I wouldn’t recommend playing Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea in poker. Not after he bluffed everyone last week by adamantly backing Mike Wright as his starting quarterback against Northern Illinois, only to roll out true freshman AJ Swann at kickoff instead. The surprising move paid dividends, as Swann threw for four touchdowns in his first career start to rally the Commodores from a 28-14 deficit to a massive 38-28 victory – a performance good enough to earn him SEC Freshman of the Week honors. It was a much-needed shot in the arm for the program, with the team earning their third win (preseason betting odds had them at 2.5) to surpass the last two seasons combined, while also giving fans a reason to be excited for the future as they watch their young quarterback making “plays of the week” caliber throws.
Unfortunately, the warm, feel-good glow surrounding the program hits a pause this week with Vandy traveling to Tuscaloosa to take on #2 ranked Alabama in the SEC opener for both teams. If you’re a college football fan (which you likely are if you’re reading this) you’re already familiar with Alabama without a thorough analysis from me. We know they have the best player in the country on offense – reigning Heisman winning quarterback Bryce Young – and the best player on defense with linebacker Will Anderson Jr. They’re loaded with future NFL talent everywhere.
Look, this is the point of a preview where a lot of columnists and beat writers would try to pump sunshine with platitudes about “any given day” yada yada. I like to think our readers, and Vandy fans in general, are too intelligent for that. We all know this game, along with the Georgia game, are the two on the schedule Vandy has absolutely no shot of winning – and they most likely won’t even be close. I don’t mean that as a dig at Coach Lea and the program, or to take anything away from the NIU win. That’s just reality. Alabama coach Nick Saban has built Alabama into a dynasty unlike anything college football has ever seen, coming off a “disappointing” national runner-up finish. Compare that to a program that hasn’t won an SEC game since 2019. It is what it is, and why Bama is favored by about 40 points.
This isn’t to say there is no reason to watch this game and nothing good can come of it. Swann’s development is arguably the biggest storyline remaining this season, and this will be his first opportunity to go against elite competition. As great as he looked against NIU, when you have a true freshman quarterback there will inevitably be bumps in the road. This would be a good game to work through some of those freshman mistakes, since they won’t have an effect on the outcome. Alabama also looked surprisingly mortal against Texas, barely escaping with a 20-19 victory. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not big on “moral victories” but in this case if Vandy could at least keep the game competitive for a while, I would consider that encouraging.
We all knew Lea inherited a mess when he got here, and it would take a while to dig back out of the hole. Vanderbilt isn’t anywhere near the level of Alabama, and that’s okay. Fans still have reason to keep their heads up watching a legitimate building block at quarterback develop going forward. Better days are ahead, and with Swann taking over the end of the SEC losing streak is in sight. It just won’t be this week…