The Other Side: Previewing the Commodores with the Vanderbilt Hustler

Ashlee Woods | @ashleemwoods, Contributing Columnist

Alabama football begins its conference play, hosting the Vanderbilt Commodores Saturday night. To preview the matchup, the Crimson White sat down with Jonah Barbin, a writer for the Vanderbilt Hustler. 

What has impressed you the most about Vanderbilt’s start to the season?  

Barbin: I think what’s been most impressive about this Commodore squad in 2022 is just we’re doing the little things differently. Games that we would usually lay down, lose or let get out of hand, we really haven’t so far yet. You can point to the game against Wake Forest and what happened there, but the three games that you looked at the schedule and said, “Vanderbilt should have a good shot at winning those games,” we took care of business in all three of them. That’s not something you can say for last year’s squad or really any squad in the past at least three years. They’re competing in games that they usually wouldn’t be competing in and they definitely look like they have the ability to move the ball down the field and make games competitive. I’ve been very happy with what I’ve seen from the Commodores so far.  

What has not impressed you through the first four games of the season?  

Barbin: There’s definitely a lot of things to work on about this team. I think there are easy things to point to that have not been impressive. The fact that we are in the SEC and are still making some FCS teams look really competitive. There are games where I would have liked to have played better even though we won. You look at the game against Elon and the defense got sloppy there in the second half. Offensively, we took our foot off the pedal. We don’t have that killer mentality as a team yet. Good teams finish games and that’s really what’s not impressing me. We’re really not finishing games. But, with Clark Lea at the helm and the mentality that all these guys are buying into, I think we’re on the turnaround and I think we can fix some very correctable errors with this team. 

It has been five years since these two teams played. How has the direction of Vanderbilt’s football program changed since then?  

Barbin: What I’ll say about that is I remember the last time that Alabama came into town, we were coming off a win and we had that famous quote, “We want Bama,” went on to lose 59-0. Jalen Hurts came in and stomped on us, as expected. I think that quote shows how much we’ve grown. Now we’re not a team that’s saying, “We want Bama, we’re going to beat Bama.” That’s not what this week is about. For us as a program, we’re not trying to make a joke out of ourselves or underestimate the Southeastern Conference as a whole. We understand that we play in the same conference as Georgia and Alabama. We’re not going in cocky and making jokes about Alabama just to get stomped on. Clark Lea’s running a more serious team here.  

Mike Wright started off hot but has struggled the last couple of weeks. If he is named the starter for Saturday, what traits does he bring that could make this game a compelling QB battle?  

Barbin: Who knows what exactly Lea is going to do? Everybody thought Mike Wright would be the starter last week. If you ask anybody here and I could pretty surely tell you that AJ Swann is the starter going forward. In terms of Mike Wright, he’s a really good gamer. That’s how I would describe him. He has a nice arm and can put the ball in tight places. He also can make plays with his legs. A lot of his offensive touchdowns have come from big runs and sometimes he scores them [touchdowns] himself. He can evade the rush. Those are the traits that set Wright apart now.  

If the starter is AJ Swann, how do you see the comeback win on the road last week giving him confidence for this weekend?  

Barbin: In terms of Swann, I think his confidence is sky high right now. You’re a true freshman, sitting on the bench behind Wright. You do not anticipate getting into the game against Wake Forest. Things start to not go your team’s way and you get plugged in and you throw two touchdowns in that game and make a lot of impressive throws. You make a Wake Forest defense that looked good against Mike Wright show some holes in it. His confidence has to be high after that, even after the loss. Then, to go into Northern Illinois and be down 14 on the road and you find a way to come back late. He’s going to have a much bigger test this weekend. Nobody’s denying that. But his confidence through his first two games has to be higher.  

Vanderbilt has already faced one ranked opponent, Wake Forest. What lessons do you think they learned from that game?  

Barbin: The Wake Forest game was a wake-up call. The big thing to learn is that against ranked opponents and if you want to be a great team in this nation, you cannot make mistakes. You can’t shoot yourself in the foot. These teams are too good for that and Vanderbilt, down 7-3, quickly turned the ball over and three touchdowns were scored in a matter of minutes. What that taught me, and I think what that taught the team as well is when you’re playing a team of this level, things can get out of hand. You have to take care of the football. 

What are three keys to victory for Vanderbilt?  

Barbin: Nobody’s delusional here and really expecting to come into Tuscaloosa and win the game. If in some fantasy world, Vanderbilt can get the win, the three keys are the freshmen need to ball out. AJ Swann and Jayden McGowan both need to be game changers. Then, Will Sheppard needs to continue to ball out. There’s nothing like, as a true freshman, having a senior receiver. We would need Anfernee Orji to continue to lead this defense. These are all guys that would need to step up big. I would say the third key would be, in some way, make Bryce Young uncomfortable. 

Kickoff is set for Saturday, Sept. 24 at 6:30 p.m. CT on the SEC Network.

Questions or comments? Email Austin Hannon (Sports Editor) at [email protected]