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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Alabama

Getting your head kicked in is never a fun learning experience.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Alabama
Will Sheppard showed the talent he has against a very good Alabama secondary.
Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

The Commodores went to Tuscaloosa and drowned under the Crimson Tide. The 55-3 final score sitting on the schedule reminds us all of how far Vanderbilt is from being an elite team. The problem is putting these games into context is so difficult. Kent State stayed within 3 scores of Georgia. Meanwhile, Northern Illinois, who we beat by 10, only lost to #8 Kentucky by 8. The margin in Tulsa-Ole Miss was also 8. Does that mean Vanderbilt is close to being a top 10 team (Kentucky), or are the Dores a middling G5 team? Because we can add in that Tulsa lost to NIU by 3 to this mess of connecting games.

It means college football is a fickle sport, and individual scores are not always the best indicator of where teams stand. The “transitive property” can also be a hilariously bad predictor, too. A good reminder is that 2017 Vanderbilt team that lost to Alabama 59-0 was sandwiched between 2016 and 2018 squads that went to bowl games. The 2017 team probably was good enough to go bowling, but the coaches never got the team back on track after that devastating loss. This game along with the other results this season has given us some ideas about this team though.

Lessons We Know Well

Vanderbilt football is moving in the right direction, but the road to being a championship caliber team is long and difficult. The top teams have been pulling in 4- and 5-star recruits for years. Nick Saban puts those athletes to use as well as anyone and refuses to accept lackluster efforts. He was even heated after the game last Saturday because he identified some big mistakes. The massive, embarrassing loss is not something to brush aside. It is a powerful reminder of how far from Clark Lea’s stated goals the Commodores are. That result does not invalidate the steps forward we have seen in the first 4 games. Vanderbilt is still 3-2 on the season with their only losses to Top 25 teams.

Will Sheppard is a real talent. He had a meager 3 catches for 52 yards, but he did enough to get a shoutout from Saban postgame. Sheppard’s talent is going to draw attention from opposing coaches. Coverages are going to shift his way. As the offense evolves and grows behind the arm of AJ Swann, the top target will get more and more opportunities to make plays. Swann clearly trusts his WR1 based on the way he was giving him chances to go up and make plays against elite Alabama CBs. Against lesser competition (aka everyone except Georgia) the talent and trust should result in bigger statistical days.

Lessons We Are Learning

The present and future is here with AJ Swann. It is hard to say he had a bad day, but the raw data is not good. The true freshman making his second college start went 13/26 for 115 yards. The Total QBR comes out to 37.7. Our biggest takeaway should be the 0 interceptions without looking shy or scared. Swann was still trying to make plays using his big arm, but he was not being foolish or forcing passes where they should not go. The gunslinger mentality was the biggest concern with him coming into the game, and he responded with poise and restraint. Swann did have some mistakes, but if he can avoid the huge ones then his talent will give Vanderbilt a chance to win games (yes, multiple) down the stretch.

Ray Davis is a very consistent RB. Yes, he struggled against Alabama. He has still averaged 80.4 yards per game with that 17-yard outing against the Crimson Tide. The thing Davis does so well is getting low and making himself hard to tackle. Davis is not a burner with his speed, and he is not a huge, bruiser back. He uses the compact power to get through arm tackles and drive forward at contact.

The offensive line had a rough day, but they did some things that meshed with the progress that we thought had been coming. Somebody made the comment during the game that the running backs were running into a wall. Alabama had 8 TFLs, but 6 of them were sacks. The OL was not getting much push against that intimidating Alabama DL, but they were not being caved in on rushing attempts. Dropbacks were problematic, but I appreciated the way the big guys accepted. Joey Lynch made the decision not to give the tackles a ton of help with the prolific pass rushers, and they avoided getting Swann killed. He was sacked 5 times, but none of them were brutal hits. Alabama was also credited with 3 hurries, so Swann was only under pressure only 25% of his dropbacks. With the amount of help given to the OL, I like it.

Joey Lynch took the risk of leaving his tackles 1on1 a lot. It was marginally successful. The problem was separation downfield. The biggest gripes are the insane decision to go Wildcat on 3rd and short and using Swann as the edge option on a short yardage read option. All you did was tell Alabama to send the house and smash the run with the Wildcat. If he wanted to go Wildcat, the first play from it should have been a pass. Take the risk. Swann should have been the dive option if you wanted to try and convert up short that way. Or have a play that attacks inside for both instead of Swann needing to get around the end. Other than that call, Lynch was fairly creative. He came out early with a lot of throws to the edge. McGowan’s usage was also back up and mostly successful as they tried to get the Crimson Tide moving horizontally. The two-back sets were nice to see and presented some interesting options.

The defense was just outmatched. We knew that going into the game. The basic idea was good. Make Alabama repeatedly execute. Even for them, mistakes happen. CJ Taylor almost had an interception when the game was 7 to 3. Unfortunately, the DBs were a little too soft. The bail outs were too soon and too exploitable. Alabama’s athletes on the outside were able to attack the deep sets and break their routes off just in front of them, which opened up a couple stutter-and-go shots downfield. Meanwhile, in obvious running situations, the front seven was able to hold up.

Special teams are fine except for the punt coverage. We are flat out bad there. Matt Hayball was credited with 3 solo tackles and a force fumble. Your punter should not be that busy covering his own kicks. A few of the kicks outdid the coverage, but others were due to a lack of discipline to the coverage lanes. Guys were trying to make the big play, not the right play, and ended up giving up big yardage. That cannot happen in the future, and I am sure it is being addressed. It was good to see Joseph Bulovas nail his 40-yard FG with a kick that looked effortless and would have been good from 55.

Lessons For Further Study

How does the team rebound? The aforementioned 2017 had a brutal stretch that started with the 59-0 loss to Alabama. The next week was a road trip to #21 Florida resulting in a pretty tightly contested loss 38-24. It was tied at half and was cut to 7 with 3:14 to go in the game before a 4th and 1 turned into a 39-yard TD run by Florida. The terrible trifecta was completed by #5 Georgia running all over the Dores in a 45-14 beatdown. This season, Clark Lea has a bye week then home game against Ole Miss, which is a matchup Vanderbilt might have an outside shot to win. Getting the team refocused after the brutal loss and playing well (or not) will tell us a lot about the mental makeup of this team and staff.

Does the freshman movement on defense pay dividends as the season progresses? Darren Agu (42), Jeremy Ugochukwu (33), BJ Diakate (31), Yilanan Outtara (23), Steven Sannienola (17), Ja’Dais Richards (16), Errington Truesdell (8), and Bradley Mann (4) all saw snaps against Alabama. These guys are taking on a trial by fire. Agu, Ugochukwu, and Diakate are the most important potential contributors. The snap counts reflect that, but the pre-season injury to Miles Capers has thrust Agu and Diakate into increased roles. Ugochukwu would bring extra athleticism to a secondary lacking it, but being a freshman CB in the SEC is a very difficult job. The growth of this group could see the team really take off by the end of the season.

Are the ball security problems mostly behind the team? The only problem against Alabama was a muffed kickoff. It was only an issue because McGowan had called for a fair catch, so when he picked the ball up on the bounce, he was down at the spot of the recovery. Unfortunately, it does not carry with it the automatic advancement to the 25-yard line that a cleanly caught fair catch would have. I will take the clean game as a good sign that the early season troubles MIGHT be behind the Dores.