Ole Miss preview: Rebels hoping to catch Alabama in a down cycle

 

 

Oct 27, 2012; Little Rock, AR, USA; Ole Miss Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace (14) looks to pass against the Arkansas Razorbacks at War Memorial Stadium. Photo Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 27, 2012; Little Rock, AR, USA; Ole Miss Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace (14) looks to pass against the Arkansas Razorbacks at War Memorial Stadium. Photo Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Sept. 23, 2013

 

Reports out of Oxford this week tell the tale of Ole Miss players taking to Twitter to brag about a coming upset, and being a bit loose-lipped in media interviews about their opinions of the 2013 Alabama team, particularly the Crimson Tide’s pass defense.

 

It doesn’t seem to matter than Alabama’s pass defense has given up natch to any quarterback not nicknamed Johnny Football, or that this is a team coming off consecutive national titles and neither one were by accident. Whatever Ole Miss saw in the Texas A&M tape has certainly gotten the Rebels into a lather, and it will be up to Alabama to do something about it Saturday night. Ole Miss is probably the second-toughest game left on the Tide schedule outside of LSU.

 

Ole Miss’ season so far has included a win over a staggering Texas program – a quality win no doubt, but the Rebels didn’t exactly take down the Packers. In its other two games, the Rebels were nearly beaten by a depleted Vanderbilt team and in its other game, defeated Southeast Missouri State by a score of only 31-13.

 

Hugh Freeze has done an admirable job of lifting the Rebel program up from where it was under Ed Orgeron and Houston Nutt, but this is not yet a complete team. The skill position talent is a tick below what Alabama saw two weeks ago in College Station, the defense is a work in progress and Manziel isn’t suiting up in gray pants. However, Alabama does have questions about its offensive consistency, and injuries in the secondary are troubling. This is a game Alabama should win, but a blowout is unlikely.

 

OFFENSE

 

Ole Miss’ offense is more like the current Auburn offense than what the Tide saw against Texas A&M. While A&M runs a spread passing attack, Ole Miss’ offense derives directly from the HUNH (Hurry-Up, No-Huddle) theory. There is more option in the Rebels’ packages, and most of the running from the running backs is done outside the tackles. Statistically, the Rebels have been a better running team (21st nationally) than passing team (55th, including 79th in pass efficiency), although the Rebels have yet to throw an interception. Alabama counters with its pro-style, multiple attack that so far has been more dangerous through the air than on the ground. Alabama ranks a stupefying 90th in rushing offense at the moment, highly uncommon for a Nick Saban-coached team. Most of the issues have been due to spotty play from the Tide offensive line.

 

QUARTERBACKS

Most of the talk about Ole Miss’ quarterback situation deals with Bo Wallace, but the Rebels will play two quarterbacks. Wallace will get the bulk of the snaps, but backup Barry Brunetti is also expected to play, especially in designed option packages. Wallace is 56-of-87 (64.4%) for 648 yards, 4 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. He has a decent arm and better-than-advertised running ability, but he also lacks premier-level field vision and tends to make more than a few ill-advised throws over the course of the game. Brunetti’s passing numbers are nothing to write home about (3-for-13, 23.1%, 48 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT) but his rushing ability must be respected (21 carries, 117 yards, 5.6 avg., 3 TD). Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who put up solid numbers against Colorado State after putting up the kind of numbers against Texas A&M that win Heismans. McCarron is 50-of-78 (64.1%) for the year, throwing for 702 yards, 6 touchdowns and 2 picks. McCarron isn’t a dual-threat QB, but he can run his way out of trouble at times and knows when to throw the ball away. His backup, Blake Sims, threw a touchdown pass against Colorado State in relief, the first of his career, but he won’t rotate with McCarron the way Brunetti will with Wallace. Wallace can be very inconsistent, but he can also have long stretches of effectiveness and can’t be taken lightly. Due to Brunetti’s experience, Ole Miss has the superior depth situation, but McCarron is in another class. Advantage: Alabama

