No. 2 Alabama takes on upstart Vanderbilt in SEC opener

Austin Hannon | @austin_hannon1, Sports Editor

There will be a serious David versus Goliath feel on the gridiron when the Vanderbilt University Commodores enter Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night. 

Since 2007, when Nick Saban took over in Tuscaloosa, the Alabama Crimson Tide is 186-25 with six national titles and eight SEC championships. In that same period, Vanderbilt is 70-115, including 5-28 in the last three seasons. 

From afar, most would call this a “best versus worst” game in the SEC. 

No. 2 Alabama (3-0) is coming off a 63-7 win over The University of Louisiana-Monroe, in which the Crimson Tide set a program record with 262 punt return yards. Alabama scored three non-offensive touchdowns. 

“I was really pleased with the energy that our players played within the last game,” Saban said. “I thought the execution was a lot better. I thought we played a lot smarter.” 

After winning just five games in the last three years combined, many would consider this game another “cupcake” game like the first two contests in Tuscaloosa this season. But the Commodores (3-1) have reason to believe that they are turning the page on their bottom-dweller status. Vanderbilt has won both times on the road this season, with wins over The University of Hawaii and Northern Illinois University. 

“[Vanderbilt is a] much, much improved team over last year,” Saban said. 

“Vanderbilt’s off to a really strong start this season,” Saban said. “It’ll be a challenging game for us Saturday. I think Clark Lea has done a great job changing the culture there.” 

The culture may not be the only thing changing in Nashville. The Commodores began the season with Mike Wright at quarterback. Wright lit up Hawaii and Elon University to start the season, totaling 391 passing yards, 247 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in his first two starts. After struggling early in the loss to No. 21 Wake Forest University, Wright was benched for freshman AJ Swann. After having success against the Demon Deacons, Swann started and performed well in Vanderbilt’s come-from-behind road win last week. 

The Crimson Tide should be prepared for either quarterback to take the field on Saturday night. 

The Commodores play an interesting style on offense, and Saban is hoping his team will be ready for the challenge. 

“There’s elements of option football in what they do, and that’s not something that we see all the time,” Saban said. “Our players have to have really disciplined eye control.” 

For Alabama’s offense, it has been all about the emergence of wide receiver Traeshon Holden. 

After playing a limited role in 2021-22, Holden has become one of quarterback Bryce Young’s top targets in the passing game at this point in the season. 

“For sure, being patient [is where I have improved the most],” Holden said. “That’s something I had to learn how to do. But just all aspects of the game.” 

Through three games, Holden has 12 receptions for 169 yards and three touchdowns. 

Recently, Saban made a comment surrounding his players’ mentality on the field, challenging his team to be “hateful competitors.” 

Safety Jordan Battle wants the Crimson Tide to return to that mindset. 

“Just trying to get back to that standard,” Battle said. “He [Saban] likes to see the away stadium empty. I can still remember that feeling last year when we played Mississippi State — I saw him smiling towards the end of the game.” 

Saban may like to see the road stadiums empty out, but he was adamant on Thursday night surrounding his own crowd. Last week saw Bryant-Denny Stadium empty out by halftime, and Saban wants fans to create a better environment for his team as well as the other team. 

“Why are we here? We’re here to dominate in the SEC,” Saban said. “We’ve got to create an atmosphere and environment when we’re playing at home that creates a disadvantage for the other team. I’m hopeful that we’ll have a great crowd.” 

Only time will tell if fans clad in crimson and white will remain in the bleachers come the second half on Saturday night. 

This may be the final opportunity for Alabama to sharpen its focus and work out the kinks of the early season. Coming up on the schedule is No. 10 Arkansas, No. 23 Texas A&M and No. 11 Tennessee — two of which are on the road. 

First is the conference opener against Vanderbilt, which is set for Saturday night at 6:30 p.m. CT on the SEC Network.

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