Ole Miss preview: Bama will find out whether Rebels are for real

Sep 12, 2015; Oxford, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly (10) carries the ball against the Fresno State Bulldogs at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 12, 2015; Oxford, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly (10) carries the ball against the Fresno State Bulldogs at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 15, 2015

If the reason for Ole Miss’ mediocre performance in 2014 was QB Bo Wallace – a.k.a., The Man of Many Turnovers – consider that problem fixed.

The Rebels were picked in the middle to the bottom of the SEC West in 2015 largely because of questions under center. Could Chad Kelly, the nephew of former NFL star QB Jim Kelly, be the right guy for the Rebels?

Ole Miss almost didn’t get the opportunity to find out. Kelly’s off-field behavior has never been described as wise or informed, and another incident this summer nearly cost him playing time. There was almost no chance Ole Miss was going to even consider suspending him, however, with the depth chart looking the way it did.

As a result, the Rebels have now hung 70-plus points on each of its first two opponents, UT-Martin and Fresno State. It wasn’t a surprise in the opener; it was definitely a surprise last week against a Fresno team that is typically well-coached and scrappy. It leaves Alabama asking the question of just how good is Ole Miss, and whether Kelly was the missing piece to Hugh Freeze’s offense this whole time.

OFFENSE

The Rebels have played so well in their first two games, scoring so many points, that any kind of statistical analysis is worthless. No one else is ripping off 74.5 points per game. But even though Ole Miss has enjoyed wild success thus far, there are weak points to this offense. The Rebels run a hurry-up, no-huddle spread attack that is predicated on speed around the ends. The Rebels are committed to this strategy to the extent that they start scatbacks at running back and eschew most of the facets of a power running game. The Rebels will presumably continue to try this approach and leverage their talent at wide receiver and tight end. Alabama counters with its multiple pro-set attack, which has been effective so far this year if not spectacular in its execution. The Crimson Tide is combining tempo with a downhill, power rushing attack and getting good results on the ground, but quarterback uncertainty has the passing game somewhat in flux.

QUARTERBACKS
It’s not immediately clear what the reason was for last Saturday’s quarterback rotation against MTSU, as Alabama played Jake Coker the entire first half and Cooper Bateman the entire second half, or at least up until the final drive when third-teamer Alec Morris got in the game. From an ability standpoint, there are throws Coker can make that Bateman cannot, as the differential in arm strength appears substantial. Bateman, on the other hand, has been more accurate, and his scrambling ability brings an added dimension to the offense. Statistically, the biggest difference has been in yards per attempt, and it’s a significant one: Coker has averaged 9.1 yards per attempt, while Bateman clocks in at just under 6.0. From a gameplay standpoint, Coker looked comfortable against Wisconsin, but out of sorts a bit against MTSU. Deep passing continues to be an issue. Bateman, meanwhile, played OK in relief of Coker on Saturday, but an interception near the goal line undid a lot of the good he had done. Look for Coker to get the lion’s share of the playing time in this game. As for Ole Miss, Chad Kelly has done nothing wrong up to this point. He carries a QB rating of 234.0, and is 29-of-40 (72.5%) for 557 yards, 6 touchdowns and 1 interception. He’s averaging 13.9 yards per attempt, and has carried the ball 6 times for 46 yards (7.7 avg.) and 2 touchdowns. In many cases, he represents the entirety of Ole Miss’ middle power game, much the way Bo Wallace did in past years. If Kelly struggles or gets hurt, either pocket passer Ryan Buchanan (8-of-12, 66.7%, 96 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) or option QB DeVante Kincade (8-of-13, 61.5%, 63 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) would come in the game. Compared to Wallace, Kelly has a better head on his shoulders (from an on-field standpoint, at least) and, so far, has been able to avoid turnovers. Advantage: Ole Miss

