For just the third time ever, Vanderbilt hosts the No. 1 team in the nation when Alabama visits Nashville on Saturday afternoon. The Commodores have caught the attention of the college football world with a 3–0 start highlighted by last week’s 14–7 win over then-No. 18 Kansas State.
Vanderbilt has made significant progress on offense, thanks in large part to the improved play of quarterback Kyle Shurmur. But defense is where the team shines. Consider the following: Vanderbilt’s defense has gotten stops on 37 of its opponents’ 39 drives, and 27 of those 39 drives went for 20 yards or less. The Commodores lead the nation in both total defense (198.3 ypg) and scoring defense (4.3 ppg) and have allowed their opponents to convert only 6-of-42 on third down.
Clearly, this defense will face its stiffest test of the season against Alabama. Here are three keys to a Vanderbilt upset victory:
1. Find a way to run the ball
Vanderbilt’s formula for success is simple: Run the ball and play well on defense. That sounds nice, but the Commodores have not been effective on the ground in 2017. Ralph Webb, a preseason second-team All-SEC pick, rushed for more than 1,100 yards in both 2015 and 2016 — two seasons in which Vanderbilt struggled mightily to throw the ball — yet has managed only 149 yards on a 2.6-yard average in 2017 despite the team’s much-improved passing attack. Yes, teams are loading the box to stop Webb and Khari Blasingame, but at some point Vanderbilt still needs to be able to move the pile. The Dores have averaged only 3.0 yards per carry as a team, down from 4.3 last year — and they’ve yet to face an SEC opponent. The biggest issue appears to be the offensive line, which has new starters at three positions (Bruno Reagan moved from guard to center, and the right guard and right tackle are first-year starters). So what’s the plan?
Head coach Derek Mason indicated this week that the Commodores will need to be more “creative” in the run game. We’re not exactly sure what that means, but don’t be surprised if Vanderbilt’s plan features fewer runs between the tackles and more “running” plays involving wide receivers or even tight ends. Whatever the case, the Dores will have to be able to move the ball on the ground against the ferocious Alabama defense.
2. Prevent “non-traditional” scores
Alabama has thrived in recent years scoring points when its offense is not on the field. Last year, the Crimson Tide scored an astounding 15 non-offensive touchdowns — 11 on defense, three on punt returns and one off a blocked punt. This is an absolute crippling development for any team hoping to knock off the mighty Tide. Vanderbilt has to take care of the ball, something that it has done so far this season (one turnover in three games) and be nearly flawless on special teams. Last week, Kansas State scored two non-offensive TDs at Vanderbilt Stadium, but both were called back; a scoop-and-score off a Kyle Shurmur fumble was overturned on replay, and a punt return for a score was negated due to a block in the back. The Dores can’t flirt with disaster on Saturday.
3. Control Jalen Hurts in the running game
There’s no statistical evidence to suggest that Alabama is more beatable if quarterback Jalen Hurts isn’t productive running the ball, but it just seems to make life much more difficult for a defense if the opposing quarterback is consistently ripping off long runs. Last week, Kansas State QB Jesse Ertz had some success against Vanderbilt, rushing for 76 yards, but he needed 26 attempts and did most of his damage in the first half. Plus, Ertz is a different type of runner than Hurts, who is more adept at making big plays out of nothing when forced to scramble. Last year, Vanderbilt faced three true dual-threat quarterbacks (not counting option-oriented Georgia Tech) and had decent success — Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs rushed for 53 yards on 13 carries; Ole Miss’ Shea Patteron had 32 on 13; and Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson had 55 on 10. Most important, Vanderbilt won two of those three games. Again, stopping Hurts in the running game won’t necessarily equate to slowing down the Alabama offense, but it’s one element that the Vanderbilt defense must do its best to control.