September 6, 2007

Alabama-Vandy: How they match up



Western Carolina

While the WCU is no indicator for several new faces in the Alabama lineup, John Parker Wilson is beyond such discussion. He is remarkably consistent and a solid performance on the road shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Last week, Wilson threw for 189 yards with no interceptions in under three quarters.


Chris Nickson lit up Richmond last week on 19-of-24 with four TD passes. That won't easily be repeated against Alabama, but be assured he will be far more dangerous with a year of experience than he was in Tuscaloosa a year ago. Bottom line, Wilson is the better passer, but Nickson's rushing prowess (679 yards, 9 TDs last year) makes this position a wash.


Alabama's line blew Western Carolina completely off the ball last week, but Vandy won't be nearly as accomodating. Good performances from standout LT Andre Smith and center Antoine Caldwell are givens, which means the rub will come from guard play and new RT Mike Johnson. A decent push in the running game will be critical.


Vandy has an all-senior line averaging over 300 pounds with bookend tackles in Chris Williams and Brian Stamper. Williams (6-6, 320) leads the group and is capable of handling anything Alabama throws at him, run or pass. Last week, VU's line got little push in the running game but allowed Nickson all sorts of time to throw. Overall, this unit is a strength for the Commodores.


New starter Terry Grant makes his conference debut after posting 134 yards on 18 carries a week ago. His big-play ability should translate to SEC play. Good production from power back Jimmy Johns is important as well. The difference between an 8-for-20 day for Johns and a 10-for-50 day could be three first downs against three punts.


Vanderbilt, like Alabama, will employ multiple backs in its rushing attack. Make no mistake, however, that the most dangerous one is Cassen Jackson-Garrison. With sprinter's speed, a 220-pound frame and an upright stride, he reminds of former Ole Miss star Deuce McAllister in style if not in overall talent.


The deepest position on the field for Alabama should absorb the loss of suspended Keith Brown with little trouble. D.J. Hall comes off a record-breaking season and a host of others will look to establish themselves. Mike McCoy's first career catch is a near certainty.


Like Alabama, WCU returns its top two receivers in Michael Hines (team-high 60 catches) and Eddie Cohen (team-high 505 yards). Both weigh 200-plus pounds and will be looking to break initial tackles. After those two, experience takes a major dropoff. Watch for a lot of screens and double moves from this unit.


The spread can frustrate defensive lines with quick releases, so the trio of Bobby Greenwood, Lorenzo Washington and Wallace Gilberry can expect more chances for deflections than sacks. Many eyes will be on Washington's first career start. Backup snaps are likely up for grabs this season, so look for high intensity from the reserves.


WCU made only four sacks all season last year, so don't expect many grass stains for Alabama quarterbacks. Jeff Bradley made five tackles for loss last year from an end spot, but failed to record a sack. Against the run, this unit will be looking to get in the gaps and beat Alabama's line to a spot.


Seniors Darren Mustin and Keith Saunders lead four linebackers making their first career starts at the position. A few mental errors are thus a given, but so are some big plays. The anticipated coming-out party for Rolando McClain starts immediately.


Mordy Ornguze is the Catamounts' leading returning tackler with 61 last year (7 for loss). He will lead a unit that lacks experience elsewhere, as starters Marcus Nellums and Drew Walker made only 19 stops between them last year. WCU's linebackers show multiple formation looks.


Alabama's nickel package should get an extensive workout against the Catamounts' spread attack, and that could mean a long look for newcomer Kareem Jackson. Preseason All-SEC pick Simeon Castille is as good a bet for a pick-off as he'll be in any game this year. Look for safeties Marcus Carter and Rashad Johnson to be challenged more than UA's corners.


Senior Carlton Bailey may be the best player on the entire WCU defense and is was named preseason All-Southern Conference. He picked off two passes last year in an injury-plagued season. This unit may have the longest day of any Catamounts position group.


Leigh Tiffin and P.J. Fitzgerald could both use a strong opener from a confidence standpoint, especially Tiffin. Return specialist Javier Arenas is among the SEC's best at both punts and kickoffs. One thing to watch that is unaffected by the level of competition: Kickoff distance from the new 30-yard line mark.

Special Teams

Malone was named preseason All-Southern Conference as a kickoff returner after tallying 663 yards in that role last year. Also the starting running back, it's hard to imagine a 175-pounder handling this chore in the fourth quarter given the pounding he'll take on offense. Punter Tim Mayse had a solid 41.6-yard average a season ago.


New Alabama coach Nick Saban and his taskmaster style make a formal introduction at Bryant-Denny Stadium. With a national championship at LSU, Saban put himself in an elite class. Coaching Now in his sixth year as head coach at WCU, Kent Briggs brought a defensive background to the WCU job after 11 years as an assistant at N.C. State. He is 21-33 overall at the school.


Prediction: Alabama 28, Vanderbilt 17

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