Game Time: Saturday, September 23, 2:30 p.m. CT/3:30 p.m. ET
Odds: Alabama (-18.5), -1100 (Alabama Moneyline), +700 (Vandy Moneyline) 43 (O/U)
It’s tough to tell if this is Alabama-Ole Miss ‘14 or not.
Ole Miss was certainly due at that point. They hadn’t beaten the Tide in over a decade, they were ranked and steadily on the rise.
Vanderbilt, which hasn’t beaten Alabama since 1984, isn’t ranked, but they just came off an important program victory over a ranked Kansas State team and are riding an unbelievable wave of defensive dominance leading the FBS in three out of the four major statistical categories.
Now, if you add to that a quarterback (Kyle Shurmur) whose QBR is the highest in the SEC, currently, and an Alabama defense that struggled mightily against the pass and the rush last weekend against Colorado State, you just may have a recipe for an upset.
Or at the very least, a much closer game than the experts think.
This starts conference play for both teams and, as always, here are some variables and match-ups that could carry some weight.
Ralph Webb Against a Surprisingly Porous Bama Front 7
Conventional wisdom says that even the most elite running back (we’re looking at you, Leonard) will struggle against Alabama’s run defense.
In six of Nick Saban’s previous ten seasons at Alabama, his rush defense has allowed less than a 100-yard average over a season, culminating last year in an astonishing 64 yards per game.
What that usually means is worrying about stout defensive linemen with large but athletic linebackers standing right behind them.
After allowing Colorado State to rush for 144 yards last week, though, the Tide defense actually looked beatable and it had nothing to do with the secondary, it’s usual kryptonite.
Fifth-year senior Ralph Webb, who has admittedly gotten off to a slow start, is still the most reliable weapon for the Commodores. If they hope to remain competitive, he’ll have to be able to find the holes that were so easily accessible last week.
Right now, the Vanderbilt offensive line is the least experienced position group on the team. The ‘Dores currently sit at 111th in the country in rushing offense. If there’s a time for this team to hit Bama in the mouth, though, it’s now.
The Tide’s defensive line hasn’t been able to get a push. The linebacking corp has been decimated by injuries, although starting LBs Rashaan Evans and Anfernee Jennings may be returning this week.
However, if that’s not the case, Webb could finally spark the running game for Vandy and open up things for Shurmur in the passing game. That unit has been surprisingly good so far, averaging 242 yards per game, a full 64 yards better than Alabama’s.
Can Jalen do Jalen Against This Vandy Defense?
As was mentioned, Vanderbilt’s defense is simply smacking teams in the mouth and they’re doing it with misdirection and a surprising amount of athleticism.
Everyone felt that when Zach Cunningham left after last season, the defense would fall off, but to this point that hasn’t been the case. Of course, this can be attributed to Derek Mason, who since his second season in Nashville, has been the defense’s playcaller.
On a side note, fans everywhere should realize how shrewd a hire this was for Vanderbilt. You get a guy who had to recruit for a school with academic restrictions and he did it well. Plus, you hire the man whose defense was responsible annually for shutting down Chip Kelly to a conference with an increased proliferation of the same type of offense. Derek Mason is that man and Vandy got it right.
Now, even though Bama’s offense isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, Vanderbilt certainly has not seen an offense with this much power, speed and talent over their first three games.
MTSU currently sits at 124th in the FBS in total offense and Kansas State’s is 60th. And that’s without the benefit of having 8 of your 11 starters be former four or five star recruits.
Over the last two games, Jalen Hurts has been able to find a nice balance between the natural runner than he is and the passer than everyone wants him to be.
He’s dinked and dunked for the most part this season, but he does have an effective arm. If he’s worried about Vandy’s front seven shutting down his legs, having that tool in his belt could be pivotal for the Tide.
Hurts’ most effective runs this season have been up the middle on quarterback keepers or plays that break down. If Mason’s squad can attack the edges like LSU’s defense did last year and hem Hurts in, it could be a long afternoon for the Tide offense.
Vandy is a Very Experienced Team
What usually works in a team’s favor that lacks the talent of the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world is experience. Even if you have new starters at certain positions, if they have time in the system and have seen the field throughout their tenure, it makes that team much harder to beat. Vanderbilt is one of those teams.
They return eight guys on the offense and seven on the defense. Here’s the scary part: 15 of the 22 starters are fourth and fifth-year players. And that doesn’t include quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who’s a true junior.
This is why the defense has been as good as they’ve been through three games. 9 of their 11 starters are of fourth and fifth-year players. That means you have guys who have worked within Derek Mason’s system for three to four years and they know every facet of it.
This Bear Bryant speech to incoming freshmen sums up what Vanderbilt is working with on top of having as much experience as they do. If you think a group of juniors and seniors can’t convince themselves and the younger players around them that they can win a program-defining home game against the #1 team in the nation, then have fun tailgating at a NFL game.
The odds are small right now, but they’re not insurmountable and stranger things haven’t definitely happened.
So, What Happens?
Alabama hasn’t played Vanderbilt away since Nick Saban’s first year in 2007 and it will be the smallest crowd they’ve had to play in front of since 2010 when they played Duke on the road.
Point being, Vanderbilt could bring 40,000 tourists from Broadway in Nashville and they still wouldn’t be the kind of factor that Neyland, Death Valley or Jordan-Hare are. The physical surroundings will not make much of a difference. Mentally, though, you have to figure the Commodores might have a slight edge, here. Their quarterback has 8 TDs to 0 picks so far and their vaunted defense is allowing just over four points a game.
The Tide, on the other hand, are coming off a humbling victory over an outmatched Colorado State and the youth in their front seven could continue to be a headache. This game’s not necessarily a toss-up given the above variables, but it’s not a gimme either.
The point spread sits at 18.5 right now and while I think Vanderbilt covers and will be competitive for three quarters, Alabama is Alabama. Even sleepwalking can occasionally get you to where you need to go.
Prediction: Alabama 27 Vanderbilt 13