How many puns about leaky boats, rudderless ships and choppy seas can writers make about Vanderbilt football?
There’s no sure way to tell, but a near-century of Commodore failure hasn’t exhausted the supply yet.
The only downside to opening SEC play against Vanderbilt is that you really can’t evaluate anything in a meaningful way. Sure, Alabama rolled up 500 total yards before the end of the third quarter. Yes, Alabama blocked exquisitely for Bryce Young, opened copious holes for its running backs, and stifled a Commodore offense that, by all rights, had actually begin to show a pulse.
But what does a score of 55-3 really tell us? It tells us that Vanderbilt was exactly what we thought it was in the preseason – overmatched, undermanned, and quite frankly not up to SEC standards. But what else is new in Nashville, really?
Vandy’s defense looked like … well, Anfernee Orji and 10 other guys, basically what we and everyone else said about it in the run-up to this game. Orji led all defensive players, both teams, with 13 tackles. He had twice the number of tackles of Bama’s leading tackler, Henry To’o To’o. That’s because, when Vanderbilt was on defense, Orji was often the only player capable of actually getting to his spot. He’ll be playing in the NFL soon and the SEC won’t have to worry about it anymore.
What wasn’t quite as expected was the way the Vanderbilt offense struggled. The first two or three series showed a spark or two of imagination, with a nice quick passing game, misdirection in the running game and innovative play design. After that, it appeared Vanderbilt simply ran out of ideas.
Alabama held Vandy to 14 yards net rushing and 115 yards passing. That’s the kind of domination that gets offensive coordinators reassigned to different duties. Like, night-shift post office manager in Faunsdale.
In all seriousness, whether or not the Commodores actually have improved their lot since the end of the 2021 season, Alabama had issues to work through in this game, and mostly checked everything off on the list. Alabama needed more evidence of its wide receivers’ ability to separate from defensive backs, and it got that. Alabama needed a better performance from the middle of its offensive line, and it got that. The pass defense needed to take another step forward, and did.
Unfortunately, Alabama could not avoid the injury bug. Safety Jordan Battle tweaked a hamstring late, but was walking mostly limp-free on the sidelines after getting it taped up. The news may not be so good for DE Byron Young, though, who sprained an ankle and will probably miss some time over the next couple of weeks, just when the schedule is hitting a fairly challenging period.
Lastly, it’s not Alabama’s fault that the opponent on this particular evening happened to be Vanderbilt. It’s unfortunate that the Commodore program can lag the rest of the conference so regularly, but there doesn’t seem to be much urgency on the part of Vandy’s SEC brethren to demand more of a commitment from the Commodore athletic department. In most years, this game can be chalked up as a guaranteed win; in virtually all the rest, it’s still viewed as one of the least challenging potential opponents.
So in games like this, sometimes the biggest challenge is simply to maintain focus and keep working the checklist. Alabama did just that tonight. Now onto tougher opponents and greater things.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Vanderbilt:
1. Offensive line played its best game of the year; Vandy DL couldn’t compete. Javion Cohen started at left guard and for the first time, looked like the Cohen of 2021. Tyler Booker rotated in with both Cohen and RG Emil Ekiyor Jr., and continued to show that he has a bright future. Now that it’s Booker and not Kendall Randolph pushing Cohen, the urgency has gone up. Overall, the line gave all the running backs a clean path, and kept QB Bryce Young happy. Young was never sacked, and was forced to scramble just once, picking up 6 yards in the process.
The closest any Commodore came to a Bama quarterback was on an edge blitz against backup Jalen Milroe, who spun out of the pressure and completed a pass anyway. Alabama’s tackles have been consistently good against all comers so far, including Texas; if the guards can continue to improve and C Darrian Dalcourt can focus on consistency, this offense could rise from simply being well-balanced, to being truly dangerous.
2. Wide receivers improve, and some of that improvement is tied to OL growth. Traeshon Holden is developing a nice niche as the guy who knows how to follow Bryce Young when he’s out of the pocket, and find soft spots in the opponent’s coverage scheme. Holden caught another touchdown pass Saturday, but it was his other catches – rolling with Young and sitting down in an open zone – that will bear fruit for the offense in the long run. With more time to let routes develop, Young found both Ja’Corey Brooks and Jermaine Burton multiple times for big gains. At this point in the year, Alabama has played a staggering 14 wide receivers, with two more – Tyler Harrell and JoJo Earle – set to appear soon.
