As many accolades as you can hand Ole Miss over its offense, take away an equal portion of praise from its defense. This is a bad defense, almost inept at the linebacker level, with a total defense ranking of 124th out of 129 teams. The Rebels run a full-time 4-2-5 look, and there are holes all over it. QB pressure? Ole Miss ranks just 115th in sacks, a function of a marginal defensive end group. Pass defense? 125th in raw yardage allowed and 75th in efficiency defense. Ole Miss is 107th in scoring defense.
Alabama isn’t without its issues; the 3-4 over/under scheme that demands stellar linebacker play to work correctly has a few blemishes in the paint this year, but Alabama is good everywhere, statistically, except for pass efficiency defense (84th), where the Crimson Tide has been vulnerable to the big play. That doesn’t bode well against the Rebel wide receiver corps, but Alabama does rank 3rd in red zone defense, showing the Tide knows how to buckle down when needed.
The problems start up front, where Ole Miss lose Marquis Haynes at defensive end and just couldn’t replace him. Qaadir Sheppard starts at one of the end spots, and with 2 QB hurries, he leads the ends as a group. The other end will be either Austrian Robinson or Tariqious Tisdale, depending on whether Ole Miss wants to prioritize stopping the run (Robinson) or going after Tagovailoa (Tisdale). Either way, there’s been no real effectiveness there.
The most effective end is senior Victor Evans, the top backup, who has been active against the run but MIA against the pass. Ole Miss does have one very good disruptor on the line, tackle Benito Jones, who already has racked up 4 QB hurries by himself. Jones probably has a pro future, but he can’t do it alone. Fellow tackle starter Josiah Coatney is tough against an inside running game but not involved much in the pass rush. Overall, Ole Miss has done a good job as a team racking up QB hurries – the Rebels have 15 through 2 games – but just 1 sack overall. Ross Donelly is a pass-rushing option at tackle off the bench.
Alabama counters with Quinnen Williams at nose flanked by Raekwon Davis, who is off to somewhat of a slow start, and Isaiah Buggs, who can’t stop getting dinged up. Williams, though, has been a revelation in the middle, and singlehandedly put a dent in the pro dreams of Louisville’s interior line during Bama’s opener against the Cardinals. Buggs took a shot to the ankle against Arkansas State, so look for LaBryan Ray to possibly get more snaps there.
Phidarian Mathis and Johnny Dwight will back up the other two spots. Stephon Wynn Jr. returned to practice this week after missing the first two games. If he can pick up where he left off in the spring, he could be helpful. Tevita Musika adds depth at the nose. This isn’t the typical Alabama defensive line of the Saban era – it’s much quicker, albeit less bulky – but there’s really no comparison here between the two teams. Advantage: Alabama
On top of (a) not having a lot of players on scholarship and (b) not being very good, Ole Miss has also had injury issues within its linebacker unit that rival even Alabama’s hard-luck ways. Detric Bing-Dukes was expected to carry this unit prior to the season, but he was hurt against Southern Illinois and hadn’t done much up to that point anyway. He’s listed as somewhere between questionable and doubtful for this game. If he can’t go, the alignment for Ole Miss will be some combination of four players: Mohamed Sanogo, Willie Hibbler, Jacquez Jones and Kevontae’ Ruggs. Jones probably has the most upside, and has shown the ability to get after quarterbacks, but he was nicked up against Southern Illinois.
Ruggs, another true freshman, is coming off concussion protocol. He’s a borderline talent at the moment anyway, only able to play on the edge, and his production has shown his limitations. Hibbler is useful depth, but not a game-changer. That leaves Sanogo, who is the team’s leading tackler with 16, but who has just one stop behind the line (for a loss of 1 yard) and no pass pressure statistics. This is truly one of the least effective linebacker groups fielded by an ostensibly good SEC team in years, if not decades.
Alabama hasn’t exactly been flying high, though. Production issues with MLB Mack Wilson, who was supposed to be Alabama’s next great inside player, catch the eye immediately. Wilson is still dealing with a foot injury from 2017, though, and his health is improving. Thankfully, Dylan Moses has been every bit the stud people thought he would be, and his improvement curve less resembles a curve and more a flagpole. Anfernee Jennings still doesn’t look 100 percent in his return from a severe knee injury suffered against Clemson. More concerning, though, is that Christian Miller is under pressure to produce with the injury to Terrell Lewis, and so far it hasn’t happened.
