Players to watch: Alabama vs. Vanderbilt

Joe Klingbeil, James Ogletree

Alabama

WR Calvin Ridley

Vanderbilt’s defense allows just 4.3 points per game on average, the fewest out of the 130 teams in the FBS. Much of that success can be attributed to the Commodores’ pass defense, which also ranks No. 1 in the FBS. For Alabama’s offense to continue to run smoothly in its SEC opener, the Crimson Tide may need some big plays out of its star receiver. Ridley has 15 catches for 219 receiving yards this season; the rest of the team’s wide receivers total 11 catches for 182 yards, and none have more than four catches. It’s clear Ridley is the glue that keeps this passing game together.

S Ronnie Harrison

Having played in 31 of Alabama’s last 33 games, Harrison is one of the team’s most dependable and experienced defenders. The junior has accumulated a highlight reel of big hits during his three years at Alabama, and currently leads the team in solo tackles (10) and total tackles (18). He also has a sack and two tackles for loss. He doesn’t just excel near the line of scrimmage though, as he finished second on the team in pass breakups last year with seven. Bleacher Report NFL draft writer Matt Miller ranked Harrison the third-best safety prospect in the country, behind only Florida State’s Derwin James and Harrison’s teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick. 

LB Rashaan Evans

After missing two games due to a groin injury he suffered while returning a blocked field goal against Florida State, Evans will return to the lineup against Vanderbilt. His backup, Keith Holcombe, played well in the first two starts of his career, but Alabama will be glad to have Evans back. The senior linebacker has shown that he can rise to the occasion in big games, having set career-highs in tackles in the national championship each of the last two years. Evans was a five-star recruit, so his talent is obvious, but head coach Nick Saban said during the spring that Evans’ leadership helps his teammates play great football as well.

C Bradley Bozeman

Bozeman has played in 33 straight games for the Crimson Tide, starting the last 18 at center. He was honored as a member of the All-SEC Second Team in the preseason, trailing only Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow for the spot on the First Team. Bozeman was also put on the watch lists for the Rimington and Outland Trophies, given annually to college football’s best center and overall lineman, respectively. Alabama coaches named him one of four offensive players of the week for his play against Colorado State. The Crimson Tide will need him to open running lanes for running backs and keep Jalen Hurts upright against the Commodores’ excellent defense.

Vanderbilt

RB Ralph Webb

Ever since Webb burst onto the scene as a freshman four years ago, all he has ever done is be productive. The senior running back has rushed for nearly 3500 yards in his career, and has never missed a game. But Webb’s 2017 campaign has got off to a slow start. Through three games, he’s rushed for 149 yards and has a career worst 2.6 yards per carry. But don’t let the slow start in the run game fool you, he can still pose a threat. He already has 104 receiving yards out of the backfield this season, just 84 yards shy of a season high. Although the Crimson Tide run defense has been stout, Webb is a player that can make them pay if they let him loose. 

QB Kyle Shurmur

After a subpar 2016 season, Shurmer has started 2017 on the right foot and has regained the trust of the Commodore nation. The junior quarterback has been very solid under center, throwing for 703 yards and eight touchdowns, and has yet to turn the ball over. His 194.9 passer efficiency rating and 71 completion percentage are tops in the SEC, and he leads an offense that has averaged 28 points a game this season. Although he has the good numbers and an undefeated record, Shurmer has yet to face a defense like Alabama, let alone an SEC defense. Expect Shurmer to take on his normal role as a game manager Saturday against the Crimson Tide, but if called to do so, he can throw the ball all around the field. 

LB Charles Wright

Vanderbilt’s defense is ranked near the top in the majority of defensive categories through the first three weeks, and a lot of the credit belongs to Wright. He ranks second in the FBS in sacks with six sacks, and has seven total tackles for loss. Wright came on strong last season and played in all 12 regular seasons, but now has burst onto the scene as the top threat on this Commodore defense. The elite SEC pass rusher will be looking to get after Jalen Hurts all afternoon, but it will be difficult. The Alabama offensive line has only given up three sacks this season, which is tied for third in the SEC, and 24th nationally. 

S LaDarius Wiley

Wiley has racked up 17 tackles this season, two pass break ups, three passes defended and has snagged an interception, and was just recently named SEC Defensive Player of the Week after his performance against Kansas State. The redshirt junior can creep up out of his safety spot and be a run stopper, or sit back in coverage and make life hard for opposing wide receivers and quarterbacks. He is a big reason why the Commodore pass defense has been stellar so far in 2017, as it has given up just 95 yards a game through the air. But he will be tasked with covering one of the nation’s biggest deep threats in Calvin Ridley Saturday afternoon, who is seventh in the SEC in receiving yards.