The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Behind Enemy Bylines: Alabama Crimson Tide

The Hustler went Behind Enemy Bylines, interviewing Austin Hannon, the Sports Editor for The Crimson White, University of Alabama’s student newspaper, to preview Vanderbilt’s upcoming matchup with The Crimson Tide.
Arianna Santiago

In what was a surprise move to many, Clark Lea elected to ride the hot hand this past weekend, starting freshman quarterback AJ Swann over Mike Wright. The move came after Swann served as a spark plug for a sputtering Commodore offense against Wake Forest, posting 146 yards and two touchdowns after replacing Wright in the third quarter. Lea’s decision to stick with Swann proved to be a good one, as he led Vanderbilt to a 38-28 win over Northern Illinois, threw for 255 yards and four touchdowns and secured SEC Freshman of the Week honors. 

Swann seems to have secured the job for the moment, but Lea reiterated postgame that Vanderbilt would not complacently back one quarterback.

“I’ll say the same thing I said last week. It’s an ‘earn-it-everyday’ mentality,” Lea said.“We’re going to go home and unpack the performance and look at ways we can get better offensively.” 

With yet another win, Vanderbilt has won three of their first four games for just the eighth time in the last 43 years, and will have good opportunities to add to that win total as the year unfolds. This week will likely not be one of those opportunities, as the Commodores will head down to Tuscaloosa to face the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide. However, Lea, Swann and Co. will have a chance to test their ascending program against the perennial powerhouse of college football. 

“We know, in time, Vanderbilt football will be the best program in the country,” Lea said before the season.

As the old adage goes, “to be the best, you have to beat the best.” No other coach and program have encapsulated the meaning of ‘best’ better than Nick Saban and Alabama. The Commodores will have a chance to square off against college excellence and continue to sharpen the tools that they hope will one day elevate their program to that level.

Prior to kickoff, The Hustler went Behind Enemy Bylines and interviewed Austin Hannon, the Sports Editor for The Crimson White, to preview Vanderbilt’s matchup with Alabama.

Vanderbilt Hustler: Alabama played a nailbiter against Texas two weeks ago. Was that a sign of weakness in this year’s team or an essential test that will strengthen the team going forward?

Austin Hannon: I think it all depends on how Texas’ season goes the rest of the way. As of right now, Texas is the 22nd team in the country. So with that information, it wasn’t that bad, right? Alabama went on the road and they were able to get a top 25 win. Regardless of how it happened, it still happened. It’s a huge win. Obviously, there were things that didn’t go well. The offensive line didn’t play very well. The Crimson Tide picked up 15 penalties, which was just one shy of a program record. There were a lot of things that didn’t go well, but the fact that they were down like they were in the fourth quarter and were able to win the game shows a lot about the team.

VH: Georgia again is looking like the team to beat in college football. How will Alabama get the best of their rivals this year?

AH: It’s going to be hard. Georgia’s got a really good team, and I think as you said, at this point in the season, there’s no doubt that they are the best team. After Week 1, they piled onto Oregon, and then we didn’t really know what we were going to see from Oregon the rest of the way. Since then, they’ve put together two good performances. So, it really did show that that was a big, big win by the Bulldogs. They’re so stout on defense. Obviously, Kibry Smart is there, who came over from Alabama. They’ve kind of got that old, gritty 2011, 2012 Alabama defense thing going. And then you’ve got Steston Bennett. There’s always the conversation, “is he not good enough?” He won the National Championship, so he proved that. He’s a solid quarterback. He’s got a lot of experience. I think that really helps them out on the offensive end. They’re going to be tough to beat. It’s probably going to happen in Atlanta in December. It’s going to be Alabama and Georgia most likely, barring things going crazy in the West or the East. By the time [the SEC Championship] comes, the wide receiver play has to be better, the offensive line is going to have to be better and their defense is going to have to clip the penalties.

VH: Will Anderson Jr. is coming off of a big game. In your article, you even mentioned that cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry said “Heisman” when talking about Anderson Jr. How good can Anderson Jr. and this defense be this year?

AH: Great. I think they already are great. They’ve proven time and time again through three weeks of the season that they’re great on third down. They’re great early in the downs. There’s just been some inconsistency in the rush defense. For most of the game, it’s good. Every now and then, they’ll give up a big run or a big pass play. We’ve seen a lot of pass interference calls this season. Other than that, if they can clean up that stuff, this defense can be as good as those defenses of old at Alabama. Will Anderson is a big reason for that. ‘Heisman’, I think we all know he finished fifth last year. He came back, he had one more year and he’s everything we’ve expected. He could, by the end of this season, go down as the best Alabama defensive player to ever live.

