James Franklin has brought new energy to the 'Dores in his short time in Nashville.
The last time the Alabama v. Vanderbilt series took place, true freshman Leigh Tiffin carried the Tide to victory 13-10 after kicking a 47-yard field goal in the game's closing minutes. The following year on the return trip to Nashville, Nick Saban made his SEC debut for the Tide in a relatively middling 24-10 victory over the 'Dores. Ugly wins in tow, both of those 'Bama teams took those victories and ended up in Shreveport. With sights on another national championship, however, it suffices to say that much has changed in Tuscaloosa since the last time these two took the field against one another.
Having said that, things look to be changing in Nashville, and for the first time in decades Vanderbilt is actually showing some signs of life. Though it has garnered little attention, perhaps the most unexpected development in the SEC in the first month of the season has been the play of the Commodores. James Franklin took over the perennial doormat program after a failed head-coach-in-waiting experiment at Maryland, and was only pursued by the 'Dores after they missed on some more high profile targets. Since taking the job, however, Franklin has impressed nearly everyone, already leading Vandy to new heights on the recruiting trails selling his energy, early playing time, the school's strong academics, and the city of Nashville. The recruiting haul in Franklin's first year looks to be the best class Vanderbilt has signed in ages.
The on-field product has been noticeably better, too. Taking over a 2-10 team, Franklin and company knocked off Connecticut in the second week of the season, 24-21, in a game that Vandy would have traditionally found a way to lose. The following week, the 'Dores dominated Ole Miss, marking the first time Vandy has dominated any SEC opponent in my lifetime and probably yours as well. Even after falling to South Carolina 21-3 in Columbia, Vanderbilt sits at a surprising 3-1, and in terms of the SEC pecking order they are at least above Ole Miss and Kentucky and are roughly on par with Mississippi State. With Army, Kentucky, and Wake Forest remaining on the schedule, a bowl game is not out of the question.
That rather large tip of the hat to Franklin notwithstanding, though, to a large extent it is still Vanderbilt, and accordingly they lack the speed and size that are the hallmarks of high-end SEC squads. Beating teams like Connecticut and Ole Miss is one thing, but as the South Carolina game made clear, the 'Dores still figure to come up on the short end of the stick against most conference opponents, much less against the true national powers.
The real problem for Vanderbilt is the sputtering offense led by senior quarterback Larry Smith. The Alabama native and Prattville product possesses all of the intangible qualities coaches want in a quarterback, but the problem is that he possesses none of the tangible qualities -- namely arm strength and accuracy -- and while he may be playing his best football of his career, that says far more about his previous struggles than it does his current level of play. Completing only 57% of his passes and averaging under five yards per attempt, Smith has been one of the least productive starting quarterbacks in the country.
The rest of the offense has fared little better and as a whole has been largely unproductive, ranking nearly dead last nationally in total offense. Warren Norman is an effective tailback, but he hasn't played this year due to a leg injury and is not expected to play Saturday. The wide receiver corps doesn't have many standouts, and given the lack of an effective quarterback it would make little difference even if it did. The biggest shortcoming, though, is up front on the offensive line, suffering in particular with bad play from the center and the guards. The run blocking has been inconsistent, and the pass blocking has been reminiscent of Pee Wee football, with the mobile Smith being sacked 15 times so far this season on only 87 passing attempts.
With all due respect to the South Carolina defense, the fact that this Vandy offense compiled only 77 yards of total offense against the Gamecocks (to go along with three turnovers) ought to tell you everything you need to know. Given the suffocating play this season of the Alabama defense, a shutout would probably come as no real surprise, and in any event points look to be hard to come by for Vanderbilt.
Where the 'Dores do look to legitimately challenge Alabama, however, is on the defensive side of the football. For all of the countless issues that plague the Vanderbilt offense, the defense is a strong unit with solid depth to boot. The line is the strength of the group and the linebacker corps is anchored by Chris Marve, a standout who will clearly play on Sunday. Meanwhile, the defensive backfield has developed like many hoped it would in the offseason, and despite having a bye week they nevertheless lead the country in interceptions with a whopping fourteen picks and are fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense. It's not the level of what you find in Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge, but many SEC coaches would gladly trade their unit in for this Vandy defense.
Accordingly, the still developing Alabama offense could be seriously challenged tomorrow night. While Nick Saban claims to have made no decision as of this writing, Eddie Lacy will most likely be held out with a lingering turf toe injury, and the 'Bama coaching staff won't be looking to replicate the 31 touches Trent Richardson received last weekend in Gainesville. Jalston Fowler may see significant playing time tomorrow night, and additionally AJ McCarron may be looked at to do more in the passing game. Likewise, the undersized Alabama wide receiver corps will see more action against a bigger, more physical secondary than they have faced for much of the season.
Traditionally, Alabama has dominated this series but has done so in routinely unimpressive fashion, with many sluggish performances and final scoreboards far closer than all objective analysis would tend to indicate. Scrappy Vandy teams battling the Tide hard and refusing to yield in relatively close, ugly games has been more general rule than exception, and given the strength of the Vanderbilt defense that would probably be no great surprise if that happened again tomorrow night. An upset seems highly unlikely, but Vanderbilt isn't an outright cupcake and hopefully 'Bama will perform as such.
For Alabama, the Tide needs to stay healthy and remained focused on the immediate task at hand. LSU will arrive in due time, but, in a general warning that will be mentioned many times in the weeks ahead, until then Tide must not get distracted and fall victim to its own hubris against a heavy underdog.
Hope for the best.