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Hope For the Best: Vanderbilt Edition

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The road gets tougher for the Tide, and that journey begins this week against a surprisingly good Vanderbilt team. Can Alabama continue to raise the bar?

Kansas State v Vanderbilt
Can Kyle Shurmur and the offense give the defense enough support to buoy an upset over the Tide?
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The 2017 edition of the Vanderbilt football team is nothing like recent iterations of the Commodore program. To employ the oft-used verbiage of the hour, this ain’t your daddy’s Vandy by any stretch.

With a defense full of senior leaders who are also fine SEC-caliber football players and an offense that is shockingly efficient if unspectacular, head coach Derek Mason has built a team that, while still not a national power, has the aura of a David that very well may knock over some gridiron Goliaths before his time in Nashville is done.

In a mere four years, Mason has transformed the Commodores from an SEC cellar dweller into a potential SEC East contender with a conservative offense that plays to the strength of its best unit, a solid, physical, intelligent defense. Does that sound familiar? It should, because it’s the exact formula that Gene Stallings’ 1992 national championship team used at Alabama. Win the game with defense, and let the offense do enough to not get you beat. That’s what Vanderbilt is doing this year, albeit against some rather soft competition.

Vandy is not a team built upon four- and five-star talent. They are not a team full of blinding speed or NFL-caliber athletes at every position. They are a throwback in many ways: a team that may not be able to win every race, but that can win enough of them through sheer smarts and determination to make a good run.

Sure, Alabama has faced, and defeated, what was likely a better defense already this year, when they torched uber-talented Florida State in the season opener. But FSU was a different kind of team. They were more flash and bang and pop, while Vanderbilt is more methodical, more fluid, like the pressure generated by rising floodwaters on the back of a dam.

Can Alabama replicate the success on offense that they had against Florida State (and two sub-par defenses from Fresno State and Colorado State)? Jalen Hurts is already in midseason form as a runner, and despite some of the continuing criticism, his passing has been more diverse and more confident to the naked eye. So what if he’s largely running a one-look offense for the Tide? Between his rushing ability, the running of a stable of premier backs, and a passing game that is beginning to diversify, what Hurts and the offense have done with Daboll’s playbook has been more than enough to fell every foe to date. That should only continue with experience.

Can Alabama crack the code to Mason’s tough, heady Vanderbilt defense? That will be the premier match-up of this game. Can Vanderbilt do enough on offense to keep the score close? The ‘Dores thrive on close scores and lean heavily on the defense. But if the offense can’t get a toehold against the Bama D, it doesn’t matter how well their defense plays. Will Alabama’s defense, bolstered by several returning starters who’ve been out with injuries, regain some of the swagger lost last week in the second half against Colorado State? The Tide defense struggled a little with intensity level and execution last week against the Rams, allowing nearly 400 yards of total offense. At Alabama, that is unacceptable, and a player-orchestrated “come-to-Jesus” meeting was held in the game’s wake to get the collective defensive mind right.

If Alabama struggles in any way in this game, Vanderbilt could just be good enough to pull off a monumental upset. Is that likely? Probably not. Is it possible? Of course. Will it happen? The jury is out…let’s take a closer look.

The Alabama offense versus the Vanderbilt defense

Quite frankly, this is the battlefield upon which the outcome of the game will be determined. There’s no doubting that what Mason has accomplished defensively in his career, and now at Vanderbilt, is impressive. At Stanford, where he was the defensive coordinator that helped ruin several promising years for offensive powerhouse Oregon, Mason’s schemes were simple and effective. He deduced the best methods for dispatching with the advantages created by hurry-up, no-huddle spread offenses, and gave his players the tools they needed to get the job done.

He's done the same thing at Vanderbilt, taking intelligent players, building them up physically, and putting them in the position to be successful. The Vanderbilt philosophy under the current regime is built around a tried-and-true method: let the defense win games, and don’t let the offense lose them. In other words, what the offense does is frosting on the cake, because it is the defense that does the heavy lifting for the Commodores.

Fortunately for fans of the black and gold, that defense is loaded this season. There’s one underclassman in the starting 11 (corner Joejuan White) and only three juniors. The balance consists of seniors and redshirt seniors, which gives Vandy one of the most experienced defensive rosters in the conference.

