Prior to the season, if I had told you that Alabama’s visit to Nashville to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores would be in the national spotlight, you probably would have thought I was crazy. However, after three weeks of the season, both teams are 3-0, and Derek Mason has his group playing the stingiest defense in the country allowing just 13 total points on the year. Alabama, is playing its typical stingy style of defense, allowing 13.3 PPG, but they’ve dealt with their share of injuries in the linebacking corps.
So, entering Saturday, you have a pair of undefeated teams who rely on their defenses and ball control to win games. As all eyes turn towards Nashville this Saturday afternoon, we caught up with Rick Neuheisel, college football studio analyst for College Football Today, to discuss the match-up between the Tide and Commodores.
CBS Local Sports: After initially struggling in that 24-7 win over Florida State to start the year, the Alabama offense has started to wake up the past two weeks, albeit against lesser opponents. What have you seen that you like so far from the Tide? What do they still need to fix?
Rick Neuheisel: They are not trying to be an explosive entity. They play within themselves, and their focus really is to be careful with the football. They’ve got a host of great running backs; add Najee Harris to what they already had a year ago and, you’ve got a pretty formidable group toting the rock.
And, they’ve got a quarterback who’s also an incredible ball-carrier. So, in terms of the forward pass, while there may have been a bunch of people who thought Brian Daboll was going to come and “Tom Brady-ize” Jalen Hurts, that wasn’t going to be the case. They’re going to play close to the vest, because they still, despite all those injuries to the linebacker position, have a really outstanding defense. That’s how you win games.
The 24-7 victory over Florida State was probably the perfect game for a guy like Nick Saban. He’s a defensive guy at heart. He loves to play that swarming defense, play really sound in the kicking game, beat the other team in the turnover department and walk out of there with a convincing win. That’s exactly what they did against a really good Florida State team, and that’s what they expect to do against Vanderbilt.
CBS Local Sports: Speaking of swarming defenses, Vanderbilt has had exactly that through the first three weeks, allowing just 13 points. What’s been the biggest difference for the Commodores this year from what you’ve seen?
Rick Neuheisel: Their defensive coordinator/head coach Derek Mason is really, really good. He was doing this while he was at Stanford for David Shaw. He is a first-rate defensive coordinator. He’s got great ideas. He knows how to recruit to his defense with respect to long athletes, athletic guys that can wreak havoc at a variety of spots.
This game, to me, they have to have the kind of performance they had last week against Kansas State. They have to make Alabama go long fields. They’re going to have to limit Hurts in the run department. And then, they’re going to have to find a way to get Ralph Webb going. Right now, Ralph Webb is averaging less than three yards per carry, and they’re not going to win if Ralph Webb doesn’t make some plays and get some first downs with his legs.
CBS Local Sports: You mention Ralph Webb, is that the key match-up in this game? The Vanderbilt offensive line against that intimidating Alabama front seven?
Rick Neuheisel: It is. And also, the passing game. Kyle Shurmur is off to a good start. But it’s almost a tip of the cap to Nick Saban that Derek Mason realizes that, despite the fact that Shurmur’s completing 70 percent of his passes, they can’t over-do it. They can’t overtax their offensive line against that pass rush.
I mentioned that all those linebackers are down for Alabama, so that might limit their pass rush from the outside. But there’s still some formidable guys inside that can push that pocket and make things hard for Shurmur. Vanderbilt needs some measure of balance, [with] a couple of big plays, and throw in a short field by virtue of a mistimed turnover for Alabama. That’s the recipe for a Commodore victory.
CBS Local Sports: Bama-Vandy’s not the only big SEC game this weekend. There’s also a showdown of the bulldogs in Athens as Mississippi State takes on Georgia. What do you make of Dan Mullen’s squad so far?
Rick Neuheisel: Well, everybody has talked about Nick Fitzgerald in the preseason and for good reason. The guy had over 1,300 yards rushing last year, and we’ve seen what Dan Mullen can do with athletic quarterbacks. Go back to Tim Tebow, go back to Dak Prescott. Heck, you can even go back to Alex Smith at Utah. He (Mullen) has really built a reputation when he’s got an athletic quarterback and can put in run-pass-option kind of things. We see the matriculation of these guys as they grow in his system.
But, maybe the biggest difference at Mississippi State is the addition of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Todd Grantham would win the Frank Broyles award given to the outstanding assistant coach every year based on the way that defense has played. Jeffrey Simmons, a guy who was recruited to be a linebacker, is playing in that defensive front; he looks outstanding. I don’t know that anybody would have believed it, but they absolutely beat LSU in the trenches. That’s where LSU usually wins games.
We’ve been longing for the forward pass at LSU for some time, but you don’t have to usually worry about them in the trenches. And yet, the guys with the cowbells (Mississippi State) whipped them up front. So it’ll be a really interesting game ‘twixt the hedges, as it’s Bulldogs against Bulldogs.
CBS Local Sports: You mention the trenches being important, and Georgia is known for its run game with Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. What do you expect from that match-up as they go up against this stout Mississippi State front?
Rick Neuheisel: They’re going to run the ball, that’s who they are, and those two guys are terrific. While they may not have the glossy numbers, go back to the game at Notre Dame where they were both in that 60-70 yards range. If they get those kind of numbers and provide some security blanket for the young freshman quarterback, who doesn’t look like a freshman — it doesn’t look too big for him — and they get the same kind of pressure that they were able to put on Brandon Wimbush, then you’ve got a formula for victory.
The home crowd is going to play into this deal. There’s going to be a lot of emotion. Georgia fans were a little bit irritated when they looked at their season tickets, [and] there wasn’t a big home game. Well, they got what they wanted. But be careful what you wish for, as here comes a really potent team with a quarterback that can flat out fly. This is going to be a whale of a game in Athens.
CBS Local Sports: I know it’s early in the season, but does this game feel like one that decides who is that second-place team in the SEC right now behind Alabama?
Rick Neuheisel: Clearly the winner of this game will be talking about Atlanta. Both will have to go through Alabama to get it done, whether it’s in Atlanta (Georgia) or before they can get to Atlanta (Mississippi State). To win an SEC championship, you’ve got to go through the boys in Tuscaloosa. But there’s no question that the winner of this game, especially if they do so impressively, will be talking about big-time aspirations come November.