By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 14, 2016
No one really wants to address it in the Alabama coaches’ offices, but a third loss in a row to Ole Miss elevates the Rebels from an annoying thorn in Nick Saban’s side to something more sinister.
Alabama has been fortunate two years running to get to the College Football Playoff while toting a loss to Ole Miss on its record. And while the college football landscape of 2016 suggests Alabama could feasibly do it again, it’s best not to have to hope for Ole Miss to lose twice down the stretch to make it possible.
One scenario that hasn’t been tested during the selection process for the eventual four playoff teams, is what happens if a one-loss Alabama team doesn’t make it to Atlanta but still finishes with the conference’s best record? Does the Crimson Tide go to the playoff, or does the SEC get shut out?
No one knows for sure, as all discussions up to this point have involved theoretical outcomes thanks to Ole Miss being unable to close the deal in the SEC West race. Thank Arkansas and its screwy win over the Rebels in 2015 for the most recent miracle scenario coming to pass.
Therefore, this game is more about just a win or a loss. It’s about not putting oneself in a position to have to hope for miracles. It’s also about not losing three times in a row to a historical conference also-ran that only recently has achieved status as a contender – and, perhaps not coincidentally, is battling the NCAA over alleged recruiting violations.
Countdown to kickoff:
Ole Miss’ version of the tempo spread – not truly the so-called Hurry-Up, No-Huddle (HUNH) offense – flips the percentages on what HUNH-styled offenses usually accomplish. Ole Miss tilts heavily to the pass and has almost zero power running game other than what it can get from the quarterback position. It’s a strange way to run an offense, but Hugh Freeze has consistently operated in this way and believes in the system. Ole Miss ranks a horrid 99th in rushing offense, but a respectable 37th in passing offense. Scoring offense is 49th and total offense 76th. Alabama will counter with its multiple, pro-style attack that, too, is leaning to the pass over the run this year (30th vs. 63rd). Alabama’s issues on the ground seem personnel-oriented, however, while Ole Miss’ struggles are born from schematic design.
Chad Kelly is hands-down the best quarterback in the SEC right now, although Alabama’s Jalen Hurts has looked surprisingly potent after one start and one relief appearance as a true freshman. Kelly is a good athlete, although his inside running (17 carries for 28 yards, 1.6 avg.) has been kept in check. As a passer, though, Kelly is completing passes at a 62-percent clip, and has 532 yards over two games. Kelly has good size, a ton of attitude and is tough enough to take a hit – and he’s taken a lot of them this year thanks to Ole Miss’ struggles on the offensive line. His backup so far has been redshirt freshman Jason Pellerin, who has run more than he has thrown, but if something terminal were to happen to Kelly’s season, it would surprise more than a few people if the Rebels didn’t go straight to true freshman Shea Patterson, regarded as the best of the redshirting quarterbacks in the SEC this year.
Alabama’s Hurts actually has a better passer rating (157.9 to 155.7) than Kelly does, and Hurts has been more effective running outside of the pocket, but Kelly has far more experience. It would seem, after the way snaps were divided against Western Kentucky, that the quarterback rotation may be over and Blake Barnett may decidedly be the backup at this point. Barnett is a better option than Pellerin, but Kelly’s experience, especially under heavy fire, carries the day for the Rebels. Advantage: Ole Miss
Ole Miss has already lost two key contributors for the season. Jordan Wilkins was declared ineligible before the season started, and then Eric Swinney was lost for the season to injury. That leaves essentially a two-back rotation of Akeem Judd and Eugene Brazley. Brazley is a scatback, while Judd has more beef than a typical Hugh Freeze tailback. Judd was lightly regarded out of high school but has proven himself over parts of two seasons to be more than capable of shouldering the load here. For the season, he’s rushed 19 times for 108 yards (5.7 avg.) and 1 touchdown, while Brazley has 42 yards on 6 carries (7.0 avg.). As stated above, Chad Kelly becomes Ole Miss’ primary inside threat. D.K Buford and D’Vaughn Pennamon add depth at running back, but neither is expected to play much against Alabama.
The Crimson Tide will start Damien Harris (20 carries, 183 yards, 9.2 avg., 0 TD) and play Bo Scarbrough, B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs as his primary backups. Despite the gaudy per-carry average, Harris has been erratic, looking all-world on one snap and then missing an obvious cutback lane on the next. Blocking in the passing game is an issue all around, which is why Bo Scarbrough might get more action this week even though he has struggled so far as a runner (16 carries, 55 yards, 3.4 avg., 2 TD).