Not only does Vanderbilt have experience on its side, but it also has a rare commodity for the team from Nashville: SEC size. Mason has a true 3-4 nose in 6-5, 315-pound Nifae Lealao, and the big man is the anchor of the run-stopping defense up front. He has two SEC-caliber ends in Jonathan Wynn (6-5, 265 pounds) and Dare Odeyingbo (6-2, 272 pounds), players who can play their role in the 3-4, force the run and get upfield in pass rush. The average weight for the starting linebackers is very close to 240 pounds, and even in the secondary, there’s only one sub-6-foot defensive back (safety Ryan White, who is 5-10, 188 pounds).

The Vandy defense is of the typical two-gapping variety, but Mason keeps it as simple as possible. There aren’t a lot of crazy formations nor attempts at personnel matching. He puts his best 11 guys on the field, lines them up, and runs several coverage and pressure combinations out of those same looks.

And so far, it’s working for the Commodores. They are currently ranked first in total defense, pass defense, and scoring defense nationally. Again, their competition has been less than stellar, but that’s still a shocking accomplishment for a dark horse team no one expected to be undefeated after a Week 3 meeting with a ranked and stubborn Kansas State Wildcat team. The Vandy defense held them to a mere touchdown, and though K-State may have been overrated in the preseason, that’s still quite an achievement.

But how will all that translate against Alabama? After all, there are few teams that have more offensive firepower than the Tide. The frustrating thing is that Alabama generally keeps its arsenal cloaked behind barred doors, rarely revealing its full power and potential until later in the season. One simply cannot look at a roster consisting of the likes of Hurts, Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster, Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs, and Najee Harris and not be impressed by the sheer array of weaponry with which OC Brian Daboll plies his trade. When watching Alabama’s offense, there’s always the impending feeling that any play, whether a half-back reception in the flats, a scamper between the tackles by Hurts, or a play-action strike to the sidelines, can become explosive. The Alabama offense is nitroglycerin…it can ignite at any moment. But like nitro, it is also highly unstable, and one never knows from week to week whether consistency of performance, particularly up front, with allow it to do its destructive best against opposing defenses.

Against Vandy, the heavy lifting will largely be done up front. Despite the defensive accolades in which the Commodores are currently reveling, they have not proven themselves particularly adept at stopping the run, largely because of containment issues on the edges. They are currently ranked 28th nationally in run defense, giving up 103 yards per game. Keep in mind, however, that two of the offenses they have played were Middle Tennessee State and Alabama A&M…not your typical offensive powerhouses.

Back to the containment issue. Despite all their upside, the Vandy linebackers (with the exception of 6-3, 230-pound Oren Burks) are not great in lateral pursuit. In the 3-4, the ‘backers are charged with filling gaps against the run and crashing the line to make running difficult. The outside linebackers are responsible, along with the ends, for keeping the running game away from the edges and making backs try the inside. They are decent in the former, not so much in the latter. The usual stop-gap when linebackers struggle with containing the running game outside is to bring down the safeties near the box, let them play wide, and mop up anything that pops loose over the line of scrimmage. On this note, the ‘Dores also haven’t proven that they can consistently do that. The safeties and corners are certainly big enough to handle the task, but their pursuit angles are lacking at times, and it appears that they hesitate to commit to the run, thus allowing offenses to turn time into space on the edge to the benefit of quick-footed backs.

This is a decided weakness of the otherwise gritty Vandy defense, but how can Alabama take advantage? By doing what it does. Most folks assume Alabama is a physical, between-the-tackles type of running attack. And the Tide does do some of that, to be sure. But over the last five years, they’ve employed more outside zone, more spread concepts in run blocking, tactics that allow the offense to spread the defense out laterally. This tactic infuses additional stress to a defense when the quarterback (in this case, Hurts) has five-star speed and running ability. It doesn’t even take a read-option attack to leverage the Tide running game against the Vandy defense on the edges. It will be a mere biproduct of the Tide’s athleticism, if the line can indeed create space for skilled operators like Jacobs and Hurts to slip through those gaps and take on defensive backs down field.

The same goal can be achieved through the passing game as well. Against the Rams last week, Daboll showed more of a feature that many posited would be a routine fixture in the Tide offense this season. He allowed Hurts to distribute the ball to his backs in the flats, between the hashes, and out to the edges on screens of various types. Against Vanderbilt’s somewhat lumbering but vertically aggressive defense, this could be a fantastic tactic to introduce once again, as it will allow skilled runners (it can work not only for backs, but for receivers like Ridley and Jerry Jeudy on wide receiver screen to the edge) to be isolated against limited numbers of defenders outside. Because Alabama will run with authority inside, the Vanderbilt defense will have no choice but to commit eight to the box. When they do that, it will magnify the weakness in Mason’s tactics, namely, the risk of allowing one-on-one mismatches due to static defensive personnel and Alabama’s stellar skill position talent at receiver and running back.

The Alabama offense would do well to give the ‘Dores the yo-yo treatment early, forcing them to shift attention inside and out, inside and out, as a way of keeping them off-balance while wearing them out with lateral pursuit. Even if the tactic doesn’t yield explosive plays early, it will undoubtedly pay off in the second half, as the Vandy defense will likely become fatigued, and the Tide could begin to run a more traditional between-the-tackles ground attack mixed with a little play-action to create explosive plays.

To use the parlance of boxing, Daboll can stick the jab up high to set up the body shot, and alternate between the two before attempting a late roundhouse hook on a fatigued opponent. If properly executed, the strategy could set up a knockout blow that would take Vandy down for good late in the match.

One lingering caveat, however, is offensive line play. Alabama simply must get a more consistent effort up front. After many months of working with a set lineup for the line and tight ends, there are remaining issues that need to be worked out. It’s not communication that’s the problem, as was the case at this point last season. Rather, it appears finishing is a limiting factor. Coach Nick Saban indicated as much after the game against Colorado State, as he mentioned the Tide’s improvement up front while reminding everyone that there was still improvement to be made in consistency and finishing when linemen “put a hat on a hat.”

It may just take a little tweaking, and likely isn’t a function of reps or communication. It may be more a question of confidence, and the hesitation caused by the lack thereof. Though there are plenty of starts along the line, over half of the lineman are still somewhat new to their 2017 roles. Jonah Williams started all last year, but flipped to the left side of the line this season. Lester Cotton has played right guard before, but he had a troublesome 2016 season that saw him pulled from the starting role at times (and he’s been dinged up this season to boot). Matt Womack is a first-time starter at right tackle, and his backup is a true freshman.

Maybe these issues get corrected this week, and that would be a good sign of things to come for Alabama. If those ghosts continue to haunt the offense, however, Vandy has enough up front to make it a bigger problem for the Tide in the short term.

The Alabama defense against the Vanderbilt offense

While not the prime-time match-up in this game, there is still much to be decided when the Bama defense is pitted against the Vandy offense. The Commodore offense isn’t particularly explosive, and despite a returning 1,000+ yard rusher and school record holder in Ralph Webb (5-10, 202 pounds) and returning junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur (6-4, 227 pounds), Vandy has the nation’s 103rd ranked offense, generating only 346 yards per game. Again, that stat is magnified when one factors in the level of competition the ‘Dore have faced to date.

Vandy doesn’t do anything fancy with its offense. They try to take what a defense gives them, they play conservatively enough to avoid turnovers, and they hope their defense limits opposing offenses. While it may appear to be a function of philosophy at first glance, it’s also derived from the fact that the Vanderbilt line has been a bit of a dumpster fire thus far in 2017. The O line is young, with three underclassman starters, including freshman Devin Cochran at right tackle. That inexperience shows, as in the running game, the Commodores are averaging a mere 103 yards per game on the ground…good for 111th nationally. Consider that Webb alone ran for more than 1,200 yards last season, and it’s evident that the men up front haven’t been able to get things done to date against middlin’-at-best defenses.

Regardless of the issues Alabama may have had against the Colorado State offense last week, the Tide shouldn’t have much trouble keeping Webb and the running attack in check. With the potential return of injured ‘backers Rashaan Evans, Anfernee Jennings, and Dylan Moses this week, the prospects for a Tide lockdown on the Vandy attack is even greater. Much of Alabama’s woes last week were created by new players playing new roles. The errors were largely born of the hesitation inherent in unfamiliarity. With at least some combination of the aforementioned trio returning this week, some of that will be remedied. Another portion will be remedied by the continued experience of the newcomers, and the team’s attempt to refocus after last week’s subpar defensive performance.

Alabama’s defense should have a good outing against the Vandy rushing attack, that much is certain. But Shurmur is an efficient, adept passer who makes good decisions and puts his team in position to win games. He averages 234 yards passing per game, has thrown for eight touchdowns, and hasn’t thrown a single interception. With a few legitimate weapons at wide receiver like senior Trent Sherfield (6-1, 205 pounds), senior C.J. Duncan (5-11, 203 pounds) and sophomore athlete Kalija Lipscomb (6-1, 200 pounds), Shurmur can have a day against the Tide if the offensive line can keep him upright. Despite their problems in run blocking, the Vandy line has been relatively solid in pass pro, as they are ranked ninth nationally in both sacks allowed and tackles for loss allowed.

