By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 29, 2014
A quick glance at defensive statistics this season would seem to suggest that no, Ole Miss’ 2013 defensive improvement was not a mirage. The Rebels have put up impressive numbers through the first third of the 2014 season, and the confidence gained from their performance have given Ole Miss’ players a great deal of confidence heading into this game.
For Alabama, though, it’s just another verse to a familiar song, one sung by Ole Miss players and fans insistent that the current season will be different from those of the last 50 years. And while Ole Miss has a stout defense in 2014, to be sure, the Rebels’ offensive capabilities – particularly in the running game – simply haven’t been good enough to merit discussion of the Rebels-as-contenders subject.
This will be Alabama’s first true road game, however, and one the Crimson Tide is going into without a clear picture of its quarterback situation at the moment. While it is very clear that Blake Sims has won the job, an injury in the second half of the Florida game may continue to affect him this week. Ole Miss will need Sims to be not just hurt, but also rattled in order to pull the upset.
Ole Miss runs a hurry-up, no-huddle attack that is somewhat of a cross between Florida’s hurry-up spread and Auburn’s ground-based attack designed by Gus Malzahn. What Ole Miss lacks is the running ability from the quarterback position – Bo Wallace has capable straight-line abilities, but can’t pressure the edge – but is better outfitted for the passing game. The Rebels rank 23rd in total offense, 13th in passing offense and 29th in scoring offense, but are just 73rd in rushing offense. Alabama brings its multiple, pro-style attack to Oxford, an attack that has been as difficult to define as it has been to stop. Alabama is 6th nationally in total offense, 19th in rushing offense, 12th in passing offense and 16th in scoring.
This hinges largely on whether Blake Sims is healthy for Alabama. With Sims at 100 percent, it’s hard not to give the edge to Alabama, even though Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace was selected as a preseason all-SEC pick on many ballots. Wallace is 93-of-131 (71.0%) for 1,271 yards and 11 touchdowns so far, but he has also thrown 6 interceptions. Ole Miss ranks 18th as a team in passing efficiency. Wallace is used as a running option in Ole Miss’ offense, but he has only 25 carries for 7 yards (0.3 avg.) this season, and no touchdowns. Alabama will have to account for him on middle draws, but that’s about it. Behind him, the Rebels have Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade, both of whom are more accomplished as runners than passers. Wallace has done a good job of rolling up the yardage thus far, but he is also rather renowned for throwing interceptions at critical times and being careless with the ball in the red zone. For Alabama, Sims (71-of-97, 73.2%, 1,091 yards, 8 TD, 2 INT; 22 carries for 141 yards, 6.4 avg., 2 TD) has been a revelation. But a shoulder injury suffered against Florida hampered him in practices last week. News reports out of Tuscaloosa have differed as to his condition so far, but most expect him to play. Jake Coker will go if Sims can’t, or if Sims seems to be too affected by the injury after kickoff. Coker is 21-of-33 (63.6%) for 252 yards, 2 touchdowns and no picks so far. As a team, Alabama ranks 4th in passing efficiency. Because of the health concerns – and this being Sims’ first start in hostile territory – this category is almost impossible to call. Alabama has the edge in quality of reserves, and Sims is a more complete passer than Wallace. But Wallace has a big edge in experience and his throwing ability has improved. Advantage: Ole Miss
The one part of Ole Miss’ game that is missing in 2014 is the outside running ability of its running backs compared to previous seasons. Jaylen Walton hasn’t been bad at it – he’s carried 29 times for 199 yards and 3 touchdowns, a 6.9-yard average – but he hasn’t been the complete back Jeff Scott was. I’Tavius Mathers (31 carries, 151 yards, 4.9 avg., 2 TD) will rotate with Walton. Jordan Wilkins and Mark Dodson provide depth, with Wilkins, at 209 pounds, the only thing Ole Miss has approaching a true power back. In reality, Bo Wallace fills that role from the quarterback position – but he has struggled with it in 2014. Alabama brings to the table T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake. Assuming Blake Sims is healthy at the QB position, all four players are more accomplished and capable runners than anyone Ole Miss can put on the field. Alabama has also turned Jalston Fowler and Michael Nysewander into legitimate options at fullback. Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny provide depth. Advantage: Alabama