VH: Speaking of Heisman, will Bryce Young repeat as the Heisman?

AH: Not right now. I mean, unless he has a drastic change. He hasn’t been as clean as we saw him last year. Obviously, Week 1 was fine. But even then, I think he only completed 60 percent of his passes. He had less than 200 yards in that game against Utah State. Albeit, he was taken out early. In the second game against Texas, he had around a 70 passing yard game going there into the fourth quarter until [the drive] at the end. Neither of those games were good. Last week, he only played in the first half, but he threw two interceptions, and both of them were not very good. At this moment, I don’t think he’s going to win it. Even if he was to have a similar-type season to last year, I think there’s Heisman fatigue. I think that also goes into it. So I’m going to say no, but if he can go crazy the rest of the way, then he can definitely do it again.

VH: Talk to me about Alabama’s penalties. They have racked up 21 flags in the last two weeks. How do they limit this going forward?

AH: You’ve got to clean it up. I’m surprised Nick Saban hasn’t made it even more of a thing than it is. Throughout his time at Alabama, he’s been very on his team about penalties. Even late in games, you’ll see highlights of Alabama up by 50 points, they commit one penalty, and Saban acts like his team is down by 40. It hasn’t been good to start the season. Penalties are those things you can get cleaned up as the season goes on. It’s just about discipline, making the smart plays, not getting out of control and being smart when you play football.

VH: Nick Saban called Jahmyr Gibbs “one of the most consistent weapons [Alabama] has had to this point.” How high is the ceiling for Gibbs?

AH: It blows the roof off. He’s everything you want in a running back. He’s strong, he’s fast and he can catch the football out of the backfield. He’s a nightmare for defenses. I don’t think he’s really gotten enough touches in the first three games. Alabama’s been weird this year with the offensive play-calling by Bill O’Brien. It seems like at the beginning of the game, they want to run the ball, run the ball, run the ball. As soon as the second half comes around, it kind of turns into an air-raid offense. I don’t know what the reasoning is for it, but I think getting the ball to Gibbs more would be a good thing for Alabama. Obviously he’s leading the team in receptions, so he’s doing great in that respect, but I don’t think he’s getting enough carries as a ball carrier.

VH: What do you like most about Vanderbilt’s team this year?

AH: I watched that first game against Hawaii, and Mike Wright kind of blew everyone’s mind. It’s interesting to me now seeing that they’ve gone to [AJ Swann]. I’m interested to see how that transition goes. After those first two weeks, people were calling Wright one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC. Now, this is happening. They’ve got a new guy in there and he led them to victory last week on the road. He led them from a big, big deficit out there in Northern Illinois. Obviously, I don’t think anybody’s coming in with the expectation that Vanderbilt is going to win this game, but I think it could definitely be a good benchmark for head coach Clark Lea to see where his team is really at here early in the season.

VH: Score prediction for Saturday?

AH: I think they put the line at 41.5. That’s crazy, because it’s an SEC game, but I have to say it’s probably going to be around that. I think this Vanderbilt team is on the rise, but on a night game at Bryant-Denny Stadium, with a young quarterback, I don’t know how much success Vanderbilt’s going to be able to have. So, I’m going to say Alabama 44, Vanderbilt 6. Vanderbilt covers the spread, but they lose by 38. I think it’s going to be a very, very tough game for the Commodores.

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About the Contributors
Jonah Barbin
Jonah Barbin, Senior Staff Writer
Jonah Barbin (‘25) is majoring in human and organizational development and cinema and media studies. In addition to writing about sports, you can catch him acting, scouring the fantasy football waiver wire, playing golf and fantasizing about what Odell Beckham Jr.’s career would have been if the Giants never traded him. You can reach him at [email protected].
Arianna Santiago
Arianna Santiago, Senior Staff Photographer
Arianna Santiago ('24) is from Bremerton, Wash., and studying electrical and computer engineering in the School of Engineering. When not shooting for The Hustler or for freelance work, Arianna can be found leading campus tours, organizing events for University Catholic, attempting to study and procrastinating her lab reports. You can reach her at [email protected].
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