TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — To put it simply, Nick Saban and Alabama football aren't looking past Vanderbilt.
This Saturday, the Crimson Tide welcome the Commodores to Bryant-Denny Stadium to open both teams' 2022 SEC schedules. While Alabama has started the season at 3-0, Vanderbilt is 3-1 due to a Week 0 63-10 victory at Hawaii.
During his segment on the SEC Coaches Teleconference on Wednesday, Saban began his time by crediting the Commodores and head coach Clark Lea with the success the team has had thus far.
"I think Vanderbilt is off to a really strong start this season," Saban said. "It'll be a challenging game for us on Saturday. I think Clark Lea has done an excellent job of sort of changing the culture there. They do a great job of coaching on both sides of the ball and special teams. They've got 14 starters back and they're scoring 42 points a game, so the focus for us is to get our team to improve but also play with consistency — you know, down-in and down-out, game-in and game-out. It's the start of SEC play, so it's really an important time to do that."
Saban is on the nose regarding Vanderbilt's average of 42 points per game. Following the Commodores' trouncing of the Rainbow Warriors, Vanderbilt downed Elon 42-31 in Nashville before losing to Wake Forest by a final score of 45-25. Most recently, the Commodores defeated Northern Illinois on the road 38-28 to give the team its third win of the season.
2021 marked the first year of Lea with Vanderbilt as its head coach. Lea played fullback for the Commodores from 2002-04 before coaching a variety of positions at multiple schools. During his first year as a head coach with Vanderbilt, the program finished 2-10 with an SEC record of 0-8.
While Vanderbilt still has a lot of tough teams on its schedule, the team has already surpassed preseason expectations. With the team's third win, the Commodores passed most betting sites' projected season win totals.
When it comes to what's making the difference in Nashville, Saban said that it's all about the culture that Lea is developing at Vanderbilt.
"I think that the biggest difference is — you know, I mentioned the word culture," Saban said. "These guys are playing with a lot of confidence, they play together well as a team. You can tell they've got really good team chemistry and they compete. They play hard, and that's what you look at: they execute well, they play smart. So those are the things that sort of jump out at me. And I think those are all really good things in terms of their team having a chance to be successful."
A lot of pressure is put on first-year head coaches to immediately turn the program around, and even more pressure heading into the coach's second season. During Saban's first season at Alabama, the Crimson Tide finished with a 7-6 record and an Independence Bowl win over Colorado.
The difference between Year 1 and Year 2 for Saban was staggering, as Alabama finished the regular season 12-0 before losing to Florida in the SEC Championship Game and then falling to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. While Crimson Tide fans had to wait until the 2009 season for a national title under Saban, the quick progression set an unrealistic set of expectations for new coaches in college football — particularly in the SEC.
Despite it being just his second year at Vanderbilt, there's no mistaking that the culture around Commodores football has changed under Lea. Before he signed off of the teleconference, Saban stated that changing team culture is one of the more difficult jobs for new head coaches.
"I think the most difficult thing is to change the culture," Saban said. "And when you inherit a team and you're trying to change the culture of the whole team in the first year, you get some buy-in — you don't get total buy-in — but as the program progresses, you get more buy-in. And when you get more buy-in, you get more players that are doing things they way you want to do them. Obviously you've got a better chance to be successful.
"So that probably happens to a different degree in every program but that's certainly from a coach's perspective what you're trying to gain."
Alabama and Vanderbilt are slated for a 6:30 p.m. CT kickoff on Saturday (SEC Network).