You might have heard this, but the Alabama Crimson Tide are good at football. You might even say they’re the best team in the country. The AP and Coaches polls think they are. So, too, do the S&P+ and Jeff Sagarin’s computer ratings.
This will be Vanderbilt’s eighth game all-time against the #1 team in the AP poll, and the Commodores are 0-7 in those games:
- Lost at #1 Tennessee, 13-0, on November 18, 1939
- Lost at #1 Tennessee, 35-27, on December 1, 1951
- Lost at #1 Oklahoma, 25-23, on September 10, 1977
- Lost at #1 Alabama, 41-0, on September 27, 1980
- Lost to #1 Florida, 28-21, on November 9, 1996
- Lost to #1 Tennessee, 41-0, on November 28, 1998
- Lost at #1 Florida, 27-3, on November 7, 2009
So, yeah. Of course, I would point out here that six of the seven Vanderbilt teams that lost to top-ranked teams ended the season with two wins (including the last five), and there is exactly zero chance that this year’s team finishes the year with two wins.
What does Vanderbilt need to do to shock the world? To get some idea, we talked to Erik Evans of Alabama blog Roll Bama Roll. Erik’s answers to my questions are below.
1. So far this season, Jalen Hurts has completed 67.9 percent of his passes. Is this a function of competition, throwing a bunch of "easy" routes, or has Hurts really advanced this much as a passer?
It's actually been a combination of all three. He's plainly going through (some) of his reads more in his sophomore year. But, a lot of those reads are taking him to checkdowns to the backs. This offense also includes more designed passes out of the backfield. Where Kiffin's offense spread you horizontally and then hit defenses over the top, this one actually has a lot fewer of the passes at the LOS: there are still shovels and jet sweeps and bubble screens, but far fewer of those. It is a more intermediate passing offense -- at least what we've seen so far.
2. Hurts is also Alabama's leading rusher on the season. We're so used to Alabama having a bruising runner out of the backfield. What gives?
Well, Hurts was Alabama's second leading rusher last season, almost reaching 1000 yards and scoring a team-high 13 rushing touchdowns. He also had the most carries of any of the backs. His carries, as a proportion, have gone down somewhat, averaging just over 12 per game . But, he's hitting 8.7 ypc and leads the SEC in explosive runs (12,) which is 6th in the country -- so his yards are coming in huge chunks. Part of the RB issue is that three guys are splitting reps: the far more consistent Damien Harris (26,) true freshman stud Najee Harris (20,) and then Bo Scarbrough (36). Add to that fact Bo is running into overloaded fronts, and it shows.Those carries are going to be nibbled away further when utility man Josh Jacobs returns. I would expect, at the end of the day, the running numbers to look kind of similar to last season, with Damien Harris the leading rusher and Jalen Hurts and Bo Scarbrough not far behind.
3. Alabama currently ranks #1 in the country in Defensive S&P+. Who are the big names to know on Alabama's defense?
You mean the healthy one? (Sadly cries.) Starting in the back, the safeties are phenomenal, with Ronnie Harrison being the best tackler on the team and Minkah Fitzpatrick playing Star CB/FS. He's simply the best in the country at what he does. Hootie Jones is a solid veteran too. Anthony Averett has had a shaky start at corner, but that's been offset by the emergence of hard-hitting Levi Wallace. The deepest unit is the LB corps, and the Tide needed all of those bodies. The inside is the strength of the group, Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton have been outstanding. A pleasant surprise has been the play of Keith Holcombe on the outside. He was the next man up after so many players went down, and he's done a great job. Up front Da'Ron Payne is a millionaire in waiting at the nose, with Da'Shawn hand finally getting his shot as the pass rushing WDE. The strongside has seen JUCO Isaiah Buggs taking on 2-3 blockers and adding a nice little pass rush of his own. Off the bench, monstrous Raekwon Davis is a force.
4. Colorado State averaged 5.2 yards per play against the Alabama defense. Were the Rams doing anything that gave Alabama problems? Or was that simply a function of some garbage time shenanigans?
Some of it was garbage time, some was not. Some was good scheming by a coach who has seen Saban's defense for a decade and had an All-American WR and a senior QB to work with. The Tide defense was somewhat flat that night in terms of execution. There were mental breakdowns in the passing game, a lot of uncharacteristic mistackles, and the defensive line played lethargically. For the game, the Rams hit 43% efficiency, just above NCAA average, but they had their best quarters when Alabama was up biggish -- in the second and fourth. The defense did call a team meeting after the performance though, so I wouldn't count on average returns every game against the defense. Injuries have hindered the pass rush, but it looks like three of the linebackers are back practicing now.
5. Alabama enters this game as a 19-point favorite. If the Tide manage to lose this game, what went wrong?
Systemic breakdown. The 'Dores force a few turnovers on special teams miscues and then capitalize directly off them or generate a few big plays of their own. Shurmur has plenty of time after the 'Bama pass rush is ineffective. The linebacking corps is still too young and green, and Vandy works the middle of the field with short gains that eventually open up the edge for Ralph Webb. An opportune vertical route or two give the Commodores some easy points. More mistackles let the Commodores move the chains just enough, behind a defense that has crippled the run and forced the 'Bama passing game into an inconsistent losing effort.
6. Finally, what's your prediction for this game?
We curiously don't know what the Alabama offense looks like against an SEC-type bowl team. We saw some deep shots against FSU, a lot of short routes against Fresno State, and then some intermediate routes vs. Colorado State. We've not seen the offense fully put together in the passing game.
And, I don't think we see it this week either.
I think this one is played close to the vest by two coaches who want to win behind defense and running the ball while minimizing mistakes. On the road, that's a hard formula to beat when Alabama can roll three blue-chippers at you, while forcing the LBs to watch Hurts, while still trying to negate the speed Alabama has on the outside. On defense, I just don't know that Vanderbilt is going to be able to generate much offense or many sustained drives. In the end, this one isn't about how much prep Vanderbilt does or how well the home team is coached, but talent. And a motivated Tide entering the heart of their season simply has too much: 27-6 Alabama.