RUNNING BACKS
This is probably the most curious aspect of the Rebel team: The Rebels have put up good rushing numbers, but don’t have good running backs. Jaylen Walton, who will probably start, has only 9 carries on the year, but he’s gone for 103 yards (11.4 avg.) and 2 touchdowns. He goes about 5’7” and 165 pounds, tops. Backup Eugene Brazley, another scatback at 5’9”, 190, has carried 10 times for 102 yards (10.2 avg.) and 2 touchdowns. Third-teamer Akeem Judd is the power back of this team, weighing in at 220 pounds, and has carried 15 times for 86 yards (5.7 avg.) and 1 touchdown. Jordan Wilkins (13 carries, 81 yards, 6.2 avg., 0 TD) backs up Judd. The takeaway here is that Ole Miss doesn’t care much about letting a running back get into a rhythm. Additionally, Ole Miss seems to use the quarterbacks as the middle rushing threat as often as not. It’s an odd combo. Alabama counters with Derrick Henry (31 carries, 243 yards, 7.8 avg., 6 TD) and Kenyan Drake (16 carries, 117 yards, 7.3 avg., 1 TD), while Damien Harris provides depth, although it’s unclear how much he’ll play. Alabama will use Michael Nysewander as a situational fullback, but he won’t see the ball much. Ole Miss has used tight end Jeremy Liggins and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche in similar situations; that’s a wash. The Rebels might have better depth, but their backs aren’t capable of taking over a game by any other method than as a change of pace. Against a defense like Alabama’s, that kind of strategy rarely works. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
After a solid debut against Wisconsin, Alabama’s receiver corps took a step back against MTSU. Erratic routes were the main culprit against the Blue Raiders, but there have been glimpses of sunshine. One of those is tight end O.J. Howard (7 catches, 105 yards, 15.0 avg., 0 TD) who is finally starting to show some of the potential he was thought to have had as a freshman. Howard and running back Kenyan Drake lead the team in receiving, which is a sign that production from the corners hasn’t been all Alabama had hoped for. Robert Foster (8 catches, 99 yards, 12.4 avg., 2 TD) and ArDarius Stewart (10 catches, 65 yards, 6.5 avg., 0 TD) have been involved in the gameplan here and there, but neither has yet filled in the gap left by the departure of Amari Cooper. Calvin Ridley (7 catches, 59 yards, 8.4 avg., 0 TD) has emerged as one of the two top reserves along with Richard Mullaney (3 catches, 45 yards, 15.0 avg., 0 TD). Cameron Sims, Chris Black and Daylon Charlot form the next wave. Ty Flournoy-Smith has looked good as a compliment to O.J. Howard, while Dakota Ball and Hale Hentges are serving as the blocking tight ends. For Ole Miss, it’s a completely different story. The group is veteran in makeup, with senior Cody Core (8 catches, 176 yards, 22.0 avg., 2 TD), an Alabama native, leading the pack. Laquon Treadwell (9 catches, 117 yards, 13.0 avg., 0 TD) and Quincy Adeboyejo (8 catches, 153 yards, 19.1 avg., 4 TD) are the more celebrated members of the Rebel starting trio, Damore’ea Stringfellow, DeMarkus Lodge and Markell Pack will provide depth. The one curious development this year has been the disappearance of tight end Evan Engram (1 catch, 5 yards), who was a matchup nightmare in 2014. Taz Zettergren and Jeremy Liggins provide depth there. At this point, this matchup isn’t very close. Foster and Howard are doing a good job for Alabama, but need help. Ole Miss is substantially better and if Engram gets rolling, watch out. Advantage: Ole Miss