Alabama has never had more than a six-receiver rotation under Nick Saban, so it will be interesting to see how Harrell and Earle are worked into the mix. Right now, there’s a top foursome of Brooks, Burton, Holden and Kobe Prentice, with Isaiah Bond, Kendrick Law and Emmanuel Henderson serving as the B-group. Christian Leary plays enough to count, but Harrell and Earle are expected to start, which will almost certainly reshuffle some things.
As for Young himself, he quietly had one of his best games yet at Alabama – 385 yards passing, 4 touchdowns, no interceptions – completing almost 70 percent of his passes along the way. He’ll need the offensive line to continue to put up solid performances, because the wide receiver corps, while improving, isn’t there yet, and isn’t as able to create quick separation as previous Bama units. Still, there is reason for optimism after tonight.
3. Arnold at CB has solidified that position. It now feels like Bama has a true lockdown tandem. It’s somewhat crazy that with returning senior Khyree Jackson and high-profile LSU transfer Eli Ricks on this team, it’s been a redshirt freshman that couldn’t get playing time in last year’s injury-filled year who has been the one to really help the secondary close ranks. Terrion Arnold had another solid game; the lone pass of any significance completed against him led to the Commodores’ only points, but Will Sheppard is more or less the Anfernee Orji of Vanderbilt’s offense (and pay have pushed off besides).
When Alabama gets strong cornerback play, historically, Nick Saban follows that up with turning the dogs loose up front. Vanderbilt was a nice test for Arnold and also Ga’Quincy McKinstry, because both Sheppard and talented freshman Jayden McGowan were capable of doing damage, and QB A.J. Swann was also capable of getting the ball to them quickly. Sheppard finished with a respectable 3 catches for 52 yards, while McGowan had 6 catches but was kept contained after the catch, netting only 32 yards. This is one of the better balanced Alabama defensive units we’ve seen in a few years, with all positions contributing to the effort.
4. After a season so decimated by injury, Tide’s RB group may be about to break out. Jase McClellan ran with power in this game, with his signature play coming on a stiff-arm at the goal line late in the third quarter. Jahmyr Gibbs didn’t get a ton of opportunities to run the ball, but he’s become such a weapon in the passing game that he’s almost playing his own unique position. Roydell Williams and Trey Sanders have been nice depth pieces, but the real buzz surrounds Jamarion Miller, a true freshman who attacks on every carry and has both good open-field vision and plenty of power to make his own holes.
Every back other than Sanders averaged at least 6.8 yards per carry in this game, and Vanderbilt never really put Alabama in a difficult negative situation. To be fair, we should repeat what we said in our pregame preview regarding the thorough mediocrity that is the Vanderbilt defensive line, but some of the backs’ best work came against the second and third levels of the Vandy defense.
5. The loss of Byron Young will force changes in the DL rotation. Who will step up? Assuming Young’s ankle sprain is typical, he’s probably out anywhere from one to three weeks. Any games missed at this point in the schedule are significant. Justin Eboigbe will likely take over as the starter; he’s having a fantastic senior season rotating between all three of Alabama’s down lineman spots. While D.J. Dale has lost the starting nosetackle job to true freshman Jaheim Oatis, Dale has improved his quickness over previous seasons and has played both interior tackle positions. He would likely eat up most of Young’s lost snaps. Beyond that, it’s a crapshoot. Jamil Burroughs began the season in the A-rotation but didn’t play at all against Vanderbilt.
The second line ended up being Jah-Marien Latham, Tim Keenan and Damon Payne Jr. Of those three, Latham has the most experience by far and would seem to most likely candidate to get some work against Arkansas, but while Alabama has increased the number of players in its main rotation at linebacker, defensive back and wide receiver, not much has changed at defensive line, as it’s still a core five-man rotation in close games. Young’s ability to set the edge against opposing running games while also being a skilled pass rusher is going to be hard to replace regardless, even temporarily.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN