by being able to get into the backfield. Alabama makes a lot more plays and has a solid edge in athleticism. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama is coming off a masterclass in special teams against Louisiana-Monroe, particularly in regard to kick returns. Will Reichard has been powerful and accurate as a placekicker and kickoff specialist, while James Burnip is having a consistent year at punter. The return units – Ga’Quincy McKinstry at punt returner, and Jahmyr Gibbs and Ja’Corey Brooks at kickoff return – have combined to put the Tide in the top 15 in both categories. The coverage units could both improve, especially kickoff defense, but they’re no worse than the low end of the top third of teams right now. Vanderbilt has a Louisiana-Monroe problem in its return coverage, especially on punts.
The kickers themselves – Joseph Bulovas at placekicker and Matt Hayball at punter – are both solid and proven. But the Commodores don’t return kicks much better than they cover them. There is opportunity here for Alabama to do some real damage on change of possession. Advantage: Alabama
It’s another straight-8 advantage for Alabama, although wide receiver could go either way. The gap closes up at running back considerably if one considers Mike Wright to be part of that group, and Vanderbilt’s offensive line deserves praise – but we’re stretching here to make things competitive outside of the receiver comp. Moreover, Alabama holds an edge in both OL-DL cross-matchups, although it remains to be seen just how big the gap is when Alabama’s DL is on the field against the Vandy OL.
It’s feasible that Vanderbilt might cause Alabama some trouble on offense, especially if the Crimson Tide can’t contain Wright. But if that happens, it points to bigger issues in play for Alabama. At some level, Vandy is still Vandy. There are two SEC teams that have clearly struggled at the outset – Auburn and South Carolina – and both of them have measurably more talent than do the Commodores.
Vanderbilt, at least, scheduled wisely. Being 3-1 at this point helps lift the psyche of a program that hasn’t had a lot to cheer about over the years. The game Alabama fans should look to, though, was the Commodores’ loss to Wake Forest in Week 3. Wake followed up that win with a one-point victory over Liberty, yet the Demon Deacons were 20 points better than Vanderbilt.
The Alabama teams that have fallen to Vanderbilt in the past either had significant internal issues or were at a talent nadir so deep that it pointed to far greater problems. This Alabama team has presented no such evidence of that kind of strife, and talent is certainly not an issue.
Perhaps Clark Lea is the answer in Nashville. He’s a Vanderbilt alumnus and it’s clear he took the job with his heart involved, because to be blunt, very few coaches will take this assignment. But even if Lea is the next Nick Saban, he’s still a full three to four years away from fixing what’s been, largely, a multi-generational mess made almost impossible by higher academic standards on one hand and on the other, meager support from both fans and the university entire. This won’t be the game where he magically turns it all around, either.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN