Ole Miss preview: Rebels bring frenetic offense, dubious defense to Bryant-Denny

Sep 15, 2012; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receivers Christion Jones (22) and Amari Cooper (9) celebrate after a touchdown catch by Cooper against the Arkansas Razorbacks during the second quarter at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Photo Credit:  Nelson Chenault-US PRESSWIRE

Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Sept. 26, 2012

 

Coaching changes bring out both the best and the worst in schools.

 

Some schools get things terribly, terribly wrong (here’s looking at you, Arkansas); some, however, get it right.

 

When Ole Miss hired Arkansas State’s Hugh Freeze this offseason, the hire was generally applauded by analysts and other coaches alike. Freeze’s name was on TideFans.com/NARCAS’s annual “Coaches To Watch” list.

 

After a month of play, Freeze has done nothing to sour the milk. Ole Miss isn’t a great team yet – the Rebels aren’t really even a good team yet – but Freeze has the Rebels playing very good offensive football despite having personnel that might not unseat the starters at Troy. Unfortunately for Freeze and the Rebels, however, the defense isn’t keeping pace.

 

When Ole Miss enters Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday night, the Rebels will do so with a shoestring’s chance of upsetting Alabama. For it to happen, everything has to go right offensively, and being honest about it, Alabama would probably have to suffer a couple of key injuries. Barring those things from happening, Ole Miss would have to catch Alabama not just napping, but catatonic in a closet somewhere.

 

To that end, Freeze is already ahead of some well-meaning players at Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic who asserted that Alabama could be beaten: He has done nothing but lavish praise upon Alabama in the press this week, and has kept any and all bulletin board material firmly under wraps.

 

OFFENSE

 

Freeze’s offense of choice, to a large extent, resembles the no-huddle, pressure-based offenses that Tony Franklin ran at Troy and Gus Malzahn ran at Auburn. Ole Miss’ offensive attack is built upon speed, causing confusion in the defense and trying to wear down and mentally collapse the opposition. To that end, the Rebels are third in the conference and 24th overall nationally in total offense, which numbers being split almost exactly between rushing and passing. Personnel flexibility at quarterback and running back have given Ole Miss a seemingly endless array of gadget plays and trickery. The team’s weakness comes when it is forced to go straight at a defense, and that’s where size becomes an issue along with a questionable offensive line. Alabama counters with an offense that looks mundane by comparison, but one that has been lethal in its efficiency. The Crimson Tide’s pro-style attack utilizes multiple tight end looks and formations to power a running game that wears down opponents and opens up a deep passing attack.

 

QUARTERBACKS

First of all, let it be said that Ole Miss deserves applause for developing Bo Wallace as a quarterback. Prior to the season, the question was whether Barry Brunetti would unseat Randall Mackey for the job. Now, Mackey has changed positions, while Wallace came from nowhere to be an effective rushing and passing threat. Unfortunately for Wallace, he sustained a fairly serious shoulder injury against Tulane and may be out for this game. So far in 2012, Wallace has completed 55 of 86 passes (64.0%) for 717 yards, 7 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Wallace has also shown himself to be a capable runner, collecting 179 yards on 44 carries (4.1 avg.). If Wallace can’t go, Brunetti will step in. He’s not nearly as big as Wallace, but he has experience and can handle both running and passing duties. Brunetti is 15-for-21 (71.4%) for 162 yards and 1 touchdown on the year, and has rushed 27 times for 153 yards (5.7 avg.). If Wallace is ruled out altogether, the backup becomes either Mackey again, or freshman Maikhail Miller, who has yet to attempt a collegiate pass. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who has completed 51 of 81 passes (63.0%) for 819 yards, 10 touchdowns, 0 interceptions and who ranks 4th in the nation in passing efficiency. Behind him are backups Blake Sims and Phillip Ely, who have split the snaps so far, with Sims holding a slight edge. Freeze has done an outstanding job developing Wallace and Brunetti, but with Wallace hurting, Alabama holds a depth advantage, and McCarron’s passing acumen trumps Brunetti’s dual-threat capabilities, particularly in intermediate and deep passing. Advantage: Alabama

 

RUNNING BACKS

There were plenty of naysayers in the preseason regarding Jeff Scott’s ability to be an every-down SEC running back, but Scott is slowly proving them wrong. Scott is just 5’7” and weighs 170 pounds, but he has carried 31 times for 268 yards (8.6 avg.) and 3 touchdowns, and looks aggressive while doing it. Scott is most effective around the corners and on draw plays, but he has shown the mental toughness necessary to take on contact in the middle when needed. Whoever plays quarterback becomes the team’s No. 2 rushing option, while converted quarterback Randall Mackey (36 carries, 172 yards, 4.8 avg., 2 TD) is the third option and also a passing threat on trick plays. Freshman I’Tavius Mathers (16 carries, 92 yards, 5.8 avg.) and Jaylen Walton (9 carries, 47 yards, 5.2 avg., 1 TD) provide good depth. Ole Miss uses no full-time fullback, but H.R. Greer played there last year and now plays the H-back position when needed. He is solid. Alabama counters with an impressive stable of running backs headed by Eddie Lacy (45 carries, 232 yards, 5.2 avg., 4 TD) and T.J. Yeldon (40 carries, 254 yards, 6.4 avg, 2 TD). Kenyan Drake and Dee Hart have been impressive off the bench, and even walk-on Ben Howell has shown he can move the chains. Like Ole Miss, there is no pure fullback in the offense, although Kelly Johnson has shown good blocking ability at H-back. There’s no doubting Scott’s ability to make big plays, but the combination of Lacy and Yeldon are equally adept at running inside or outside, and can play power football when needed. Advantage: Alabama

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

If Alabama can contain Donte Moncrief, the Tide will have half the battle licked. Moncrief has caught 19 passes for 343 yards (18.1 avg.) and 4 touchdowns so far in 2012, and no one else on the team is even close. Slot receiver Korvic Neat is second on the team with 14 catches for 151 yards (10.8 avg.), but he may be out for this game with a groin injury. If he plays, he’ll almost surely be slowed by the injury, and speed is his prime commodity. No one else on the team has caught more than 7 passes. Ja-Mes Logan (7 catches, 58 yards, 8.3 avg.) is the third starter. If Neat is out, look for Vincent Sanders or Collins Moore to start in his place. Moore, however, is nursing a shoulder injury himself. Philander Moore and Cody Core add depth. Ferbia Allen and Jamal Mosley have combined to catch 11 passes so far in 2012. Allen is the better blocker, while Mosley is the better receiver. Alabama counters with a deep group that includes Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones, Kenny Bell, Amari Cooper and DeAndrew White, along with Marvin Shinn, Danny Woodson, Cyrus Jones and Nathan McAlister providing depth. While no one on the team has yet broken the 10-catch mark, it’s largely due to the Tide’s focus on the running game and the way Alabama distributes its passes to multiple receivers. Cooper and Cyrus Jones had breakout games against Florida Atlantic, and Bell once again showed why he’s such a feared deep threat. Norwood is nursing a leg injury, but is expected to be at or near full speed for this game. Michael Williams continues to be a powerful blocker and capable receiver at tight end, with Brian Vogler showing good hands as his backup. Kelly Johnson will handle H-back duties. There’s little doubt at the moment that Moncrief is atop this comparison, but Alabama has better depth and is healthier. Close call but the Tide gets it. Advantage: Alabama

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

Ole Miss’ offensive system is built to do many things, not the least of which is to cover up weakness in the offensive line. Evan Swindall is a capable center and guard A.J. Hawkins isn’t terrible, but the tackle combination of Emmanuel McCray and Pierce Burton is lacking compared to most SEC contenders. Aaron Morris will start at the other guard slot. Jared Duke and Patrick Junen are the primary backups. Alabama counters with a group that is probably the league’s best. Barrett Jones starts at center flanked by guards Anthony Steen and Chance Warmack and tackles D.J. Fluker and Cyrus Kouandjio. Depth is fine inside with Chad Lindsey, Ryan Kelly and Arie Kouandjio, but tackle is a bit thin. Kellen Williams and Austin Shepherd staff the backup tackle positions at the moment. Ole Miss has done a good job hiding problems – the Rebels rank 11th in the country in rushing offense – but some problems just can’t be masked. Chief among those is the fact Ole Miss ranks 100th in the country and 12th in the SEC in sacks allowed. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSE

 

Ole Miss bases out of a 4-2-5 alignment, one of the few teams in a major conference that utilizes it as a base. But perhaps things will change this week; Ole Miss coaches apparently plan to run more a 4-3 base against Alabama to work against the Tide’s powerful running game. The problem is, Ole Miss lacks the size necessary to run such an alignment (one of the Rebels’ starting linebackers tips the scales at 195 pounds) and switching between those two philosophies isn’t as simple as simply running another linebacker out onto the field. As it is, though, things can’t get much worse. The Rebels are in the bottom third of the conference in most categories, and rank 85th nationally in pass efficiency defense, 91st in raw pass defense, 71st in scoring defense and 62nd in total defense. Only in rushing defense, where the Rebels are 40th, do the numbers rise to the level of acceptable. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that is, once again, choking out the competition. Alabama is 3rd in total defense, 2nd in scoring defense, 2nd in pass defense, 5th in pass efficiency defense and 6th in rushing defense.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE

