NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After a whirlwind of a nonconference schedule, one that presented the Commodores with some joy, some adversity and some confidence, Vanderbilt now stares straight ahead into the Southeastern Conference portion of its slate.
And the first test will be about as tough as it can get.
“My message to our team is to continue to focus on us. It’s about our highest level,” Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea said. “It’s not about who we’re playing against. When you’re in this league week-in and week-out you know you’re going to face the best.
“Our singular focus is on how we enhance our performance, continue our growth, continue our evolution as a program so we’re able to work toward results on Saturday. We have a ton of respect for Alabama, we have a ton of respect for everyone in this conference and everybody left on our schedule. We’re excited for this week and we’re excited to go down and compete with them. But again, our interest is in what we’re doing and how we manifest that best performance and that performance that we’re capable of.”
Vandy (3-1) heads to No. 2 Alabama (3-0) hoping its first four games have prepared it enough for another step up in competition.
The Dores won three of their first four games in three different ways – a blowout at Hawai’i after a week-long trip on the island state, a hold-on-for-dear-life triumph in the home opener over Elon and a comeback victory Saturday at Northern Illinois. Vandy was also defeated soundly by visiting No. 23 Wake Forest earlier this month.
Lea’s team has already won one more game than his first squad did in 2021. But the program is also still looking to snap a 21-game losing streak against league competition.
It will also be facing a reigning conference champion for the third week in a row.
“This is building and growing the program. This is what we signed up for. To me, I think there’s kind of generally a buzz around the program right now and excitement,” the second-year head coach said. “That doesn’t meant these games aren’t challenging. We’re going to learn a lot about ourselves on Saturday, but I think we have a competitive team that has a belief in what we’re building and we know that ultimately this program wants to measure up against the best in the country, the best in our conference and so we’re looking forward to it more than anything.
“This is an opportunity for growth. This is the opportunity for growth for us. So we’re attacking it head on and excited for it.”
Recent history has not been kind to the Commodores when facing Alabama. Vandy last defeated the Crimson Tide in 1984, a span of 22 straight defeats on the field (the 1993 matchup technically was ruled in favor of Vanderbilt after Alabama was forced to forfeit all its regular-season games from that season).
Vandy also hasn’t scored a point against Alabama since 2007, having lost 34-0 in 2011 and 59-0 in 2017.
Head coach Nick Saban’s team this season comes into the matchup with wins over Utah State, Texas and Louisiana Monroe, respectively, and has outscored opponents 118-7 in two home games. Quarterback Bryce Young, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, has rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns and thrown for 644 yards and nine scores.
“He’s obviously very well-regarded and well-respected for a reason,” Lea said of Young. “He’s got the ability to throw the ball on time, he’s got the ability to run and create explosive runs and then his ability to create and extend as well opens up some of the explosives, particularly in the passing game.
“He’s got the ability there in the pocket to just subtly move off his mark to evade rush and he might have a square stance and he will put the ball in the air and put it on the money. It’s impressive. We have to do a great job in our rush lanes, we have to do a great job in collapsing the pocket and then we have to be disciplined in coverage down the field, too.”
Saturday’s contest also represents Vanderbilt’s first of eight regular-season chances for the Commodores to break that SEC losing skid that dates to Oct. 19, 2019. Following the trip to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Vandy will be off until Oct. 8 when it returns to FirstBank Stadium to welcome Mississippi.
Kickoff on Saturday is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live by the SEC Network.
“It’s a great opportunity. Great competition this week, you get to showcase your preparation, so it’s going to be a great opportunity for the defense,” Vandy linebacker Anfernee Orji said. “They got good players. They don’t do anything flashy, but they got good players who can make plays and they don’t really make mistakes. Success is in the margins so we’ve got to be great in the small areas.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.