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Five Match-Ups to Watch Saturday
Football is a team game, perhaps the ultimate team game. Individuals rarely succeed or fail entirely on their own, as the game's plays and schemes are too complex to allow that to happen.
But one player can make the difference on an individual play or series of plays. Individuals who are able to elevate their game at a key moment or consistently over the course of a game usually wind up on the winning side. Think of Don McNeal, and then Barry Krauss, in the 1979 Sugar Bowl for proof of that.
Likewise, one player not doing his job --- or one player who does his job as still gets beaten by his opponent --- can make all the difference. Two particular plays in last year's Alabama-Auburn game (I don't think I need to tell you which two) might be all the proof you need to illustrate that point.
Alabama's Southeastern Conference opener Saturday at Vanderbilt should be no different. The Commodores don't have the overall talent and depth of the Crimson Tide, but do have a number of excellent players who might be able to win their individual match-ups against their Alabama counterparts.
First, though, a quick aside. One thing from last week's column worth re-visiting is the comparisons between current and past Crimson Tide players.
I wrote that Rolando McClain reminded me of former Alabama star Dwayne Rudd, but one sharp reader noted that perhaps Keith McCants would be a better comparison. I tend to agree with that; if nothing else, McClain's quite a bit taller than Rudd.
But McClain's got a long way to go to equal McCants (or Rudd, for that matter). He did prove last week that he's going to be nearly as fun to watch.
With that, here are five match-ups to watch on Saturday:
Alabama RB Terry Grant vs. Vanderbilt LB Jonathan Goff
Grant burst onto the scene with 134 yards and three touchdowns last week, and showed exactly the type of running skills Nick Saban has been bragging on for the last six months. Goff, a fifth-year senior, is the latest in a long line of fantastic Vanderbilt linebackers.
Alabama will ideally divide the carries between Grant and Jimmy Johns, but Grant is the go-to guy. He has superior speed and vision, as witnessed by his 47-yard touchdown run on the Crimson Tide's first play from scrimmage last week.
Goff is a veritable tackling machine, with a 12-stop effort against Alabama among his 93 tackles last season. He also forced two fumbles in that game, so Tide backs had best wrap up.
Alabama WR D.J. Hall vs. Vanderbilt CBs D.J. Moore and Myron Lewis
Alabama's receiving corps is perhaps as deep and talented as ever this year, particularly with Keith Brown back from a one-game suspension this week. Hall is the best of the bunch, and Vanderbilt will use anyone and everyone to try and cover him. Hall has decent speed and above-average hands, but what sets him apart is his body control. Few receivers in the country are his equal when the ball is in the air.
Moore started nine games for the Commodores last season, and began his sophomore season with 11 tackles and an interception against Richmond. Lewis is a first-time starter who had just one tackle last week.
Alabama RT Mike Johnson vs. Vanderbilt DE Curtis Gatewood
Johnson is Alabama's least-proven offensive lineman, while Gatewood is Vanderbilt's best pass-rusher. Numerous Crimson Tide games in recent years have turned on pass protection, and this is a match-up the Commodores could be able to exploit.
Gatewood is a fifth-year senior, and coming off a season in which he had eight sacks. He also forced three fumbles and broke up three passes in 2006; in short, Gatewood's a playmaker.
Johnson held up well in his first career start last week against Western Carolina, though Gatewood will prove a much sterner test. Look for Alabama to help him out a bit in protection with guards and tight ends.
Vanderbilt LT Chris Williams vs. Alabama DE Bobby Greenwood
Vanderbilt is loaded with talent on the offensive line, and Williams is the best of the bunch. Greenwood is probably Alabama's best pure pass-rusher, but has been a streaky player during his Crimson Tide career.
Alabama was able to rattle Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson into numerous mistakes in last year's game, including three interceptions. The Tide will need to put even more pressure on a more experienced and confident Nickson this year.
That probably starts with Greenwood, who'll be rushing from Nickson's blind side. He's a big, strong player who is as good a pass rusher as anyone when he's on.
Vanderbilt WR Earl Bennett vs. Alabama CB Simeon Castille
This match-up is certainly the marquee one for this game, with Bennett and Castille arguably their respective teams' best players. Bennett usually works out of the slot, while Castille settles in at "star" (nickel) back in passing situations, so they should match up plenty of times on Saturday.
Bennett is not the biggest or the fastest receiver in the league, but he's perhaps the smartest. He runs flawless routes and uses his solid 6-foot-1, 202-pound frame to overpower defensive backs for position.
Castille has ball skills unlike anyone in the league, with an uncanny knack to be in the right place at the right time. He'll gamble from time-to-time as well, but more often than not guesses correctly.
Creg Stephenson has covered Crimson Tide athletics for several print and online publications since 1994, and currently writes for The Anniston Star. Email him at email@example.com