OFFENSIVE LINE
Even without LT Laremy Tunsil, the Rebels have been nearly unbeatable here. They’ve allowed 1 sack over two games and have run up the 15th-most yards on the ground so far in Division-IA. But there’s a twist this week: In addition to Tunsil – who is under NCAA investigation over a case that involves either improper benefits, illegal contact or both, charges that typically result in four-game suspensions – Ole Miss might be without starting center Robert Conyers, who hurt a knee against Fresno State. Javon Patterson and Justin Bell will start at the guard slots. Fahn Cooper will start at one of the tackle slots, and if Tunsil is still out, redshirt freshman Sean Rawlings will start at the other side. If Conyers is out at center, Ole Miss won’t suffer much; backup Ben Still is a senior and was the starter in 2014. Aaron Morris offers top-flight depth at guard, while Christian Morris will back up the tackle positions. Jordan Sims is also available at guard. A problem arises if Conyers is out and Still gets knocked out at center, but that’s unlikely. Alabama counters with Ryan Kelly at center, Cam Robinson at left tackle, and a lot of questions otherwise. Right tackle Dominick Jackson was injured against MTSU and was on the cusp of losing his job besides; he figures to now slide inside to guard. If that happens, right tackle becomes the property of either Brandon Greene, the current backup; current left guard Ross Pierschbacher, or Lester Cotton or Bradley Bozeman. Greene was running with the 1s on Monday. If that holds, Pierschbacher and Alphonse Taylor will start at the guard positions. If Pierschbacher moves outside, look for Jackson or Bozeman to start in the vacated guard slot. Alabama’s line looked solid against Wisconsin but the wheels shook loose a little against MTSU. With injuries affecting both teams, Ole Miss gets the edge based on body of work so far. Depth is slightly in Alabama’s favor, though. Advantage: Ole Miss

DEFENSE

Ole Miss has gone to a full-time 4-2-5 set, which is becoming more common in the spread era. To this point, however, the defense has been a less-talked-about feature of the 2015 Rebel team despite the immense amount of talent on this unit. Ole Miss is fairly pedestrian in its defensive rankings so far despite the level of competition the Rebels have faced. This defense is built for speed, getting upfield and defending other spread teams. The backend of the defense is the strong point. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that has been a brick wall so far in 2015. Alabama has been able to control the line of scrimmage with ease and keep a lid on the running game. The secondary has improved, but is not yet dominating.

DEFENSIVE LINE
The loss of DT Issac Gross could prove to be huge for Ole Miss. The Rebels were having issues stopping the run already (59th), despite the low level of competition. Gross, even though he was just 6’1”, 250 pounds, played like a man out of his mind. Ole Miss now has to start Woodrow Hamilton, who has good size (6’3”, 315) but a questionable production level, next to Robert Nkemdiche and hope it works out. With Hamilton no longer available off the bench, D.J. Jones and Breeland Speaks will split time, and that’s pretty much it. The defensive end position is in similar condition, with Fadol Brown and Channing Ward on one side and Marquis Haynes and John Youngblood on the other. The Rebels go two-deep and basically stop. Victor Evans and Garrald McDowell are capable of providing help at the end positions. True freshman Ross Donelly isn’t really ready to play DT in the SEC, but he’ll get the opportunity anyway. Alabama will likely counter with its anti-spread package, meaning A’Shawn Robinson up the middle flanked by Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen outside. Dalvin Tomlinson, D.J. Pettway and Da’Shawn Hand provide depth at end, while Darren Lake, Daron Payne and Josh Frazier provide depth at tackle. Robert Nkemdiche gets all the headlines for Ole Miss, but he has 5 tackles and only 1 for loss. Alabama has much better depth, and Bama’s top players may be better than Nkemdiche anyway. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
With only two linebackers on the field, Ole Miss’ starters better be good if they want to compete – and they are. C.J. Johnson is as steady a middle linebacker as you’ll find, while OLB Denzel Nkemdiche can be maddening to gameplan for when he’s playing his best. Johnson missed the opener, but won’t miss this game. Nkemdiche has been more of a supporting player thus far, but still has been active in opponents’ backfields. Backups DeMarquis Gates and Christian Russell will both play a bunch, and actually have better stats than the starters do for the time being. Terry Caldwell will also help out. Alabama counters with Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton sharing the inside positions, with Denzel Devall and Dillon Lee the starts outside. Lee will likely sit most of this game due to the offensive alignment, but might still play some in the middle as a reserve. Devall will act more as a defensive end, as will backup Ryan Anderson. Rashaan Evans and Tim Williams give Alabama a pass rush off the bench. Devall and Ragland are off to strong starts for Alabama, but pass coverage has been scattershot from the inside backers. Ole Miss, meanwhile, has done a better job of covering assignments. Advantage: Ole Miss

DEFENSIVE BACKS
For the first half, Alabama won’t see cornerback Tee Shepard, who was ejected in the second half of the Fresno State game for targeting. It would behoove Alabama to take advantage. Kendarius Webster and Tony Bridges will start, with Kailo Moore providing depth on the edges. At safety, Ole Miss is strong with Mike Hilton, Trae Elston and Tony Connor getting the starting nods. C.J. Hampton has been suspended for the first two games of the year and is listed as questionable for Alabama, meaning Chief Brown and C.J. Moore will get most of the backup work. A.J. Moore will also help there. Alabama’s defensive backfield is a far sight better than in 2014, thanks mostly to Eddie Jackson solidifying one safety position and Marlon Humphrey locking down the cornerback job opposite star senior Cyrus Jones. Those three, along with Geno Matias-Smith, will be the starting four for Ole Miss, with Maurice Smith and Minkah Fitzpatrick the top reserves. Jabriel Washington appears to be out again, so Alabama will use Ronnie Harrison as the seventh defensive back. Laurence Jones, Bradley Sylve, Tony Brown and Anthony Averett provide depth. These two teams are evenly matched in terms of raw ability and depth, but Ole Miss has far more experience. Advantage: Ole Miss

SPECIAL TEAMS
There’s really no question at this point as to who is better. Placekickers Gary Wunderlich and Andy Pappanastos have been automatic for Ole Miss, and punter Will Gleeson has been solid. For Alabama, punter J.K. Scott appeared to begin turning the corner against MTSU after an awful opener, but the placekicking situation is junk. Adam Griffith either continues to struggle with lingering back issues, or he’s mentally burned, missing all four field goal attempts this year including a couple from chip-shot range. Alabama might look at Scott or walk-on Gunnar Raborn this week. Oddly enough, Griffith is perfect on PATs and has been a solid kickoff man, which would lead one to believe the issue isn’t physical. As for the return game, the two teams are almost dead-even in both punt and kickoff returns – which means both have been mediocre. Alabama is slightly better at kick coverage. Advantage: Ole Miss

OVERALL

In what qualifies as a major shock, Ole Miss leads in six categories, Alabama in two. Both teams’ defensive lines win the battle with the opposition’s offensive line in the trench matchup, with Alabama holding the wider edge there.

A few could go either way. The linebacker comparison, for instance, is mostly based off experience for Ole Miss, not production in 2015. The offensive line category is as close to being a toss-up as possible due to questions about the health of Ole Miss’ lineup. If those two flip, this is a 4-4 matchup with Alabama’s DL holding the greater trench edge, and coupled with the home-field advantage, now there’s something to talk about.

It’s that last point that may prove to be the most salient, anyway. Ole Miss has struggled for years in Tuscaloosa. The Rebels typically don’t play well in Bryant-Denny Stadium and there have been plenty of instances in recent years of a superior Ole Miss team coming to town and not only losing, but losing convincingly. However, those are all teams of the past, not teams of the present.

Most importantly in 2015, Ole Miss hasn’t been tested. Alabama has. Wisconsin is a much better team than Fresno State, and Alabama mauled the Badgers for much of that game. Alabama’s other opponent, MTSU, is a much better outfit than UT-Martin, and the Crimson Tide controlled the flow of its game throughout despite the lower-scoring environment.

If Ole Miss wants to pull the upset, QB Chad Kelly has to play up to the potential he’s shown in the two games thus far. He’s the wild card here, the missing component that Ole Miss has long hoped to find. Only time will tell whether he’s the real deal or whether the sorriness of the Rebel schedule to this point has created a false positive.

Unfortunately, if this game comes down to the kicking game, Alabama has no clue what will happen. The Crimson Tide can’t depend on anything there until the placekicking situation resolves itself – which might not happen in 2015. For now, we’ll buck the unit matchup and look at the sideline matchup, historical tendency of Ole Miss in Tuscaloosa and the strength of the Crimson Tide defensive line, and essentially pick an upset on paper – a win that may just come via the kicking game after all.

Alabama 24

Ole Miss 23

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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