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Vanderbilt wide receiver Earl Bennett, left, celebrates with tackle Chris Williams after Bennett scored a touchdown against Richmond in Nashville on Sept. 1.
AP photo by Mark Humphrey
Vanderbilt wide receiver Earl Bennett, left, celebrates with tackle Chris Williams after Bennett scored a touchdown against Richmond in Nashville on Sept. 1.

Alabama faces Vandy's potent offense
Nickson, Bennett hope to lead team to first bowl since 1982

By Josh Cooper 340-2460

The identity of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team is set. Or is it? Before defeating Western Carolina 52-6 last week, coach Nick Saban stressed his football team's search for a personality.

For Saban, this picture will come into greater focus after Alabama's game at Vanderbilt on Saturday, Saban's first Southeastern Conference matchup since LSU defeated Arkansas 43-14 on Nov. 26, 2004.

"We talked about getting a little better execution, a little better technique, in terms of what we're doing, and a little more efficiency in how we're doing things," he said. "Elimination of mental errors and mistakes, tackling on defense, all those things as individual players to improve and grow together."

Less is known about the Commodores (1-0) and Crimson Tide (1-0) than most would think.

Both are coming off blowout wins over Football Championship Subdivision teams — Vanderbilt defeated Richmond 41-17 — and both have a certain level of expectations that may or may not be realized.

During SEC media days, wide receiver Earl Bennett said Vanderbilt's goal is to make a BCS bowl. The Commodores haven't gone to a bowl game since 1982.

Alabama is expecting Saban to resurrect its football program. But Saban typically is quick to mention that the process may take longer than just the second game of his debut season.

"Our readiness to learn has to be at a fever pitch right from the beginning," Saban said. "We're going to master what we can execute, and do the things we need to do, and not make mistakes that would create an advantage for them."

For Alabama on Saturday, the key involves stopping Vanderbilt's offense. Brian Stamper and Chris Williams will provide a test on the offensive line for Alabama's front seven, and quarterback Chris Nickson and Bennett are Vanderbilt's two top skill players. Nickson, a Pike County High grad, was Alabama's 2003 Mr. Football winner, and Bennett is a pre-season first-team All-SEC selection.

"They have a great quarterback and a great receiver," Saban said. "They play hard on defense, and they don't make many mistakes. I think preparation in a game like this is really a key because of the kind of football team they have."

Saban once said that the last 40 players on your roster are what tell you most about your team. He learned this from his former coach at Kent State, Don James.

When Alabama plays a private school like Vanderbilt, which historically has trouble with recruiting in great numbers, depth becomes an issue.

Last season, Alabama overcame a 10-3 halftime deficit to defeat the Commodores 13-10 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The players have lauded Saban's "fourth-quarter program" getting them in shape for the final 15 minutes of a football game.

On Saturday against Vanderbilt, the fourth quarter will be the most important time frame for both teams.

"We want to have the identity that we are a hard hitting defense and that we are going to hit hard in the fourth quarter," linebacker Darren Mustin said. "It is a mind-set. You have to have your mind ready."

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