 

RUNNING BACKS

Jeff Scott isn’t the prototypical SEC running back, but he’s gotten off to a strong start in 2013 (35 carries, 330 yards, 9.4 avg., 2 TD). It remains to be seen how his ability will translate against Alabama, which has much more speed on the corner than any of the Rebels’ prior opponents. The issue for the Rebels is one of depth. The team’s second- and third-leading rushers are Wallace and Brunetti, and Wallace isn’t a game-changing running threat unless it comes on a well-designed option play. Jaylen Watson is Scott’s backup at tailback, but while Scott is small, Watson is tiny, and it shows in his production (20 carries, 77 yards, 3.9 avg., 1 TD). I’Tavius Mathers (8 carries, 70 yards, 8.8 avg., 1 TD) is the lone big back, and the Rebels don’t use a fullback. Alabama counters with T.J. Yeldon, who is a proven SEC threat, and an ever-changing depth chart of backs that includes Jalston Fowler, Kenyan Drake, Dee Hart, Altee Tenpenny and Derrick Henry. Yeldon (49 carries, 273 yards, 5.6 avg., 2 TD) may trail Scott’s per-carry figures at this point, but he’s also capable of doing more things from the position. Alabama also has a superior depth situation, with both more bodies and more playmakers. The Tide also has the option to use a fullback by moving Fowler into that slot. Alabama’s defense will have to commit to sealing the edge; otherwise, Scott can hurt UA. But Yeldon can dictate a running game by himself. Advantage: Alabama

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

Health concerns have been a factor in Alabama’s early-season production. Amari Cooper wasn’t 100 percent coming out of fall camp, then tweaked an ankle against Texas A&M and didn’t play against Colorado State. Kevin Norwood, unfortunately, is suffering from a more serious ankle tweak and won’t be 100 percent for this game. The absence of both players was felt against the Rams, where Alabama struggled to find a third option behind Christion Jones and DeAndrew White. Cooper, Jones, White and Kenny Bell will likely form the core nucleus in this game, with Norwood helping where he can and youngsters Chris Black and Raheem Falkins possibly working into the rotation. But where Alabama has really been making hay this fall has been at the tight end position, where Brian Vogler and O.J. Howard have established themselves as reliable receivers. Howard, who has also worked some at wideout, has shown signs of being a major threat. Jalston Fowler will start at H-back, while Brandon Greene is a blocking specialist. Ole Miss also has a freshman tight end worth watching, Evan Ingram. He’s the team’s leading receiver (11 catches, 175 yards, 15.9 avg., 2 TD) and can create mismatch problems. But it’s the wideout group of Donte Moncrief (11 catches, 173 yards, 15.7 avg., 2 TD) and Laquon Treadwell (16 catches, 154 yards, 9.6 avg., 0 TD) that cause the most consternation. Both are big-bodied receivers who can cause issues for smaller cornerbacks. But the Rebels also have a depth problem. Slot receiver Korvic Neat is out for this game, and Vincent Sanders is just now coming back from injury and may not be 100 percent. Ja-Mes Logan, Cody Core and Jordan Holder will fill out the depth chart; Logan can occasionally make plays. It’s hard to peg this one due to injury issues, but with production fairly close in the early going, give Alabama the edge due to depth. Advantage: Alabama

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

Both teams have dealt with injury issues in the early going, but Alabama will be healthier for this game. Ole Miss lost starting left guard Aaron Morris for the season to a knee injury, which forces the massive-but-not-necessarily-mobile Jared Duke into the starting lineup. Evan Swindall is a solid center, and Pierce Burton is underrated at tackle. But Burton might be out for this game with injury. The other tackle slot is unsettled, with Emmanuel McCray and Laremy Tunsil fighting it out, while Justin Bell and Patrick Junen will likely split time at the other guard slot. Alabama figures to get right guard Anthony Steen back for this game. Arie Kouandjio has played well in two games now after an erratic opener, and center Ryan Kelly has been solid. Alabama’s issues have been primarily at tackle, where Austin Shepherd needs to improve in pass protection and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio simply needs to play better all around. Kellen Williams will start at right guard if Steen can’t go, and will back up the other four positions otherwise. Statistically, the two teams are split; Alabama has allowed fewer sacks, but more tackles of running backs for a loss. The bottom line is that neither team is playing at a championship level at the moment, but Alabama is healthier and more stable. It’s close, though. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSE

 

While Alabama runs a 3-4 over/under base defense, the Tide’s defense in this game will likely resemble Ole Miss’ 4-2-5 base look more often than not. Alabama doesn’t get much of a chance to play its base 3-man, 4-LB look anymore, and certainly not against a HUNH offense. Statistically, Ole Miss narrowly leads the Tide in most categories, but Alabama has the Johnny Manziel factor to account for in its numbers, whereas Ole Miss’ most dangerous offensive opponent so far was a Texas team without its starting quarterback. Both teams have put up respectable numbers against the run and struggled against the pass so far.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE

The Rebels will use a four-man front at all times. The weak spot for this unit is probably up the middle, where the Rebels were breaking in new starters to begin with and then started having injury problems. Carlton Martin should be back for this game, but he missed the Texas game and was replaced by Byron Bennett. Sophomore Woodrow Hamilton starts at the other tackle slot. While Martin and Hamilton are typical SEC-sized linemen, Bennett is lighter than most interior players. Lavon Hooks and Isaac Gross provide depth. The ends are solid, however, with C.J. Johnson and Robert Nkemdiche ahead of Cameron Whigham and Channing Ward. All four players bring something different to the table. Johnson is quick, albeit small, while Whigham is solid against the run but not a weapon as a pass rusher. Ward and Nkemdiche are both former recruiting stars. Nkemdiche is still adjusting in his freshman year, while Ward is trying to avoid the “bust” label. Ole Miss’ ends have a total of 1.5 sacks so far, 1 by Ward and a half-sack from reserve end Carlos Thompson. Alabama counters with Brandon Ivory in the middle flanked by Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson at end. With Dalvin Tomlinson lost for the year, Alabama is still shuffling personnel. The Tide may have hit on a pass rush solution against Colorado State, as true freshman Tim Williams got his first action at end and showed flashes of promise. A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and LaMichael Fanning offer depth at end, while Darren Lake will provide depth behind Ivory. Alabama could use more production from the inside players, and Lake and Robinson saw more action against Colorado State than previously. Like Ole Miss, sacks have been hard to come by. This is another close call at the moment, with Ed Stinson’s veteran presence for Alabama probably making the difference. Advantage: Alabama

 

