In our preview of Alabama’s game against Ole Miss, we said we’d believe Alabama could shut down an opponent with this kind of offense when we saw it.
Well, we’ve seen it.
Alabama somehow managed to actually improve upon its performance against Vanderbilt, thrashing a better (than Vandy) opponent by a greater margin of victory, 66-3. If Alabama improves again on that margin of victory next week at Texas A&M, the Aggie board of regents might fire Kevin Sumlin between quarters.
While not as clean as the win over Vanderbilt, what Alabama did to Ole Miss was much more impressive and far more meaningful, given how the Rebels had become not just a thorn in Alabama’s side, but were practically a climbing rose bush that had wrapped itself around all of Bama’s extremities. The Rebels had won two of their last three meetings with Alabama and got uncomfortably close to a third win in the other game.
In this one, Alabama big-boyed Ole Miss around the field like the Rebels were some kind of pick-up flag football outfit. Alabama ran for 365 yards. It passed for another 248. The Crimson Tide sacked Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson five times. For the second straight week, an Alabama opponent visibly quit in the second half.
Either Ole Miss truly misses Hugh Freeze as much as it appears, or Alabama is turning into college football’s version of a hydrogen bomb. Given how much trouble Ole Miss gave Alabama under Freeze’s leadership, there are probably about 80 college teams that would line up to hire him if the stinking specter of an NCAA investigation wasn’t hanging over Oxford like a sulfur cloud from an old paper mill.
What remains to be seen is how heavy a price Alabama ultimately paid for this victory. Starting DE Da’Shawn Hand and Alabama’s primary punt returner and third cornerback, Trevon Diggs, both sustained leg injuries in this game and will have to be evaluated later in the week. Hand’s knee injury looked particularly nasty on replay. If they’re both out for extended periods of time, it will force Alabama to get creative in how it rotates players at those positions.
Otherwise, there was no concern about Alabama’s defensive performance Saturday night. Alabama held Patterson under 100 yards passing for the first half of this game, and he managed only 165 yards overall. His second-longest pass of the night ended up being the one he threw into Levi Wallace’s hands that was returned for a pick-six. Alabama gave up 101 yards to an Ole Miss running back, Jordan Wilkins, but sack yardage and other tackles for loss brought the team total back down to 88 yards.
In short, nothing worked for Ole Miss, no idea clicked, no tactic proved fruitful. If the Rebels’ game plan was to simply avoid becoming another Vanderbilt, they failed at that, too.
Alabama will face a Texas A&M squad next week that might end up being the second-toughest game left on the regular-season schedule, behind only Auburn. The Aggies have won four games after blowing a big lead to UCLA in its opener. Kevin Sumlin’s career in College Station is once again rising from the grave. And if Alabama is without the leader of its defensive line next week, things invariably get a little tougher.
But how much tougher? How tough does it have to get to matter? Alabama has outscored two SEC opponents by a combined 125-3 over the last two weeks, and Texas A&M struggled to get by a very mediocre South Carolina team, at home. And then one of the Aggie players apparently popped off about Alabama in a postgame interview. That has proven to be such the winning strategy, hasn’t it?
Alabama’s biggest enemy right now is the medical tent. As long as the Crimson Tide can keep its players out of there, the schedule at the moment seems to foreshadow an unimpeded run to at least the Auburn game in late November.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Ole Miss:
1. As Brian Daboll continues to learn what his personnel is capable of, the Tide just gets more dangerous. Daboll’s debut game against Florida State looked like a teenage driver getting behind the wheel of a car with a clutch and a stick shift for the first time. The last two weeks, he’s suddenly Mario Andretti. The fruits of Alabama’s offensive recruiting are beginning to show themselves in a big way, and it’s a fair question to ask now whether Daboll is getting more from his offense as a whole than Lane Kiffin did the past two years. While no one can deny Kiffin was an excellent quarterback coach, what Daboll is doing at the moment in setting up opponents appears to be better-suited to Alabama’s style than Kiffin’s obsession with lateral motion and what he and others have termed “window dressing.”
