Vanderbilt's offense has had almost two weeks to recover from the beating they suffered at the hands of South Carolina, but they'll get no reprieve against an ever tougher defense this Saturday. Alabama will welcome the Commodores for their homecoming game, an event that promises a packed house in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide are the country's second-ranked team and a serious threat to reach the BCS title game in January.
As such, they'll be looking to make a statement against the Commodores. South Carolina held this team to just 77 yards of total offense in their last game. Nick Saban will have his team geared up to hold Vandy under 50 this Saturday.
The offense is the biggest question that surrounds this Vanderbilt team. The team's defense has consistently proven that they can hang with BCS conference competition. The secondary has been lights out in snagging 14 interceptions so far and the team's defensive line has made a major impact in shaping how opponents execute plays. Even the linebacking corps, which was considered pretty thin behind redshirt senior Chris Marve, has played well in the first four games of the season.
The offense is another story.
Vanderbilt's success has been largely dictated by their ability to run the ball. When South Carolina shut down the Commodores at the line of scrimmage, the effect was immediate. Without a semblance of downfield passing, the Gamecocks simply stacked the line and challenged Vandy's skill players to beat two-to-three defenders each down in order to gain yards. This strategy held the team to just 3.2 yards per pass and a mind-blowing 0.2 yards per carry.
It's safe to assume that Alabama, with a stronger all-around defense than Carolina, will utilize a similar strategy.
Overcoming a defense predicated on stopping the 'Dores at the line of scrimmage will be the underlying theme of Saturday's game. This is a matchup that could have major impacts on Coach James Franklin's recruiting and this team's morale. If the Commodores pick up a win, it could qualify as the SEC's biggest upset of the past decade. If the team is competitive in Tuscaloosa, they'll earn the respect of their conference-mates. If they only manage 77 yards of offense in a blowout loss, some recruits could start turning their attention elsewhere.
There's no shame in losing to a next-level squad like Alabama on the road. However, if this team reverts to 2010 levels of awfulness on offense, it will undo some of the progress that James Franklin has made in his first season at the helm here in Nashville. The Commodores will have to prove that their playcalling can make them competitive against the league's elite to hang on to the respect they earned with their 3-0 start. If they fall again like they did in Columbia, a fickle college football landscape may start to cool on Franklin, regardless of the progress he's made in his short time here.
Train Island - Last week's game took us back to the bad ole' days of 2010 when this team was painful to watch and allergic to wins. Vanderbilt was impotent against South Carolina, relying too heavily on short patterns and looking on helplessly when routes and runs failed to develop. Unfortunately, short gadget plays are the best tools to maximize the talent this team has on offense - limited passing, a shoddy line, and several players who can create space and break free for extra yards.
So what changes on offense against Alabama? Does this team direct its attention downfield and open Larry Smith up to interceptions and a stout defensive rush? Vanderbilt may not even need the run to be successful to open up some shots downfield, since the Tide will likely be crowding the box and bringing pressure at the line from the start of the game. Rather than using the run to open up the passing game, it will likely have to be the opposite for the Commodores this weekend in Tuscaloosa.
Can Smith be effective enough to keep the Tide on their toes? It's possible, but four years of evidence doesn't support it. Factor in the fact that he's left three of the team's four games this season so far with injury. That's tough to inspire confidence. I'd love to see what Jordan Rodgers can do for this team's passing game...but also concerned that swapping him in in a mop-up role against 'Bama could damage his confidence. Vandy's track record of turning solid QB prospects into headcases (Nickson, Adams, Smith) tends to support that theory.
In all, I can see the defense holding strong before tiring, turning a manageable game into a final result that looks worse than it actually was. The South Carolina game was a humbling gut punch for this team, but how they respond Saturday will be a huge indicator of things to come under James Franklin. Can they win? Probably not. Can they put up a fight? Absolutely - but only if they make some changes.
TI's Pick: Alabama 27, Vanderbilt 10
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Auburn over Arkansas. Mississippi State isn't losing to UAB, and Kentucky might not win another game this season, so they're out. Florida is a tempting pick, but starting a freshman quarterback against LSU is dangerous. I'll go with the Tigers, who have been improving in recent weeks, to beat the Razorbacks. Arkansas looked pretty average last week. Maybe Auburn only looked good because they were playing an overrated South Carolina team, but they are the liveliest 'dog in the bunch this week.
SectFRow1Seat30: Opening Line: 29. Current Line 29. O/U 41.5
What the trends tell us: No one in Alabama has any money to bet on this game, the sharps aren't attracted to the opening number and Vandy fans don't move the ticker.
Vandy and the points is obvi. I also like the under. Prop bet I'd sweat over: O/U Vandy interceptions of 0.5. Probably would take the over. But is Bama really going to throw the ball tomorrow night? If so, why?
More importantly, three very important things have happened leading up to this game: 1) Alabama was on the cover of SI this week. 2) According to player twitter accounts, Franklin's mantra this week has been really simple: this is an unbelievable opportunity for each of you and this program. 3) My basketball season tickets came in the mail today. Add to this the fact that I'll be enjoying this game after a day a watching ponies run in the Commonwealth and you have a recipe for awesome.
SectFRow1Seat30 Prediction Based on Nothing More than heart and superstition: Commies 21, Tide 14.
KingJamesIV: Hoo boy. My J-O-B (IRL) has been dominating me this week about like what most would expect the Crimson Tide offensive and defensive lines to do to their Commodore counterparts in this week's matchup. On paper, this doesn't look like a favorable matchup for the Commodores of the gridiron.
If I were a gambling man, I would avoid this game like the plague. Thankfully, I'm not and that's why you're probably better off listening to a gambler's gambler §FR1S30 above.
I think Vanderbilt plays it closer than most expect. Whether that's due to Bama "having a bit of a letdown" or "playing down to their opponent" or to Vanderbilt having made unbelievable use of its extra week of preparation, etc. -- who cares? Ultimately I'm praying to come out of this game as healthy as possible and hoping that somehow, someway, we shock the world. I'd settle for losing by less than two touchdowns.
KJIV's Pick: Alabama 24, Vanderbilt 14
KJIV's ZRG* SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Seeing as I'm writing this from the road in Lexington, KY (will be joining §FR1S30 in making dubious fiscal decisions on the probabilities of equestrian feats of strength and endurance) and that I'm also running on three hours of sleep thanks to some poor and at the same time horrifically nerdtastic decision making from the previous evening [try and guess what I was doing], I will be going with the UGAs over the Smokeys. 1) I am always in the mood to savour [JUST WENT BRITISH ON YOU, CHAP] some delicious T-Braydenfreude. 2) The line may indicate otherwise, but Is UGA really the favorite to win in Knoxville? Really? No. Dawgs over Vawls.
*ZRG - Zero Research, Guaranteed (or your money back).