This Saturday’s Alabama-Vanderbilt game is just what you’d expect: a game that will feature a ferocious defense that leads the nation in total defense (198.3 yards per game), scoring defense (4.3 points per game) and passing defense (95.3 yards per game). Yes it looks again like the Crimson Tide will... wait... what? That’s the Vanderbilt defense? You gotta be kidding. What is this, college football’s version of WestWorld?
Feel free to do that sitcom thing where people try to blink their way back to their senses. Yes, it’s the Commodores who have played championship-level defense so far this season, leading the nation in those statistical categories. In contrast, Alabama is ranked Nos. 16, 37 and 64, respectively, in those categories. But don’t let that sway you — the SEC is still Bama’s domain, no matter what the stat sheet says. In fact, this week the Tide will get back three key members of a defense that allowed 391 yards and 10-of-17 conversions on third down to Colorado State. LBs Rahsaan Evans, Anfernee Jennings and Dylan Moses all returned to practice this week. So don’t look for Crimson Tide to be so generous this weekend in Nashville.
This will be Derek Mason's and Vanderbilt’s chance to have the national spotlight on them and make a big statement. Yes, we’re talking about Vanderbilt having a legit chance to knock of No. 1 Alabama. Can you imagine what Music City would become if they could pull off this stunner? Dolly Parton will start singing punk songs.
Well don’t put your hair in a mohawk yet, Dolly. It’s a very tall order for the Commodores.
Alabama at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -18.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Vanderbilt’s balance
It’s no mystery that QB Kyle Shurmur and the Commodores' rather vanilla offense will have their hands full with that hyper-talented Tide defense. Any lost-yardage plays get amplified this week, so the Dores will have to run it and throw it with equal effectiveness. The good news is that there is more athleticism on this VU team as shown in talents like RB Ralph Webb and wideouts Trent Sherfield and C.J. Duncan. It is vital for the O-line to open some lanes for Webb, and for Sherfield and Duncan to get some separation for some quick-hit passes. For any hope of an upset, VU’s O must have workable down-and-distance situations on second and third down.
2. The turnover battle
These are two of the best teams in the country regarding turnovers. Alabama has yet to suffer a fumble or an interception, and Vanderbilt has only one fumble. But have no doubt: If the Commodores are going to have any hopes for a four-quarter game, they’ll need some help. Getting some pressure on Tide QB Jalen Hurts will be vital. VU is second nationally with 28 tackles for a loss, but there were times when Kansas State’s Jesse Ertz seemed to have a leisurely amount of time to throw last Saturday. That can’t happen vs. Bama. Pressuring the passing game to force a pick and get some sacks is a must. Vandy doesn’t have the personnel to win this game toe-to-toe. They’ll need some help from Bama in order to help themselves.
3. The discipline of the VU defense
Kansas State came into last Saturday’s game in Nashville having scored 55 points in each of its first two games but left town with just seven points thanks to that swarming Black & Gold defense. If the Dores can play lights-out, disciplined defense again, it could give them a chance. But Ertz put the hurt on the VU D last week on the ground (87 yards in his first seven carries), so you have to wonder what Hurts will do with his improvisation and scrambling. Vandy looks capable of shutting down Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough in the running game, but keeping Hurts from running wild could be another story.
The Commodores beat a ranked non-conference opponent for the first time since 1946 last week, taking down Kansas State 14-7. But this starts a three-week gauntlet of ranked SEC teams, as the Black & Gold will take on the Crimson Tide, then Florida and Georgia. This is no time to be ordinary. The Commodores could use some screens and misdirection plays on offense to offset that ridiculous pursuit that Bama’s defense utilizes to its benefit.
The crowd will be electric. The atmosphere will be intense, and the first half will be a meat grinder, for sure. But in the end, Alabama’s knack for destroying its opponents’ will to compete with a ground-and-pound offense and suffocating defense should assert itself. Bama will start its yearly assault on the SEC with a solid win here.
Prediction: Alabama 31, Vanderbilt 13
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.