For years, Vanderbilt has had a particular brand in Southeastern Conference football — a very good brand for Monday through Friday when school was in session, a bad one on Saturdays.
Brand identification is hard to shake, which is why corporations spend billions on trying to make sure that identification is positive. Vanderbilt football has worked hard at doing that, in a tough league where the competition hasn’t been standing still. The Commodores haven’t reached the top. But you know what? They are no longer at the bottom. That’s what Nick Saban meant on Monday when he said at his weekly press conference that there was “no question about the buy-in” that Derek Mason has achieved from his Commodore players. More and more, now that he is in his fourth year, Mason is looking like the shrewdest hire made in the East Division recently. Would Tennessee fans trade away Butch Jones straight up for Mason? The outcome of that poll might depend on how many Volunteers gave you an honest answer.
That’s the reason Jalen Hurts’ answer to a question about a Vanderbilt player enthusiastically proclaiming that Alabama “was next” following a big Commodore win over Kansas State was, as answers go, just about perfect.
“I mean, theoretically, we are next,” Hurts said.
The subtext was that, for Hurts, the statement didn’t resonate the way it would with someone from a different generation. He carries none of the memories, no awareness that Alabama hasn’t lost to Vanderbilt in 33 years, some of those years as a regular opponent and some not. Hurts, and most of the Alabama players, carry around little of such historical baggage. The weight of their own recent accomplishments is enough to assure Alabama players of perpetual target status. That’s heavy enough. History is the last thing he needs to worry about. So when he turns on his tablet to watch Vanderbilt on video, he sees only a Southeastern Conference opponent with a tough defense, one that isn’t very different (or is better than) from Missouri or Ole Miss, Kentucky or Arkansas. Condescension isn’t part of his equation.
The Commodore defense is especially testy. Saban noted that Vanderbilt thrived on “creating confusion” for an offense, using formations designed to disrupt blocking schemes and rattle a quarterback as part of their arsenal. That does not constitute a “gimmick,” as Saban added that “they do a great job of attacking out of that.”
Vanderbilt hasn’t reached the top yet. Mason deserves credit for keeping things together after James Franklin left, and maintaining a positive direction, but a championship might be further in the future.
So, to be clear, a conservative prognosticator (me, for instance) isn’t going to predict a Vanderbilt win in Nashville on Saturday. Alabama would have to be helpful to make that happen, and carelessness hasn’t been a characteristic of this Alabama team, whether it is the equal of its recent predecessors or not. But if you aren’t close to the vest with your predictions, if you are more like Jeremiah warning the King of Israel about the coming of Babylon, this might be your year to take a chance. It’s not likely — but it’s not as far-fetched as it would be in some years.
There have been times in the Alabama-Vandy rivalry when making such a bold prediction would only happen if you were intent on calling attention to yourself. This year, it might be an admonition to pay attention to something other than the old Vanderbilt brand.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.