Alabama attacked Ole Miss directly, just as it did Vanderbilt a week before, and used improved route-tree design to get receivers running free on intermediate routes. The path to beat Ole Miss was supposed to be on the ground; Alabama wasn’t supposed to have success against the Ole Miss secondary. Instead, the Crimson Tide found much success going against both elements of the Ole Miss defense. The touchdown pass to Joshua Jacobs was a perfect example of luring Ole Miss into increasingly taking chances on defense and then striking elsewhere at the perfect time. Alabama will see better defenses later in the schedule, but neither Ole Miss’ defense nor Vanderbilt’s were terrible, and yet Alabama made both of them look that way.
2. There’s too much skill-position talent for defenses to deal with right now. This isn’t just about Alabama’s quarterbacks, or a couple of names like Damien Harris or Calvin Ridley. Alabama has established a true seven-man rotation at wide receiver, and there’s no such thing as being able to tell a running play is coming based on the receiver personnel on the field at any given time. The tight end group is interchangeable. And then there is Alabama’s stable of six running backs, each of whom has scored at least one touchdown this year. There’s just too much for defenses to focus on at one time. All of this success, of course, is set up by an offensive line that has improved by leaps and bounds since 2016, and even significantly since the first game of the 2017 season. But the Ole Miss game was a microcosm of the problems all teams face when trying to defend Alabama: Five different players ran for a touchdown, seven different offensive players scored overall, and even though Alabama only completed 15 passes, they went to 9 different receivers.
3. Jalen Hurts is becoming a master of efficient play. Hurts only attempted 19 passes in this game, but he completed 12 of them for 194 yards, threw 2 touchdowns, no picks, and had another perfectly-placed touchdown pass dropped in the end zone. That pass was also notable in that it came while Hurts was rolling to his left, which is not his preferred side. He also added 101 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries and was once again the team’s leading rusher. Hurts is becoming more comfortable in the pocket with each passing week and is threatening to take a quantum step up in his development, news which would be welcomed around the league with about as much joy and anticipation as welcoming a falling asteroid. Ole Miss never really threatened to stop Hurts in this game, and barely slowed him down. He also checked down off his primary receiver more often than in the past, one of those checkdowns leading to a 60-yard catch-and-run from Cameron Sims.
4. Da’Shawn Hand’s injury may not be as bad as it initially looked, but it was cheap. Let’s get this out of the way: The hit that injured Hand was not technically illegal. But it was cheap. Former SEC linemen Marcus Spears and Alphonse Taylor immediately begin leading the call on Twitter for knee-diving to be made illegal, as it is barely safer than a hi-low chop block. We’ll stop short of saying the player that hit Hand – Ole Miss tight end Dawson Knox – did it intentionally, but a couple of plays later, he attempted a similar block on Isaiah Buggs and missed. The NFL takes a much more critical view of such a hit, because they’re knee-killers and the number of quality DL out there is limited, even for an Alabama. Instead we’ll be as kind as possible and say blocks like these usually stem from a lack of talent in the guy throwing them. Either that’s what blocking is to him, or he can’t block his man straight-up and knows it. Let’s hope for the former.
For Alabama, though, it doesn’t matter how it happened, it only matters what shape Hand is in at the moment. The injury looked grotesque on replay, but Nick Saban said doctors believe it’s just a strained MCL, which can heal with rest. Playing Texas A&M without Hand – which seems almost assured at this point no matter what Hand’s long-term prognosis is – will not be welcomed, but it beats the alternative of having him out for the balance of the year. The medical report will be hotly anticipated this week, not just for hand, but also for cornerback/return specialist Trevon Diggs, who appeared to suffer a particularly severe ankle injury on a punt return. If Diggs can’t go for Texas A&M, Henry Ruggs III and Xavian Marks will have to handle punt return duties.
5. With or without Hand, defensive line rotation has been a bright spot. Certainly Alabama wants Hand involved going forward, but aside from placekicker, the DL has probably been the biggest pleasant surprise of 2017 given the lack of depth it had coming into the year. With Hand out, Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis will both likely start against Texas A&M, with Da’Ron Payne in the middle. Quinnen Williams played a lot in this game and played well. Joshua Frazier is an option at multiple spots. LaBryan Ray lost his redshirt, playing late in the game and looking as good as could be expected. It remains to be seen whether Johnny Dwight or Jamar King sees an increased workload going forward. If Hand is out for a long time, though, his absence will fundamentally change what Alabama is able to do along the defensive line. Hand needed to step up this year, and has. Having to contend with an injury to his MCL – or worse – is not what he, or Alabama needed at this time.