September 8, 2006

BOL Breakdown: Vanderbilt at Alabama

The Alabama Crimson Tide will open Southeastern Conference play by hosting the Vanderbilt Commodores at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday afternoon (2:30 p.m. CT/FSS). Alabama has won the last 18 on-the-field meetings between the two schools, including a 30-8 decision in 2002.

BOL senior writer Travis Reier provides an in-depth look at this week's match-up.

Alabama running game vs. Vanderbilt run defense: Alabama's offensive players and coaches have talked at length this week about the unconventional defensive scheme Hawai'i threw at the Tide in the opener. UA expects to see a more traditional approach from Vanderbilt's defense, which bases out of a 4-3 alignment. Regardless of how the Commodores line up, it's a given that one of their safeties will establish residence in the box.

Edge: With its new zone blocking scheme, Michigan pushed the Commodores' front seven around to the tune of 246 rushing yards last week. Vanderbilt middle linebacker Jonathan Goff turned in another productive outing, posting 14 tackles and a blocked field goal in the loss. As for Alabama, Tide fans are wondering which version of the ground game they'll see from their team this week. Specifically, were Kenneth Darby's struggles against Hawai'i an aberration or a (bad) sign of things to come? If I've learned anything these last three years it's that Darby answers the bell in good form. Unless his hip pointer is worse than he is actually letting on, look for that to be the case on Saturday. After averaging 7.2 yards per carry last week, it appears as if Jimmy Johns will put off the move to linebacker for at least another week. Edge to Alabama.

Key match up: Alabama's running backs vs. Vanderbilt MLB Jonathan Goff.

Alabama passing game vs. Vanderbilt pass defense: Keith Brown has used DJ Hall's two-game suspension to make a statement about his ability to be the top receiving option in the Tide passing game. Speaking of statements, after making the first two grabs of his UA career against Hawai'i, it will be interesting to see if Will Oakley has a few more balls thrown his way this week. Though he didn't appear to be rattled at any point in his starting debut, quarterback John Parker Wilson will undoubtedly feel more at ease in his second start. Also expect to see more of Wilson on the corner via designed roll outs and bootlegs. One of Michigan's touchdowns last week came on a play action pass to the tight end, so look for Wilson to go to Nick Walker if the Commodores continue to put their outside linebackers in man coverage.

Edge: Vandy's defensive backs came out of the Michigan loss feeling pretty good about themselves, and why not? Michigan quarterback Chad Henne didn't exactly win the Heisman in completing 10-of-22 passes for 135 yards in the opener. However, it's worth noting that Henne's numbers were hampered by dropped passes. Vandy's front four isn't much from a pass rush standpoint, so the Commodores will need to bring a linebacker and/or a safety to get pressure on Wilson. With Hall expected to return, I'm tempted to go with UA here but we'll call it even.

Key match up: Alabama's wide receivers vs. Vanderbilt corners Sean Dixon and Josh Allen.

Mike Shula's first offensive play call will be: Power to halfback Kenneth Darby.

Don't be surprised if: Vanderbilt sells out against the run from the opening snap.

Vanderbilt running game vs. Alabama run defense: The Commodores were unable to establish the run against a Michigan defense that had five defensive backs on the field for roughly 80 percent of Vandy's offensive snaps. To hear Alabama defensive coordinator Joe Kines tell it, the second coming of Michael Vick will be behind center for the visitors this week. While Chris Nickson is capable of making plays with his legs, he's not Matt Jones all over again. More like Micheal Spurlock. Unless the Commodores figure out a way to get tailback Cassen Jackson-Garrison (who underwent an appendectomy just two weeks ago) going, look for plenty of quarterback draws and speed option involving Nickson, who lost two fumbles against Michigan.

Edge: Like Hawai'i, Vanderbilt will spread the field with four wide receivers. And that's pretty much where the similarities between the two offenses end. Alabama's defense didn't give up much on the ground a week ago, but if you credit UH's shovel passes to its rushing numbers, the numbers go up quickly. Tide linebackers can expect to see shovels and screens to go along with draws and option. Edge to Alabama.

Key match up: Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson vs. Alabama's linebackers.

Vanderbilt passing game vs. Alabama pass defense: With Jay Cutler now cashing checks in the NFL, Vanderbilt's offensive staff is trying to come up with ways to get the ball to sophomore wide receiver Earl Bennett. Against Michigan, Bennett lined up at a number of spots -- including next to Nickson in the shotgun. Opposing defenses must be careful not to pay too much attention to the sophomore, something UM's secondary learned firsthand a week ago. Bennett served as the middle man on a double-pass to wide receiver Marlon White that provided the Commodores with their lone score in the UM loss. With Bennett being used in a number of ways, keeping him in check will be the responsibility of the Alabama defense as a whole.

Edge: In recording three sacks and four quarterback hurries, Alabama's front seven was able to get a decent amount of heat on UH quarterback Colt Brennan last week. Compared to Brennan, Nickson is in the infancy stages of his development. He went down six times at Michigan, but pass protection wasn't to blame for all of the sacks. On more than one occasion, Nickson didn't continue through his progressions once his primary receiver was covered.

Key match up: Alabama defensive end Wallace Gilberry vs. Vanderbilt right offensive tackle Brian Stamper.

Vanderbilt offensive coordinator Ted Cain's first play call will be: Quick hitch/screen to Bennett.

Don't be surprised if: VU reserve tailback Jared Hawkins sees his workload increase this week.

Special Teams: The kicking game was somewhat of a mixed bag for the Tide in Week 1. Among the highlights were Leigh Tiffin's three field goals and the two punts P.J. Fitzgerald placed inside the Hawai'i 20. A couple of kickoffs (one each by Tiffin and Andrew Friedman) that lacked both hang time and distance led to two sizeable returns for the Warriors. It was there where Christensen's absence is felt the most.

Edge: It wasn't the kind of performance that brought back memories of Jim Arnold, but given the circumstances VU true freshman punter Brett Upson performed well in making his college debut at the Big House. Two of his seven punts were downed inside the UM 20 and he finished the game with a 36.3-yard average. Bennett also returns punts for the Commodores. Neither team was especially good in the return game last week. Alabama's Javier Arenas averaged just under 22 yards per kickoff return, while Vanderbilt's Alex Washington averaged 23 yards per return, respectively. Edge to Alabama.

Game prediction: Alabama 28, Vanderbilt 10.

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