Alabama unveiled true freshman Mack Wilson last week as an option at fullback, even though his primary position is linebacker. He was impressive as the lead blocker for Scarbrough’s late touchdown run. While Akeem Judd is the most experienced player on either team, Ole Miss’ running game is mostly dependent on how well an opposing defense contains its quarterback. Alabama has miles to go yet to be considered a good rushing team, but the Crimson Tide depth chart is less of a mess than Ole Miss’ at the moment. Advantage: Alabama
More depth chart issues for the Rebels. D.K. Metcalf, the team’s primary slot option, is out for the year due to a foot injury. Derek Jones has yet to play this year due to suspension. But tight end Evan Engram, as expected, has been giving defenses fits, running up 11 receptions already. He’s a matchup problem because of his speed and should basically be considered a big receiver. Damore’ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo are the two receivers to really watch, although A.J. Brown, Van Jefferson, DaMarkus Lodge and Markell Pack are all capable. Reserve tight end Taz Zettergren’s availability is up in the air for this game. Stringfellow has been the go-to receiver so far, with Adeboyejo not being quite as much a factor as expected.
Alabama counters with Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, Robert Foster and Gehrig Dieter as its top group, with Cameron Sims back this week to provide depth along with Derek Kief, Raheem Falkins and two-way player Trayvon Diggs. Tight end O.J. Howard needs to have a big game this week for all sorts of reasons. Alabama’s other tight ends – Hale Hentges, Brandon Greene and Miller Forristall – have been seeing more action in key spots. This one is fairly close, but Alabama is getting better production from its non-tight end positions, and the matchup of Engram and Howard is a wash. Advantage: Alabama
This is a case study in struggle, for both teams. Both teams are tied with a ranking of 83rd in sacks allowed, but Ole Miss has seemed to be affected more by the problem. Neither team is getting much of a push in the running game, either. The issues come at different places. For Ole Miss, it’s on the edge, particularly left tackle, where neither Rod Taylor nor Greg Little has been the answer. Right tackle Sean Rawlings is also vulnerable to the speed rush, which is a bad matchup against Alabama’s speed-forward defensive line. Robert Conyers is probably underrated at center, but the guards – Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims – have been uneven. There isn’t a lot of depth, either, especially outside, where both Little and Alex Givens are freshmen.
Alabama will counter with Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams at the tackles and Lester Cotton at left guard, but the center and right guard spots are somewhat unsettled. Expect Bradley Bozeman to continue to start at center and Ross Pierschbacher at right guard, with Alphonse Taylor rotating in at right guard. Pierschbacher may play some center as well. Alabama has a much more robust depth situation, but the struggles of the interior, particularly returning starters Pierschbacher and Taylor, have been curious. It’s worth noting that even though Greg Little was considered the prize of all offensive line signees in February, Alabama’s Jonah Williams has looked far more ready to play thus far. This one is close, and for all the wrong reasons. Advantage: Alabama
Ole Miss has been married to the 4-2-5 base defense for years, but the 2015 season saw the Rebels take an unexpected step backward and the 2016 season hasn’t been much better so far. Ole Miss finds itself 102nd in total defense and 103rd in rushing defense to begin the season, while also ranking 88th in raw pass defense and 94th in pass efficiency defense. Scoring defense ranks 86th, but to be fair about these numbers, Ole Miss has played offensive powerhouse Florida State and the sample size for statistics is very small. Alabama will base from its 3-4 over/under scheme, but expect Alabama to be in a four-man front most of the day with a nickel or dime alignment behind it. Alabama is 6th in total defense, 3rd in rushing defense, 8th in scoring defense, 17th in pass efficiency defense and 37th in raw pass defense so far.
Issues on the defensive line have affected Ole Miss’ play, as the absence of Robert Nkemdeche has been definitively felt. Defensive end Marquis Haynes is now the team’s top player here, and he has the only sack from a down lineman. Ole Miss has struggled somewhat to find its three other best players to play with him, however.
John Youngblood will start at the other end slot. Youngblood, who has the honor of wearing the late Chucky Mullins’ jersey number (38), has historically been more of a role player than a star, and the numbers bear that out at this point. Fadol Brown gives Ole Miss a lot of experience off the bench, but he and Victor Evans have both been fairly quiet this year. At tackle, Breeland Speaks moved from bit player to starter in 2016 but has been overshadowed by other players. D.J. Jones, who starts alongside him, has been much more active so far. Issac Gross is a matchup problem for slower offensive linemen. He and freshman Benito Jones are both a threat to play more often if Speaks continues to tread water.
Alabama will counter with Da’Ron Payne in the middle flanked by Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen at end. Alabama is still trying to build depth, particularly up the middle. Dakota Ball and Da’Shawn Hand have proved themselves at end, but Josh Frazier and O.J. Smith continue to battle for time at nosetackle. Raekwon Davis and Jamar King are also options at defensive end. There’s no question Allen is the best player on either team, although Haynes would probably start for Alabama right now. The real question is whether Alabama’s relief players will be up to the task. If they are, Bama has the better first group and would take the category. Advantage: Alabama
Ole Miss may no longer have Denzel Nkemdiche or C.J. Johnson, but the combination of DeMarquis Gates and Oregon State transfer Rommel Mageo is intriguing. Gates has 2 of the team’s 3 sacks so far and is particularly disruptive behind the line of scrimmage. Mageo was a tackle collector at Oregon State but has not yet broken out in the SEC. Terry Caldwell, technically not a starter, may be Ole Miss’ ace in the hole. He is a smallish-but-active linebacker who always seems to be everywhere at once. Depth basically ends there, however, with Detric Bing-Dukes likely the next guy off the bench.
Alabama will counter with Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton inside and Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson outside. Williams and Anderson will probably play as down linemen the entire game. Foster has been his typical, bruising self so far this season, while Hamilton may be Alabama’s most improved player overall. Rashaan Evans gives Alabama a designated pass rusher who can also play inside, while Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller could both see ample time in relief of Williams or Anderson. Keith Holcombe offers additional depth inside. Gates is a solid player and Alabama is particularly aware of Caldwell, but the Crimson Tide has a significant edge in depth and Foster’s combination of power and coverage ability is unique. Advantage: Alabama
The biggest disappointment for Ole Miss, both last year and this year, has been the play of the secondary relative to the talent on hand. And now, there are injury issues. Cornerback Kendarius Webster was lost for the year with a knee injury, and reserve safety C.J. Moore is out with a torn pectoral muscle. Nickel safety Tony Conner has been slowed by a leg injury and isn’t close to 100 percent. In addition, safety C.J. Hampton has been somewhat of a disappointment so far.
For this game, Ole Miss will rely most on safety Zedrick Woods, who has been solid in 2016 and has a bright future. The question is how much help will he get from the four other starters, with as many as three freshmen in the group. Myles Hartsfield, a true freshman, will start at free safety. Conner is expected to start at nickel even with the leg injury, but A.J. Moore will play a lot there. Carlos Davis, Tony Bridges and freshmen Jaylon Jones and Jalen Julius will divide up the cornerback duties.
Alabama will start Marlon Humphrey and Anthony Averett at corner, with Minkah Fitzpatrick handling duties at Star. Ronnie Harrison and Eddie Jackson get the call at safety, with Laurence Jones and Deionte Thompson the role players there. Shyheim Carter, Levi Wallace, Trayvon Diggs and Aaron Robinson add depth. A lot depends on Conner’s health, as Woods is really the only player Ole Miss can truly count on otherwise. Alabama is simply better across the board. Advantage: Alabama
Gary Wunderlich has only had one field goal chance so far for Ole Miss, and he hit from 40 yards out. His leg strength is not up for question, but his accuracy often is. Ole Miss is 16th nationally in net punting behind Wunderlich and Will Gleeson. Ole Miss is 22nd in kickoff returns, and Carlos Davis is a threat there, but punt returns have been so-so. Alabama isn’t making much noise yet in the return game, either, but punter J.K. Scott has been superb. Placekicker Adam Griffith has hit on 2 of 3 kicks, but accuracy is always a concern for him. The question comes down to whether Wunderlich has fixed his erratic aim, and there’s simply not enough data yet. Given the experience edge Ole Miss has in the return game over Alabama, pick the Rebels in a close one. Advantage: Ole Miss
Alabama leads in six categories, Ole Miss in two. Most of the margins are fairly close, however, with no clear edges other than perhaps in the secondary. Each team’s defensive line leads its respective matchup with the opposing team’s offensive line.
Alabama lost this game last year mostly off an uncommonly high turnover rate and a couple of freak plays that probably won’t happen again. A solid 6-2 lead in unit comparisons would seem to telegraph a comfortable Alabama win, but Ole Miss has become somewhat of a giant-killer around these parts.
Most of that is due to the Rebels’ mental preparation, as Ole Miss is the only team to somehow avoid wilting mentally when matched up against Alabama. The best way for Alabama to break through that wall Saturday would be to quickly score twice and give Ole Miss something to think about. Alabama has seemed to play from low ground in both its last two meetings; in 2015, because of the turnovers, and in 2014, because of injuries to Kenyan Drake and Ryan Kelly.
Ole Miss certainly has a good chance of pulling the upset here, but there’s a reason the betting line is hovering around 10 points in favor of Alabama. The Rebels are not a healthy team right now, they have major questions in the running game, neither line of scrimmage is particularly potent and the secondary is a mess. For Alabama to lose this game, something cosmic will likely have to happen yet again. If Ole Miss beats Alabama straight up with no help, it may be time to reassess how good this Alabama team really is.
Ole Miss 20
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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