It doesn’t take long to find a problem on the Ole Miss defense. The defensive line is neither particularly quick off the corner nor particularly big in the middle. And now, there are health concerns. Converted fullback E.J. Epperson will start at defensive end along with converted linebacker C.J. Johnson. Cameron Whigham, though, rotates with Epperson enough to be considered a co-starter. Jason Jones and Ralph Williams add depth. Jones and Whigham are the largest of the bunch at around 250 pounds each. Inside, Ole Miss starts Isaac Gross, a freshman, and Carlton Martin. Again, size is an issue for both, as both are in the 280-pound range. One of the Rebels’ big-man options, Uriah Grant, may miss this game with a hand injury; another, Woodrow Hamilton, is nursing an injured ankle. If neither can go, Gilbert Pena – a rarity at 325 pounds – will be the primary backup at both tackle positions. Bryon Bennett is also available. Alabama counters with Jesse Williams in the middle, flanked by Damion Square and Ed Stinson at end. Quinton Dial and Jeoffrey Pagan offer quality depth at the outside positions, with LaMichael Fanning and D.J. Pettway also in the mix. Depth in the middle is a concern this week, as Brandon Ivory is nursing a sore ankle. That makes Williams’ backup either true freshman Darren Lake, or some combination of Square and Dial. Williams presence alone tilts this comparison toward Alabama, as he’s been a Terrence Cody-like bastion of dominance in the middle of the Alabama defense. Advantage: Alabama

 

LINEBACKERS

Mike Marry has become a fairly effective inside linebacker for Ole Miss, and will move to the middle if Rebel coaches are serious about going to the 4-3. The question is whether the outside positions – which figure to be Denzel Nkemdiche on one side and Joel Kight on the other – are up to the challenge. Nkemdiche is a scant 195 pounds, and he plays much like former Alabama linebacker Demarcus Waldrop. Kight is 5’9”, 210, but does have plenty of SEC experience under his belt. Nkemdiche has been most effective when playing almost as a rover safety. Aaron Garbutt, Serderius Bryant and Keith Lewis are the primary backups. Alabama will start some combination of C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson and Trey DePriest in the middle, with Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson holding down the outside positions. Alabama will likely be in nickel or dime for the duration of this game due to the nature of the Ole Miss offense, so expect to see less of Johnson and Dickson, especially. Tana Patrick provides depth outside while Jonathan Atchison and Denzel Devall are the primary backups at outside linebacker. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Alabama has depth concerns in its secondary, but Ole Miss has concerns all over the map. It’s tough to tell whether it’s a pure talent problem, or just a lot of bad habits carrying over from past staffs, but the Ole Miss secondary has plenty of holes. Wesley Pendleton will start at one cornerback position, while Charles Sawyer and Cody Prewitt will start at the safety positions. If Ole Miss pulls out of the 4-2-5 alignment, Dehendret Collins will go to the bench. Ole Miss has a problem at the off corner position, where Senquez Golson began the year as the starter. Cliff Coleman is still competing for that job. Chief Brown and Brishen Matthews are the top backups. Alabama will start Dee Milliner and Deion Belue at the corners, with Robert Lester at one safety spot and either Vinnie Sunseri or Nick Perry at the other. Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix will see plenty of time at safety as well. The Tide needs to develop a true third corner; John Fulton has played the position so far in 2012 but isn’t on Belue’s or Milliner’s level. Redshirt freshman Bradley Sylve has looked good in limited trials. Advantage: Alabama

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Hugh Freeze pulled a fast one on everybody this fall when he decided to redshirt senior Ray Guy Award candidate Tyler Campbell at punter and instead play walk-on fifth-year senior Jim Broadway. The decision has paid off. Ole Miss will have Campbell next year, while Broadway carries a 45.5-yard average per kick. The real surprise, though, has been the struggles of placekicker Bryson Rose, who is just 3-of-7 on field goal attempts, including two misses from inside 40 yards. Ole Miss has also struggled to cover punts, and the return game has been subpar. Alabama, meanwhile, has been the surprise of the conference, thanks to the development of punter Cody Mandell and the performance of placekicking duo Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster. Alabama’s lone struggle this year has been in kickoff returns, where the Tide ranks just 114th. But Alabama hasn’t gotten more than a handful of kickoffs to return, thanks to its stifling defense. Coverage performance also favors the Tide. Theoretically, Ole Miss should win this category easily, but Alabama has simply performed better. Advantage: Alabama

 

OVERALL

 

Alabama leads in all eight categories, although both wide receiver and special teams are close calls. The Crimson Tide easily controls both OL/DL matchups.

 

Ole Miss’ offense has been effective if nothing else. It has the kind of tempo, pace and speed at just enough positions to cause Bama fans extra indigestion to go with their barbecue nachos. Ole Miss will probably score more than anyone else the Tide has faced so far in 2012, and will threaten to score a few more times.

 

In the end, though, Ole Miss suffers from two distinct problems. One, the Rebel defense doesn’t match up well strength-for-strength with Alabama’s offense. Two, Alabama comes into the game healthier than Ole Miss. Barry Brunetti’s success so far in his Ole Miss career has mostly come against overmatched opponents or in pressure-off situations. Bo Wallace’s shoulder injury makes him a questionable weapon at best.

 

If the Rebels had a good secondary, they might be able to survive the Alabama running game, but the Rebels don’t. For several years consecutively now, Ole Miss’ pass defense has played without any semblance of confidence. A sketchy kicking game only makes things worse.

 

Don’t look for a repeat of the Arkansas or Florida Atlantic games here, but Alabama shouldn’t have trouble putting Ole Miss away, either. If the Rebels do manage to keep the game close heading into the fourth quarter, the game will enter anything-can-happen territory.

 

Alabama 38

Ole Miss 21

 

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