This game will feature what has proven to be the No. 1 and No. 2 wide receiver groups in the conference. The Rebels have superior depth here, with four wideouts capable of being the top dog in the rotation and a tight end that no defense wants to see. Laquon Treadwell, Vince Sanders, Quincy Adeboyejo and Cody Core can all pressure a defense both vertically and horizontally, and all four are a size challenge for most defensive backs. Tight end Evan Engram isn’t much of a blocker, but as a receiver, he can change games. All five players are in the double digits in terms of number of catches, with all but Adeboyejo averaging 12.5 yards per catch or more. Additionally, Jaylen Walton creates problems out of the backfield. Alabama will counter with the nation’s top receiver, Amari Cooper (43 catches, 655 yards, 15.2 avg., 5 TD), and two good options beside him in DeAndrew White and Christion Jones. Cooper has more yardage than both Ole Miss’ top two receivers, Treadwell and Core, put together. But Alabama’s supporting cast has had issues. White has fought through multiple nagging injuries, and Jones has suddenly been afflicted with a case of the drops. Behind the starting three, Chris Black, ArDarius Stewart and Cameron Sims will provide depth along with Robert Foster and Raheem Falkins. O.J. Howard caught a pair of passes against Florida and hopefully is making his move at tight end, although he’ll still split time with Brian Vogler. There is no question that Cooper is the best player on the field, but Ole Miss wins every other portion of this category. Advantage: Ole Miss
If there’s been a problem spot for Ole Miss in 2014 on offense, it’s probably this. The Rebels haven’t been able to put together a capable rushing attack yet, and the Rebels find themselves a mediocre 52nd in sacks allowed. Laremy Tunsil will start at left tackle, with JUCO transfer Fahn Cooper on the right side. Ben Still starts at center, flanked by guards Justin Bell and Aaron Morris. It’s unlikely the Rebels have faced a defensive front like Alabama’s yet, or edge rushers as quick as the ones Alabama employs. Craig Frego and Rod Taylor are pushing for playing time inside, along with center Robert Conyers. Alabama counters with Ryan Kelly at center, Cam Robinson and Austin Shepherd at the tackles and Arie Kouandjio at left guard. The right guard position has been Alabama’s only real offensive weakness. Leon Brown will continue to start there unless Alphonse Taylor or Dominick Jackson can wrest the job away from him in practice this week. Brown has been a penalty machine so far, but his edge in pass blocking over Taylor has kept the job secure so far. If Jackson is fully healed from a camp injury, though, this might be the week the storyline changes. Regardless, Alabama is much more solid up the middle than is Ole Miss, and Alabama has gotten more consistent edge play from its tackles. Advantage: Alabama
The difference for Ole Miss between continuing to languish at the bottom of the SEC West, and suddenly contending, has nothing to do with the Rebels’ offense. It’s the defense, bolstered by several good recruiting classes, that has put the Rebels into the title race. Ole Miss is ranked 4th in the nation in total defense, 6th in raw pass defense, 3rd in scoring defense and the Rebels lead the nation in pass efficiency defense. However, Ole Miss has put up only just-OK numbers against the run (34th), concern for which is amplified by the Rebels’ easy schedule thus far. Ole Miss also bucks the trend of teams that use a 4-2-5 defense struggling across multiple facets of the game. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that figures to spend all the game in either a nickel or dime look. Alabama is right behind the Rebels at 5th in total defense, and ranks 24th in raw pass defense, 20th in pass efficiency defense and 9th in scoring defense. Alabama is 3rd against the run, not a surprise given its schematic differences.
