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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.

Three Matchups to Watch: Vanderbilt vs. Ole Miss

After a blowout in ‘Bama and a bye week, the Commodores will have to come out of the gates firing if they hope to stay competitive against another top 10 team.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Ben Bresnahan makes a diving catch against Ole Miss on Nov. 20, 2021. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

It was a rough night for the Commodores last time they were in action, as they were slaughtered at Bryant-Denny Stadium by the now-No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide. After hanging around a little with Alabama and quickly making a field goal, the passing lanes began to open exponentially for Bryce Young, as did the gaps in the offensive line for Will Anderson Jr., rendering the game all but over for the Commodores. 

There were slight bright spots in the game for Vanderbilt, though, as AJ Swann started the game by completing 7-10 passes and had a few impressive connections with his No. 1 receiver Will Sheppard. Swann and Co. were also able to stay composed in what was by far the loudest and most hostile environment they have faced this year. 

With their schedule not getting easier anytime soon with No. 9 Ole Miss and No. 2 Georgia slated for the next two weeks, the Commodores certainly hope the adjustments they have made during the bye week address their offensive woes and strengthen a defensive unit that couldn’t cook up anything to stop the Tide in Tuscaloosa. While it’s tempting to dismiss the 55-3 loss as something that simply “happens” against Saban and Alabama, if Vanderbilt truly wants to elevate their program to compete in the SEC, these are the games that they have to find a way to keep closer.

“Those are painful experiences,” Lea said about the loss to Alabama, “It’s our responsibility to pull up above the emotions and to understand how we were responsible in that result…It’s important that we live in [the loss] for 24 hours, then we get right back on the climb towards the vision and mission of the program.”

This week’s challenge will be a gargantuan one as well, as the Commodores will host Ole Miss at FirstBank Stadium. The Rebels sit at 5-0 after prevailing over early Heisman candidate Will Levis and an impressive Kentucky squad last week. Featuring a formidable run game and a defense that has proven that it can play up to its competition, the Rebels are a force to be reckoned with. In addition, quarterback Jaxson Dart and his offense are finally settling into a groove under head coach Lane Kiffin. All in all, it’s indisputable that the Commodores are running into Ole Miss at the wrong time. However, if they used the bye week to revamp their pass game and address the holes in their defense, Vanderbilt can stay competitive with a team that has shown weaknesses early in the season.

This week, The Hustler analyzes what needs to happen for the Commodores to slow down the red-hot Rebels.

First-half Ole Miss vs. second-half Ole Miss

Ole Miss has come out of the gates looking like a true powerhouse on multiple occasions. The Rebels have had no issues racking up points in the first and second quarters of games. But when it has come to performing in the second half, the team has been greatly lacking. Try this one on for size: The first half Ole Miss offense has outscored the second half version of themselves 127-59 so far this season. 

“There are spurts when we look like the best team in the country,” Dart said after their last game. 

While that fact is certainly true, the offensive second half inefficiency is something to monitor with Ole Miss.

You could argue that this discrepancy can be partially attributed to how the Rebels have been involved in some blowouts; neither playing their starters nor scoring more points was an urgent matter. This excuse was dispelled against Kentcuky, as Ole Miss’s three second half points were just enough to pair with its 19 in the first half to win 22-19 over the Wildcats. 

Although last week’s victory over then-No. 7 Kentucky proved Ole Miss to be a team that means business this year, it also reinforced that the Rebels have a real second half problem.

If the Commodores want to have any shot at hanging around in this upcoming game, they have to focus on slowing down Ole Miss in the first half before the Rebels concerning second half struggles become a moot point.

Ole Miss offensive line vs. Vanderbilt defensive line

Let’s call a spade a spade: Bryce Young had a borderline unprecedented amount of time in the pocket against the Commodores. The Alabama quarterback routinely dropped back, let the play develop, let it develop some more and then eventually found the inevitable coverage bust in the secondary. 

The good news is that Alabama is the No. 1 program in the nation and has one of the best offensive lines this side of the Mississippi (and the other side). The bad news is that Alabama’s domination in the trenches is not an isolated incident for the Commodores. They currently rank 10th in the SEC in sacks, having racked up seven. Even worse, they rank 11th in the SEC in sack yards, further illustrating their failure to get deep pressure in the backfield and create significant losses. 

The even more bad news is that Ole Miss has what looks to be an extremely formidable offensive line this season to go along with the No. 1 rushing attack in the SEC. They’ve looked unstoppable on the ground so far this year. Even a good Kentucky team fell victim to this strength, as freshman Qunishon Judkins lit up the stat line last week, rushing for 106 yards and a score.

To end what’s been a pretty grim analysis with a positive, linebacker Anfernee Orji is leading the SEC in tackles. He’ll need to have another big day if Vanderbilt wants any chance at stopping an offense that is beginning to fire on all cylinders.

AJ Swann vs. his first battle with adversity

It was a pretty picturesque start to the season for the new QB1 in Nashville—he served as a spark plug as a mid-game plug-in against Wake Forest and then led the Commodores to a rousing comeback win in his first ever start against NIU. 

The honeymoon is now over. Going on the road and getting blasted by the Tide isn’t the best experience for a quarterback still finding his identity along with a new offense, but the early signs on Swann against extreme adversity are overwhelmingly positive. 

A night game at Bryant-Denny Stadium is a place where people very well can—and historically have—crumbled. Swann did nothing of the sort. Despite facing a ferocious defense and being relentlessly pursued by presumed NFL 2023 No. 1 overall pick Will Anderson Jr., Swann threw no interceptions, generally took care of the football and even completed some impressive passes, including this one to Will Sheppard.

While things are not going to get easier for Swann in the upcoming weeks, it’s hard to imagine they could get much worse than what he faced in Tuscaloosa. The question is, how will Swann respond and continue to navigate what are not many soft landing spots in the stacked SEC? This weekend, he will be tasked with facing an Ole Miss defense that is much improved from seasons passed. 

We believe we have the best defense in the country,” Ole Miss wide receiver Malik Heath said. “We have players who play like the best in the country.” 

Hopefully, Swann will be ready to roll with the punches come gameday. Vanderbilt and Ole Miss will kickoff at 3 p.m. CDT on Saturday, Oct. 8 at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville.

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About the Contributor
Jonah Barbin
Jonah Barbin, Sports Podcast Producer
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].
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