TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s almost impossible to have an SEC game nowadays in which there isn’t some strong connection between the teams, and No. 1 Alabama at Vanderbilt is no exception.
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason and Alabama defensive line coach Karl Dunbar used to work together with the Minnesota Vikings from 2007-09, and the families have stayed close.
“We’re going to go toe-to-toe on Saturday, and it’ll be good to see him,” Mason said. “But by the same token, he’s trying to win a ballgame and I am, too.
“Man, I love that dude, he’s always on my heart, but when it’s all said and done, it’s time to play ball.”
Mason was an assistant defensive backs coach with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings under Brad Childress and left for Stanford in 2010. He took over the Commodores in 2014 and is one of just two college football coaches who serves as his own defensive coordinator, the other being San Diego State’s Rocky Long.
Vanderbilt’s defense is ranked first in the nation in total, scoring and passing defense.
“I think they’ve got a really good team,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “They play well. They’re really well-coached. They play hard, physical, tough. They’ve got very good schemes on offense and defense and special teams.
“Derek deserves a lot of credit for that.”
Dunbar was the defensive line coach in Minnesota from 2006-11 prior to stints with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, both with Rex Ryan. During his time with Minnesota. it became the first team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to lead the league in rushing defense three consecutive seasons.
The Vikings also twice led the league in sacks (2009 and 2011).
“When I got there, Coach Dunbar had the most dominant defensive line in the NFL,” Mason said on the SEC weekly coaches teleconference. “I mean Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, Jared Allen. Karl Dunbar’s been a great coach for a long time. But our families became close. We worked in the same room, we broke bread together. It was family.”
Dunbar joined the Alabama staff in May 2016, after Bo Davis resigned in the spring due to the NCAA investigating allegations of impermissible contact with recruits. That eventually led to a two-year show-cause clause.
Last season the Crimson Tide led the nation in rushing defense (63.9 yards per game) and was fourth in sacks (3.60).
“He’s a real big technician, and I like his energy,” Alabama senior defensive end Da’Shawn Hand said about Dunbar.
Alabama’s defense has been handicapped with arguably its five best pass-rushers suffering significant injuries, including linebackers Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis out for the season, and defensive end Raekwon Davis getting shot in the leg the weekend before the season opener.
Nevertheless, the Crimson Tide are among the league leaders in most defensive categories, and rank eighth nationally against the run.
“Karl’s a beast,” Mason said. “Guys believe in him; he’s a great teacher. He understands how to get guys to play to their max potential. I don’t care how talented you are, Karl Dunbar is going to push you to your limit and then squeeze everything that he can out of you in order for him to make you a better player and a better man. With that, I’m proud to see what he’s done and I’m sure Coach Saban is happy.”
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Although Alabama has had a lot of recruiting success in Tennessee, there’s only one scholarship player on this year’s roster as redshirt sophomore linebacker Joshua McMillon is from Memphis.
Vanderbilt has nine players from the state of Alabama, including senior wide receiver C.J. Duncan out of Montgomery.
Alabama’s only other trip to Vanderbilt during the Saban was the second game of his initial season, a 24-10 victory that was later vacated as part of an NCAA penalty. Even without that game, the Crimson Tide have won 21 straight games in the series, dating back 1985. The Commodores last defeated Alabama in Nashville in 1969.
Both teams are 3-0, with Vanderbilt coming off a home win against No. 18 Kansas State. This will be Mason’s first time going up against No. 1 Alabama, as the programs haven’t met since 2011, attracting CBS of its SEC game of the week and the SEC Nation pregame show on SEC Network.
“We’ve always been shielded from the hype because there’s never really been a whole lot of it,” Mason said.
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