Three Matchups to Watch: Vanderbilt vs. Alabama

Vanderbilt comes into their matchup with Alabama as heavy underdogs but will look to beat the Crimson Tide for the first time since 1984.

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Vanderbilt Athletics

Will Sheppard had 2 receiving touchdowns and 171 yards against NIU (Vanderbilt Athletics).

Andrew Wilf, Deputy Sports Editor

Following an underwhelming performance against Wake Forest, the Commodores bounced back in the win column, defeating Northern Illinois 38-28. Vanderbilt has already eclipsed last season’s win total and is one of eight Vanderbilt teams in the past 43 years to win three of their first four games

Freshman quarterback AJ Swann will start for the Commodores on Saturday and hope to build off his excellent game against NIU, throwing for 255 yards and four touchdowns in his first collegiate start. 

On Saturday, Vanderbilt will clash with Alabama for the first time since they stomped on Vanderbilt in 2017. The Crimson Tide have been dominant, and that narrative continues this season. This season, Alabama–the No. 2 team in the country—have outscored their opponents 138 to 26. This weekend, the Commodores will hope to slow down Alabama’s high-flying offense, but the task is far from easy. 

Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea noted on Tuesday that he is excited about the opportunity to compete against one of the best programs in the country in Alabama.

The Hustler examined three key matchups that are integral for the Commodores to stay competitive on Saturday and have the best chance at beating Alabama for the first time since 1984

AJ Swann vs. publicity

Last Saturday, Lea and the Vanderbilt coaching staff shocked Commodore supporters by starting Swann. The 23rd-ranked quarterback in the Class of 2022 was a highly touted student-athlete, but Vanderbilt fans were under the impression that junior Mike Wright was the QB1. After an ugly first half against Wake Forest filled with errors, Wright was pulled for Swann in the second half. Although Swann performed well against Wake Forest, many were convinced that it was still Wright’s team, even Lea.

After a few drives with Swann at the helm, questions about starting him over Wright dissolved. Swann went on to have a field day, notching SEC Freshman of the Week a few days after the game. 

Although he showed poise and took complete command of the offense, NIU had no prior film of the quarterback other than some plays in garbage time against Hawaii and Wake Forest. With four quarters of game film, it will be interesting to see how the Alabama defense gameplans for Swann. The quarterback is the opposite of flying under the radar, and he is now the only true freshman starting at quarterback in the SEC. This weekend will be a prime opportunity for Swann to show that he is built to lead this team and that last week was not a fluke.     

Will Sheppard vs. Alabama’s secondary

Last week, Will Sheppard had one of the most prolific games for any receiver in Vanderbilt history. The junior had a career-high 171 yards on 10 catches and 2 touchdowns in Vanderbilt’s come-from-behind victory over NIU. Sheppard has scored a touchdown reception in five consecutive games and leads the NCAA in receiving touchdowns with seven. His play against NIU was noted nationally, earning him a spot on Pro Football Focus’s team of the week.  

This weekend will be the ultimate test for Sheppard as he will face off against a strong Alabama secondary. Through three games, Alabama has not allowed a passing touchdown. Furthermore, the Crimson Tide ranks eighth in the nation as a passing defense, allowing a mere 146.7 passing yards per game. Even more impressive is that in two of Alabama’s three games, their opponents were unable to reach 100 passing yards. Strong safety Jordan Battle leads Alabama’s secondary. He was named to the first-team preseason All-SEC list.

Offensive coordinator Joey Lynch will need to be creative in finding ways for Sheppard to get involved in the offense because he serves as a safety blanket for Swann. In the NIU game, Sheppard was targeted in 53% of Swann’s attempts. For the Commodores to remain competitive throughout the game, they will need to feed Sheppard the ball to create mismatches and decoys.

Bryce Young vs. Nick Howell’s defense 

Bryce Young is the best quarterback the Commodores have faced since they played Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers in 2019. Young has it all. Last season, he won the Heisman Trophy after throwing for 4,872 yards and 47 touchdown passes. Young has come back right where he left off and already has nine touchdowns and a 68.2% completion percentage. The junior quarterback can beat opponents in several ways, whether it is with his great deep ball ability or his electrifying scrambling skills. 

Although this season is considered to be a rebuilding year in the wide receiver room for the Crimson Tide, it hasn’t phased the star quarterback as he elevates the players around him. 

Yet, if Vanderbilt’s defensive coordinator Nick Howell can collapse the pocket early in this game, it would greatly frustrate Young. Vanderbilt’s defensive line lacks depth though; with Alabama’s high-tempo offense, they will need to stay strong in the trenches. 

Don’t be surprised to see the linebacker of Vanderbilt’s defense, Anfernee Orji—the captain of the defense, spy on Young the entire game and eliminate him from winning with his legs. Some quarterbacks become derailed once out of the pocket, but Young is just as effective.  

For the Commodores to slow down Young’s powerful play, they will need to have a strong pass rush and limit his scrambling opportunities. Vanderbilt has seven sacks on the season and they will shoot to double that number on Saturday.