Alabama arguably has gotten better production from former walk-on Jamey Mosley in a reserve role. Depth is an issue for both teams; Alabama needs to identify a third inside linebacker, and at the moment that looks like veteran journeyman Josh McMillon. Redshirt freshman Markail Benton is still trying to figure out where to go at times. Look for more of true freshman rabbit rusher Eyabi Anoma in coming weeks. He lacks bulk, but his quickness at outside linebacker is tough even for veteran offensive tackles to contend with. Alabama has issues, but Ole Miss has whatever three steps beyond an “issue” is. Advantage: Alabama
To be blunt, neither unit is setting the world on fire, but Alabama has better players. Probably the nicest surprise for Ole Miss defensively has been the emergence of Montrell Custis at the Star position, where he seems ideally suited. The loss of free safety Jaylon Jones to injury, though, was a big blow; he’ll miss this game. Myles Hartsfield and Ken Webster are a pair of veteran cornerbacks, but they’re more solid than they are game-changing. Another veteran role-player, senior C.J. Moore is in at free safety for Jones. Strong safety Zedrick Woods has been productive in run support, but has made few plays in the passing game so far. Still, he’s the leader of the unit.
Alabama might have a different starting lineup Saturday. Saivion Smith has established himself as the alpha at cornerback, and now true freshman Patrick Surtain Jr. appears to have taken the other corner job. That moves Trevon Diggs to Star, replacing Shyheim Carter there, although Carter will continue to play in dime. Xavier McKinney and Deionte Thompson will both have increased workloads at safety this week. They’re 1-2 in team tackles at the moment, and throwing at Thompson rarely ends well for opponents.
With Surtain effectively replacing Carter in the starting lineup, Alabama puts its tallest, most physical group on the field, a must against Ole Miss’ receivers. Kyriq McDonald, Jared Mayden and Daniel Wright form up the next line, along with Josh Jobe. Heralded true freshman Jalyn Armour-Davis blew out a knee in a freak incident during warm-ups for Arkansas State and is done for the year. That probably increases McDonald’s potential workload and moves Nigel Knott into contention for playing time as well. Again, both teams are still feeling their way along, but Alabama has far more ability. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama may have stumbled onto a placekicker last week after kickoff specialist Joseph Bulovas replaced struggling placekicker Austin Jones and looked sharp on all his kick attempts. If Bulovas – who seems to turn things up a notch when there’s a crowd in the stands, a nice trait for kickers to have – can solidify that position, Alabama will have two-thirds of the kicking game worked out and coaches and fans alike can breathe more easily.
Punter, suddenly, is an issue, with true freshman Skyler DeLong struggling both with kick distances and get-off times. Senior transfer Mike Bernier may very well get a look there soon if DeLong’s struggles continue. Alabama has the makings of explosive return units, thanks to Josh Jacobs on kickoffs and Jaylen Waddle on punt returns.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, at least has its kicking situation settled in the form of sophomore Luke Logan, who has missed an extra point but is perfect on field goals. It should be noted, though, that Logan, Jones and Bulovas all share a common trait: No makes beyond 39 yards out. So long-distance kicking is a total, bilateral mystery. Punter Mac Brown has been frankly terrible.
Ole Miss ranks 107th in net punting, and whereas that’s often due to issues covering kicks, in Ole Miss’ case, it directly falls back on a punter averaging 33.8 yards gross. Ole Miss has been very good on kickoff returns (19th nationally) and very bad on punt returns (103rd). Punt return defense is strong (more likely, though, a function of Jones’ pop-up kicks) while kickoff return coverage has been poor. Alabama has been very good and mediocre, respectively, in those categories.
The Tide leads the nation for the moment in kickoff returns. When judged impartially, there’s really not as much difference between these two teams as one would think, given Alabama’s high-profile struggles. We still take Ole Miss, though, as its kicking situation is a more known quantity. Advantage: Ole Miss
Alabama leads in five categories, Ole Miss in three, but in no category do the Rebels enjoy a significant advantage. In a here’s-something-you-don’t-see-every-day moment, both teams’ offensive lines control the matchup against each other’s defensive lines. In other words, get ready for a shootout.
This game will hinge on whether Alabama can stop Ole Miss’ change-of-pace running game. If the Rebels get continuously stuffed there, sooner or later Alabama is going to out-talent the Rebels everywhere else. It might take awhile, and this game might look like the showdown with Manziel in College Station as a result, but Alabama should be able to pull through.
If Alabama’s defense has issues stopping the ground attack, though, all bets are off. Ole Miss is a threat right up until the clock zeroes out regardless; if the Rebels are running and throwing with equal effectiveness, get ready to make an Amlodipine smoothie. You’ll need it.
Otherwise, get ready to yell at the secondary to look back for the ball, but Tagovailoa, a superior ground game and a much better situation on the defensive front seven should allow Alabama to come home on top.
Ole Miss 31
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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN