By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 27, 2017
Despite a victory over Ole Miss last year in Oxford, Nick Saban still uses the qualifier “two of the last three games” when discussing the Rebels and their ability to wreak havoc in games against Alabama.
That the Rebels beat Alabama two years in a row still sticks in the craw of Crimson Tide coaches, and even last year’s win by a 48-43 score was both too close to comfort and featured embarrassing defensive breakdowns late in the game. Alabama could never seem to put Ole Miss away despite having a relevant edge in overall talent.
This year’s Ole Miss team is off to a mixed start, but things went off the rails even before the season began when Hugh Freeze resigned amid a scandal that allegedly included escort services and potential NCAA violations. NCAA investigators have camped in Oxford for so long that the IRS would let them file a homestead exemption there, and probation is all but assuredly in the Rebels’ near future.
The distractions were evident in both of Ole Miss’ wins, which came by an average of 46-25 – over South Alabama and UT-Martin, not exactly powerhouses of the gridiron. When the Rebels faced off against the Cal Golden Bears in Week 3, the shaky start turned disastrous, with Ole Miss losing 27-16.
Neither line of scrimmage has lived up to expectations, and Matt Luke is still learning on the job as a head coach. Ole Miss getting an off-week last week was fortuitous, but it won’t matter much unless the Rebels used the week off to improve dramatically from its first three outings.
Nothing much has changed since Freeze’s departure; the Rebels are still a pass-happy spread team with no running game. Ole Miss ranks 4th in the country in passing offense and 19th in total offense, but the running game is ranked dead last – 128th. Assuming Alabama can keep blow-ups in the secondary to a minimum, this is not a winning formula for the Rebels, who lack the ability to keep pressure off the quarterback. Alabama counters with its ground-first attack that ranks 5th in rushing and 103rd in passing for a total offense ranking of 28th. SEC history certainly favors the run-first team over the pass-first team.
Alabama has trouble with dual-threat quarterbacks and Shea Patterson may be one of the best there is. Patterson has thrown for 1,281 yards on 86-of-122 passing (70.5%), pitching 11 touchdowns against 4 interceptions along the way. He’s a clone of former Rebel quarterback Chad Kelly, who was Alabama’s nemesis during his time in Oxford. Because of the high number of sacks, Patterson’s rushing statistics – which take sack yardage away from rushing totals – doesn’t look like anything special: 23 carries, 4 yards, 0.2-yard average, 0 TDs. But his ability to scramble long enough to set up throws, and his pocket presence are both at or near the top for NCAA quarterbacks.
Alabama counters with Jalen Hurts, who has run for almost as many yards (360) as he has passed for (550). He’s the team’s leading rusher. So far Alabama hasn’t had to call upon his full range of talents, and the Tide’s newfound focus on the running game may make Hurts less of a factor overall. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa has a substantial edge over Jordan Ta’amu (or Jason Pellerin, depending on how Ole Miss wants to structure its depth chart) in regards to snaps under center, not to mention ability. After somewhat of a ho-hum debut against Fresno State and Colorado State, Tagovailoa lit up Vanderbilt in the second half last week. The question, though, is really about Patterson versus Hurts. Hurts has an edge in experience and is a better pure runner, but Patterson is leagues better as a pure passer. And Patterson also has a higher upside, particularly for big plays in the passing game. Advantage: Ole Miss
Three games in, and Ole Miss doesn’t have a single rusher averaging 10 carries per game. Jordan Wilkins is the starter, but he’s carried only 28 times for 103 yards (3.7 avg.) and 1 touchdown. He’s arguably made more waves as a receiver, where he’s caught 11 balls for 72 yards (6.5 avg.) and another touchdown. Backup D’Vaughn Pennamon probably has more upside than the senior Wilkins, but he has just 14 carries on the season. The Rebels don’t use a fullback. Alabama has four runners outgaining Wilkins, including the starting quarterback. Tailbacks Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough are as good a 1-2 punch as there is in college football, and both are better than some current NFL backs. Najee Harris is also over the 100-yard mark for the season, and fellow true freshman Brian Robinson’s debut against Vanderbilt had plenty of people buzzing. Joshua Jacobs has a key role as a third-down back. This one’s not even worth discussing. Advantage: Alabama
If A.J. Brown were healthy for Ole Miss, we could stop the discussion now and just call it an Ole Miss walkover. But Brown is trying to recover from a knee injury, and he may actually miss this game altogether. It would be a big loss, because Brown has caught 16 passes for 389 yards and 4 touchdowns, an eye-popping 24.3-yard average per catch. DeMarkus Lodge has emerged as a solid No. 2 option, catching 15 passes for 284 yards (18.9 avg.) and 4 touchdowns, while D.K. Metcalf (246 yards, 2 TD) and Van Jefferson (148 yards) make everyone a weapon in the A-group. All four receivers are 6’2” or taller. Markell Pack adds depth and is also a 6’2” receiver. About the only good news for Alabama is that Ole Miss’ tight ends are no longer of the Evan Engram variety. Octavious Cooley has just 1 catch for 4 yards. Jason Pellerin has none and Ty Quick, who should start, has 2 catches for 3 yards.
The Crimson Tide counters with a unit led by Calvin Ridley, who is the only Alabama player with more than 100 yards so far on the season (20 catches, 262 yards, 13.1 avg., 2 TD). Being completely serious, it’s questionable whether Ridley would start for Ole Miss this year, although he would certainly be in the Rebels’ top rotation. The rest of Alabama’s unit – Robert Foster, Cameron Sims, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and Derek Kief – have plenty of talent, but consistency is an issue. Foster and Jeudy seem to be the best candidates to break out in this game, although Sims is proving his value as a possession receiver with a big body. Alabama’s tight ends are unquestionably superior – Irv Smith Jr. is a blocking machine with good hands, while Hale Hentges has improved a bit as an on-the-line tight end. Alabama took the redshirts off Kedrick James and Major Tennison last week, and each displayed good blocking ability, while Tennison came down with a tough catch. Brian Robinson and Ronnie Clark are options at H-back. Alabama has better depth all around and the Tide’s tight ends are superior, but even with Brown not 100 percent for the Rebels, having to face five tall veteran receivers is going to be a chore. Advantage: Ole Miss
One of the biggest mysteries for Ole Miss is how a veteran offensive line with four returning starters has gone so far into the tank. Ole Miss ranks 101st in sacks allowed, and although the Rebels have managed a ranking of 22nd in tackles for loss allowed, the ineffectiveness of the running game speaks for itself. On top of that, both centers are hurt for this game. Freshman backup Eli Johnson is out for the year with an ACL injury, while veteran Sean Rawlings, arguably Ole Miss’ most consistent center, is battling an ankle sprain. Good luck with that while facing Da’Ron Payne and friends. If Rawlings is out, there’s no immediate way to tell what Ole Miss’ plans are. Daronte Bouldin and Javon Patterson will start at guard, with Greg Little and Rod Taylor the tackles. Either Alex Givens or Jordan Sims would probably be pressed into service somewhere along the line; Sims is a possibility at center.
Alabama’s offensive line is coming off its best performance in years. Center Bradley Bozeman, guards Ross Pierschbacher and Lester Cotton, and tackles Jonah Williams and Matt Womack all put up A-grades against Vanderbilt. Jedrick Wills will see time at right tackle at some point, even in a close game. With the injuries at Ole Miss, Alabama has a significant depth advantage, but the Crimson Tide was leading this one anyway. Advantage: Alabama
Bama vs Ole Miss DEFENSE Preview
Comment now using your Facebook login!
Powered by Facebook Comments