LINEBACKERS

Alabama will be more multiple in its looks than Ole Miss. Outside linebackers Adrian Hubbard, Denzel Devall and Xzavier Dickson will probably spend as much time at defensive end in rush packages as they will standing up at linebacker. Hubbard played a better game against Colorado State after opening the season mostly out of the conversation. Inside, Alabama starts C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest, although some of the outside backers will occasionally rotate through. Tana Patrick, Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland will back up the inside, while Ryan Anderson and Dillon Lee figure to see action at outside linebacker. For Ole Miss, a lot depends on if Denzel Nkemdiche can play in this game. He is on the front end of rehab of a knee injury, and if Ole Miss were playing anyone besides Alabama, there would be no question – he would sit. But with Nkemdiche sidelined, weakside backer is the property of Serderius Bryant, who is decidedly a step down in effectiveness. Mike Marry will start at middle linebacker, but he’s been fairly MIA in 2013 after posting a solid 2012. D.T. Shackelford and Keith Lewis add depth. This was solidly in Alabama’s favor anyway, but with Nkemdiche moving at sub-optimal speed, it goes even further in the Tide’s favor. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The two teams’ mirror-image seasons continue, as both have had problems stopping the pass, as well as the injury cart. Alabama figures to get Deion Belue back from a toe injury, but it might be a case similar to Ole Miss with Denzel Nkemdiche – just how good will Belue be? Even if Belue is 100 percent – which he’s not – Alabama simply doesn’t have a second starting cornerback at the moment. It was open tryouts against Colorado State, and nothing got settled. Senior John Fulton is likely to start because of seniority alone, but don’t be surprised to see a lot of Bradley Sylve, Maurice Smith, Eddie Jackson or Cyrus Jones. Sylve and Jackson were the starters against the Rams, but Fulton and Smith arguably played the most. Smith and Jackson are true freshmen, while Jones is in his first year at the position. Alabama will also be without Nick Perry at safety, whose season (and career) might be over due to a shoulder injury. Jarrick Williams is set to return after suffering a fairly significant eye injury against Texas A&M; he’ll play Star safety along with Geno Smith, who apparently is out of the running at cornerback. Vinnie Sunseri and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix will start at the safety slots. For Ole Miss, strong safety Trae Elston is set to return from injury, but starting CB Charles Sawyer is listed as questionable due to disciplinary reasons. If Sawyer is out, Senquez Golson will start at corner along with either Dehendret Collins, Quintavius Burdette or Anthony Standifer. Mike Hilton will start at the nickel safety position, with Cody Prewitt at free safety. If Elston can’t go or isn’t 100 percent, look for Tony Conner to get the start there. Alabama will end up with the edge here simply because most of the damage to the Tide’s rankings (81st in raw pass defense, 64th in pass efficiency defense) came at the hands of Johnny Manziel, while Ole Miss (60th, 76th respectively) doesn’t have that excuse. The bottom line is both teams need to improve. Advantage: Alabama

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Again, these are mirror images. Both teams are using former kickoff specialists as placekickers (Cade Foster for Alabama, Andrew Ritter for Ole Miss) and both have been dangerous in the return game. Christion Jones has returned two kicks for touchdowns for Alabama, while Jeff Scott has returned one. Punting is a push, as both teams are in the top 20 in net punting, thanks to Cody Mandell for Alabama and Tyler Campbell for Ole Miss. There still isn’t a lot of information available on the kickers; Foster is 1-for-2 on field goals, but Ritter has missed a PAT and 2 field goal tries. Where this one breaks solidly for Bama is on kickoff returns and coverage. Alabama is solidly at or near the top of all return categories, but is also leading the SEC in kickoff coverage. Ole Miss is dead last in kickoff returns and 10th of 14 in kickoff coverage. Because of the situation at placekicker, anything could happen, but Alabama is more consistent throughout. Advantage: Alabama

 

OVERALL

 

Alabama leads in all eight categories. The Tide also has a solid lead in the matchup of its DL vs. the Ole Miss OL. The Tide also leads the opposite matchup (Tide OL vs. Rebel DL) but it’s much closer.

 

However, the 8-0 lead among comparison categories is a bit misleading. Only linebacker and special teams break solidly for Alabama, although the quarterback comparison is close only because depth is a factor. The other five categories are essentially toss-ups.

 

Part of this is due to Ole Miss’ recruiting efforts last February, but more is due to injury. Alabama, overall, is a fairly healthy team at this point, but what injuries have occurred have afflicted some of the Tide’s most important players.

 

The situation in the defensive backfield could make or break this game for Alabama. If Belue plays, he must be effective. But the alternative might be worse. While it’s true that Alabama has played two good games and one horrific game in the secondary, the Tide wasn’t exactly facing Peyton Manning against either Virginia Tech or Colorado State.

 

So far, the 2013 Crimson Tide hasn’t played up to the standards set by the last two championship-winning teams. Ole Miss is hungry and looking to prove its mettle, and has enough talent that, if Alabama approaches this game with the same ho-hum attitude it brought to the Virginia Tech opener, the Crimson Tide could very well find itself on the losing end.

 

Ole Miss has been a tough out for Alabama several times in recent years. This could prove to be another of those times.

 

Alabama 34

Ole Miss 24

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