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By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 12, 2018
Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant is famous for many things, one of them being a quote attributed to him while he was head coach at the University of Kentucky: “Three things can happen when you throw the football, and only one of them’s good.”
Current-day football has decided the one good thing far outweighs the two bad things, and Alabama heads into this week’s contest against Ole Miss facing an offense determined to do that one good thing very, very well. The Rebel offense ranks 2nd in the country in passing right now, and the running game has been solid enough to keep defenses on its heels. The work put in by former head coach Hugh Freeze continues to aid Matt Luke and offensive coordinator Phil Longo, in what was probably going to be Freeze’s apex season in regards to offensive output.
The fact Ole Miss was able to find the SEC’s most underrated quarterback on its own roster just days after losing heralded Shea Patterson to graduate transfer certainly helps. A veteran offensive line that is playing above its waterline rounds out the package.
Unfortunately for Ole Miss, the defense hasn’t caught up with the offense – and it’s not going to. Whereas Freeze packed the offense with top recruit on top of top recruit, the defense definitely got sloppy seconds. The Rebels are vulnerable to even the most basic attacks.
Alabama, meanwhile, finds itself in a conundrum: The Crimson Tide must decide whether its path to title No. 18 involved winging it right along with its high-flying competition. Alabama can score quickly these days, but that just puts a thin defense back on the field more often. Is that what Alabama really wants to do?
This game isn’t really a trap game for Alabama, as Ole Miss has won two games in the series recently and isn’t about to sneak up on Alabama in any way. It’s still a very dangerous matchup, however, and shows why Nick Saban so badly wanted to add Freeze to his staff over the offseason.
There isn’t anything quite like Ole Miss’ offense out there at the moment, at least not in the SEC. Frenetically paced, with weapons everywhere, it’s an offense that relies on the pass, and when that doesn’t work, goes back to the same well. The Rebels rank 2nd in passing offense and 56th in rushing offense, which represents almost a doubling of efficiency over last year, when Ole Miss came in 104th. This is the 3rd-best scoring offense in the country, the 7th-best offense in regards to passing efficiency and 8th-best offense overall.
Alabama counters with its own multiple, pro-style attack that combines a lot of the spread elements found in Ole Miss’ attack with a more power-based rushing option. Alabama is 19th in total offense, 31st in rushing and 26th in passing. Alabama actually boasts better passing efficiency (5th) and is the 10th-most prolific in terms of scoring. It’s going to be a fight.
Alabama fans are 100 percent on the Tua Tagovailoa hype train at the moment, which is fine, but tends to have the side effect of thinking no other quarterback is in the same area code. The truth is that Hawaii state-mate Jordan Ta’amu can be just as effective, and is probably a better runner in tight quarters. Ta’amu has more passing yards this year (784) than both Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts combined for Alabama. His running numbers – 8 carries for 5 yards – is nothing special at the moment, but like Tagovailoa, Ta’amu has a build that is somewhat square in the way it’s put together and he’s tough to bring down. He isn’t as adept at improvisation as is Tagovailoa, who is no worse at it than Johnny Manziel was for Texas A&M, and Tagovailoa might actually prove to be better at it over the long run.
Alabama’s offense requires more from Tagovailoa in regards to pre-snap reads and pure athletic ability to fit balls in tight windows, whereas Ole Miss’ offense has different spacing that gives Ta’amu more options while sacrificing a bit of punch in the running game. In the first two games, Alabama has used former starter Hurts quite a bit, although a true QB rotation isn’t expected in this game.
If Alabama does elect to season the pot with Hurts, he has found success against the Rebels in the past by freestyling in the running game, and he’s the best of the three QBs in that regard. Heralded true freshman Matt Corral is Ta’amu’s backup, but he’s barely played so far and probably won’t at all against Alabama. Tagovailoa is better than Ta’amu, although not by the gulf Alabama fans probably think he is, or wish he was. Adding the depth of Hurts to the equation, Alabama has a nice cushion in this comparison. But Ta’amu is plenty dangerous. Advantage: Alabama
Point blank, if Ole Miss wins this game it will likely be because of this group. As it stands, junior Scottie Phillips, who was on no one’s radar coming into the season, has been one of the most effective backs in the conference. He’s averaging 10.0 yards per carry (31 carries, 311 yards, 4 TD), but Ole Miss as played Texas Tech and Southern Illinois, so there’s that. Phillips is playing only because D’Vaughn Pennamon was lost for the year with a knee injury, and oft-injured backup Eric Swinney appears to be out for this game with a case of mono. Phillips has an odd build (5’8”, 220) and a low center of gravity that has made him hard to tackle thus far, but Alabama is going to be a big step up in that regard.