Alabama’s pass rush should be better this week if any combination of Evans, Moses, and Jennings can return to action. The defense needs to generate more pressure up front, and while Da’Ron Payne is doing his part, both Da’Shawn Hand and Raekwon Davis need to make their presence felt more than before. After all, the chief pass rushing threats in Alabama’s offense prior to the injuries came from the Sam and Jack linebacker positions. With the starters out for the season, Alabama needs to find another way to affect the passer and protect the secondary.

Speaking of the secondary, it wasn’t just the newcomers who looked rough around the edges against the Rams last week. All-everything safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and starting lockdown corner Anthony Averett both got played a little bit by the Ram receiving corps at times, and that is an unfamiliar (and wholly uncomfortable) sight for the Tide. Call it playing down to the competition, call it a letdown after an early lead, but those kinds of mental errors must be corrected. It’s not that Vandy will test the pass defense so much this week, though they will have to throw often considering their run game struggles. But the ‘Dores, by having success in the passing game, can provide more skilled future opponents with a diagram for beating the Bama defense through the air. The Tide secondary needs to tighten its belt, and the pass rush simply must improve.

All in all, don’t expect any facet of the Vandy offense to light it up against the Tide D. As is usually the case, the minute a team becomes one-dimensional against Alabama is the moment that team’s fate is sealed. When Vandy can’t run, they’ll have to pass. And if Alabama does its job, that won’t help them much either.

Special Teams

If any team has a worse place-kicking situation than Alabama in the SEC, it’s Vanderbilt. They haven’t had a lot of field goal attempts to date, but the two they’ve had were missed by senior Tommy Openshaw. The game between Vandy and Bama could devolve into a low-scoring field position type of battle, and if that’s the case, the Tide may get the nod (for once) when it comes to place-kicking with the improving Andy Pappanastos.

Sophomore Sam Loy handles the punting duties for Vandy, and once again, Alabama’s J.K. Scott is more qualified to help his team with field position than the young Loy. Loy averages 37.7 yards per punt, and his long on the year is 52. Not terrible, but not eye-popping.

Neither team seems too dynamic in the return game this year. The Tide could benefit from some special team magic in the return game, but, it hasn’t materialized. The positive is that the return game has not led to fumbles or junked field position. However, for a team that is as young as the Tide is defensively, points are at a premium. Both field position and returns for scores could sure come in handy.

Though Vandy’s return game explosiveness hasn’t come to fruition either, there is potential. Kalija Lipscomb handles returns, and he is an exceptional athlete who is a threat to score anytime he touches the ball. He’s only averaging 6.5 yards per punt return, and 22 yards per kick return, but one must know that it’s only a matter of time before he catches a coverage team dozing and makes them pay.

While Alabama still poses a mismatch over Vanderbilt, the disparity is not nearly as great as it once was. The Tide is a more talented team, and they’ve accomplished more against better opponents this season. On paper, there’s little doubt that Alabama wins handily.

But games aren’t played on paper…they’re played on turf stained with blood and sweat. This game is likely the biggest game in Nashville in some time, and the stadium is a sellout. While they must be realistic about their chances against the likes of Alabama, fans of the black and gold are clinging to hope that the same kind of magic the ‘Dores conjured last week against ranked K-State can somehow be leveraged into a winning effort against the Tide. It would undoubtedly be the biggest upset in the history of Vandy football.

Is that realistic? Probably not. But there is always a glimmer of a chance that Alabama comes out flat, that the offense stalls, that the Vandy defense can limit the run and contain the edges, and that the Tide finds itself in an old-school, physical dogfight that’s outcome isn’t decided until late in the fourth quarter. That style of game favors Mason and his Commodores, as they don’t have the offensive power to match scores with Bama if Hurts and his offense can operate with impunity and pile up the points.

The outcome will likely fall somewhere in the middle. Vanderbilt has too good a defense for the Tide to hang half a hundred on them. And Alabama will need to reprove itself defensively before anything close to a shutout of the ‘Dores offense can be forecast without a substantial degree of Gump. If the Tide can put it all together, they’ll win by a minimum of two touchdowns.

Can they do it? Will the return of defensive stars help the Tide bail water and right the ship on that side of the ball? Will Alabama take advantage of the frayed edges of the Vandy containment? Or will the Commodores grit and grind their way to a winnable fourth quarter game against an opponent that should beat them.

We’ll know a lot more about what kind of team Alabama has tomorrow afternoon…hope for the best.