Ole Miss is trying to develop some depth to go along with Robert Nkemdiche, but the Rebels’ issues stopping the run have mostly been contained to this unit. Also, the Rebels rank just 67th in sacks, 8th in the conference. For a team playing a four-man front, that’s on the low side. The unit leader in sacks is not Nkemdiche, but rather Marquis Haynes, who is splitting time at defensive end with Fadol Brown. C.J. Johnson will start at the other end, and either Woodrow Hamilton or Byron Bennett will start at the nosetackle slot. Ole Miss can throw numbers at the Tide – John Youngblood and Channing Ward outside, Lavon Hooks and Isaac Gross outside – but Ward, with 10 tackles, ranks 11th on the team and leads this group. Translation: The defensive line hasn’t asserted itself enough. Alabama will counter with A’Shawn Robinson in the middle flanked by Jonathan Allen and either D.J. Pettway or Jarran Reed outside. Josh Frazier, Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake will provide depth inside, while Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Shawn Hand will back up the end positions. Ole Miss likely has an edge in quickness, but Alabama has a big size advantage and may be capable of disrupting Ole Miss’ offensive gameplan better than Ole Miss can disrupt Alabama’s. The quality of Alabama’s depth also extends deeper down the list, and once you get past the name recognition of Nkemdiche, the choice becomes a little clearer. Advantage: Alabama
Ole Miss starts only two linebackers in its base formation, but Alabama will not likely use its base-formation four-LB look, either. More likely, Alabama will rotate Xzavier Dickson and Denzel Devall across one position outside – or use Dickson as a defensive end – while Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Rashaad Evans provide depth there. The key for Alabama will be the performance of its inside players, Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland. Ragland has been steadily improving, while DePriest knows the defense better than anyone but has not been a game-changer. Dillon Lee and Reuben Foster could play situationally. Ole Miss will start Serderius Bryant and D.T. Shackelford, with Denzel Nkemdiche and Keith Lewis playing key roles off the bench. All four players are effective; Shackelford is the inside hammer, while Bryant, Nkemdiche and Lewis affect plays with their speed. Alabama’s outside linebackers have been much improved, but the Rebels have the big edge inside in terms of playmaking ability. This is a concern for Alabama because C.J. Mosley was the primary reason for Alabama’s defensive dominance last year. Advantage: Ole Miss
Alabama is still trying to get its lineup straight, while Ole Miss has injury issues. Three Rebel DBs – Chief Brown, Carlos Davis and Tee Shepard – will miss this game, and starting cornerback Senquez Golson might as well. The safety positions will be fine, as Cody Prewitt, Trae Elston and Tony Conner are all solid. Mike Hilton will start opposite Golson’s spot, and if Golson can’t go, either senior Cliff Coleman or true freshman Kendarius Webster will start the game. Depth at safety is OK, with C.J. Hampton and Anthony Alford available, but depth at corner becomes an issue if Golson can’t go. Alabama will counter with Landon Collins and Nick Perry at safety and Cyrus Jones and either Eddie Jackson or Tony Brown at cornerback. Jarrick Williams is expected back at safety, and he’ll provide depth there along with Jabriel Washington and Geno Smith. Bradley Sylve is available at corner. It’s debatable as to whether Alabama’s Collins or Ole Miss’ Conner is the best defensive back overall, but the one sure thing is that the Rebels’ Prewitt has the biggest mouth. For the second year in a row, Prewitt has provided bulletin board material. As for rankings, Ole Miss has the superior stats, but Alabama has played a tougher schedule this far. The Rebels’ slight edge across the lineup at safety makes the difference here. Advantage: Ole Miss
Andrew Fletcher has been solid on short kicks, but has missed both tries from beyond 40 yards. His long so far is from 31. Will Gleeson is enjoying a solid year at punter, however, and Ole Miss ranks 9th in net punting thanks to ample strength on the coverage units. The Rebels have been pretty horrid in the return game themselves, however, with Markell Pack failing to get on track so far. Alabama counters with Adam Griffith at kicker and J.K. Scott at punter, and the Crimson Tide probably enjoys a solid advantage at both slots. Alabama also ranks in the top 25 in both kick and punt returns. Special teams have been erratic at Alabama under Nick Saban, but Ole Miss has had far more trouble under Hugh Freeze and this year’s group is just plain bad outside of the punting game. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama and Ole Miss both lead in four categories. Both teams’ defensive lines enjoy an edge over their opponent’s offensive line.
Given that conclusion, once home-field advantage is added in for the Rebels, Ole Miss should come out on top. But we think it’s not likely.
For starters, the 4-4 split on the breakdown is contingent on Blake Sims not being healthy enough to start and play well for the Crimson Tide. Otherwise, Alabama takes the lead in that all-important category. The secondary is also a closer call than it might first look.
Most importantly, though, is the fact that Alabama danced this dance last year – a resurgent Ole Miss team, confidence overflowing from its defensive players – and the Crimson Tide dominated the Rebels in a 25-0 win. And yet Ole Miss continues to make promises.
While it is true that Alabama has yet to get a major test of its abilities yet – Florida, barring some kind of miraculous improvement at this point, will likely turn out to be a .500-ish team at season’s end – the same can absolutely be said of Ole Miss, whose early-season schedule has been almost laughable. When betting on this one, bet on the better resume, especially given the results of last year’s matchup.
Ole Miss 14
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