True freshman Isaiah Woullard has been wholly ineffective so far, averaging just 2.3 yards per tote. Another true freshman, slotback/receiver Tylan Knight, will probably get a couple of sweeps but he can’t play the position as an every-down option.
Alabama, meanwhile, counters with three traditional bellcow backs (Damien Harris, Najee Harris, Brian Robinson Jr.) and the football Cuisinart known as Josh Jacobs, who can cook up just about anything on demand.
Both Jacobs and Damien Harris are elite options in the passing game, too, something Phillips has not found natural so far. Assuming Phillips’ production is a mirage, Alabama is so far ahead here that it’s a knockout. But if Phillips was simply overlooked in the preseason – well, Alabama has a problem on its hands. Shutting Phillips down would make Ta’amu look a lot more human. Advantage: Alabama
This is what Alabama’s receiver unit is going to look like next year, if not by the end of 2018. D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown and DeMarkus Lodge form one of college football’s most elite receiver groups, and Braylon Sanders has stepped up to give the Rebels a fourth option almost as good as the first three. Brown is probably a top 10 pick in next year’s NFL Draft if he keeps up his current production.
At 6’1” and nearly 230 pounds, he’s reminiscent of LSU alum Josh Reed, who terrorized Alabama during the Mike Shula era. Metcalf and Lodge are both tall, physical receivers, while Sanders is a smooth route runner who can find seams in defenses instinctively. Alex Weber and Elijah Moore haven’t been as active as expected just yet, but they have a combined 81 yards on just 2 catches, highlighting what they’re capable of. The one area Ole Miss could use an upgrade is at tight end, where Dawson Knox is just sort of “there.”
For Alabama, Irv Smith Jr., even by himself, gives Alabama a significant edge at tight end, and that’s before the Crimson Tide starts trotting out its substantial depth chart made up of Hale Hentges, Miller Forristall, Major Tennison and Kedrick James. The receivers – Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith – don’t give up much in comparison to Ole Miss’ receivers, either, unless the subject is height and raw physicality. Jaylen Waddle, Derek Kief and Tyrell Shavers offer depth. It basically comes down to experience and the fact that Ole Miss has such a diverse number of options that the Rebels can create specific matchup nightmares for opposing secondaries. Advantage: Ole Miss
You’d expect a team that throws the ball a lot to give up a lot of sacks, and you’d be right. The Rebels rank only 10th among SEC teams (51st nationally) in that stat. It’s been the lone pressure point on the offense so far, because otherwise this group has been just about flawless. Greg Little, perhaps the SEC’s best tackle, starts on the blind side with Alex Givens on the right. Redshirt freshman Ben Brown was good enough in fall camp to claim the starting right guard job over senior Jordan Sims. Sean Rawlings is probably the SEC’s best center, while Javon Patterson doesn’t get much publicity, but he’s developed into a force at left guard. Sims, Bryce Mathews and Royce Newman give Ole Miss some options off the bench, while Eli Johnson is next year’s center-in-training.
If Greg Little isn’t the best tackle in the SEC, Alabama’s Jonah Williams is doing everything to prove that he is. He’ll start on the left side for Alabama, with Jedrick Wills on the right. Wills has been somewhat of a revelation this fall. Ross Pierschbacher gets the call at center. Alabama’s guards, Lester Cotton on the left and Alex Leatherwood on the right, have had their issues in the early going; most of the obvious busts have come up those two channels.
Deonte Brown got some work with the 1s at right guard both last week in practice and against Arkansas State, but Leatherwood retains the spot for now. Depth at tackle may be a bit questionable now with Scott Lashley missing practice mid-week; most likely, Leatherwood would be moved to tackle in the event of an injury there. Josh Casher adds depth at guard, Richie Petitbon at both guard and tackle, and Chris Owens at center. These two units are fairly close, but Ole Miss has just made fewer errors thus far. Advantage: Ole Miss
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