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Ole Miss preview: As long as Kiffin roams the OM sidelines, this will be a minefield game

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DEFENSE

Ole Miss runs a dedicated 4-2-5 defense, whereas Alabama’s 3-4 over/under has taken on a lot of characteristics of a 3-3-5 base, or even a 2-4-5 sub base. Ole Miss ranks 58th in total defense, 56th in rushing defense, 54th in raw pass defense and 50th in pass efficiency defense. Once again, given the level of competition the have faced thus far, these numbers are a bit problematic. Alabama is 17th in total defense, 21st in raw pass defense, 43rd in rushing defense and 54th in pass efficiency defense against much tougher opposition.

DEFENSIVE LINE
Ole Miss has put up respectable numbers along its defense front, ranking 32nd in sacks and 28th in tackles for loss. The middle of the defense – tackles Isaiah Iton and Quentin Bivens, with K.D. Hill and Jalen Cunningham backing them up – has been largely quiet, recording only 2 tackles for loss and no sacks yet. Outside, the production has been a little better, but it basically all comes down to DE Sam Williams, who has 4 of the team’s 9 sacks. Cedric Johnson and Tariqious Tisdale will split the other end spot, while Tywone Malone backs up both sides. Jamond Gordon will also see time at end.

Alabama will start Phidarian Mathis and D.J. Dale at the tackles, with Tim Smith, and Jamil Burroughs backing them up. Outside, LaBryan Ray, and Byron Young will rotate; Ray will also play nose when Alabama goes to its small package on, typically, 3rd-and-long. Alabama has both better depth and better talent up front, as well as better production against the run. Advantage: Alabama


Ole Miss had to get better at linebacker, and it added a pair of graduate transfer in Maryland’s Chance Campbell and Southeast Missouri’s Mark Robinson. Lakia Henry will start opposite Campbell, but Robinson and Mohamed Sanogo are pushing. Campbell has been the most impactful addition, leading the team in tackles thus far and making several plays behind the line of scrimmage. He anchors the middle, while Henry appears to be the starter this week outside.

Alabama will counter with Jr. and Drew Sanders at outside linebacker and Christian Harris and Henry To’o To’o in the middle. Anderson may be the best outside linebacker Nick Saban has had at Alabama, while Sanders has taken up nicely for the injured Christopher Allen. To’o To’o and Harris have both been a bit up-and-down, but are coming off a good game against Miss. and will offer depth outside, while Jaylen Moody will be the primary backup inside. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Neither team has put up great numbers in the early going, but Alabama’s starting lineup is a lot more stable. and Jalyn Armour-Davis will start at the corners, with DeMarco Hellams likely to start inside next to Brian Branch or Malachi Moore, who are splitting the Star safety spot 50/50, and Jordan Battle. is the dime safety. Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Marcus Banks provide depth. For Ole Miss, several players have started games thus far.

Expected to start this week are corners Jaylon Jones and Deane Leonard, with Navy transfer Jake Springer and A.J. Finley the safeties and Georgia transfer Otis Reese the nickel. Deante Prince has also started at cornerback, while Tysheem Johnson has started at nickel and will play dime if Reese gets the start as the fifth DB. Keidron Smith might start at strong safety ahead of Springer.

Ole Miss appears to still be trying to find the right mix for its backfield; for Alabama, the are fewer but more pointed, given some of the struggles of the safeties against Florida. For now, we’ll give it to Alabama based on athleticism and an advantage at cornerback. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
Caden Costa will kick for Ole Miss; he’s missed a PAT and his longest field goal try of the year, but has been generally acceptable as a placekicker. Mac Brown has a strong leg at punter, but coverage issues have cut into the team’s net punting numbers somewhat. Ole Miss has returned only one punt on the year; kickoff returns have been sub-par. One of the bigger issues for the might be kickoffs; only 4 of Costa’s 23 kicks have been touchbacks, and Alabama is coming into this game after lighting up the return game against Miss. Will Reichard continues to be a reliable placekicker, while James Burnip has been acceptable at worst as a punter. Alabama strongly holds an edge in the return game and this category. Advantage: Alabama

OVERALL

Alabama leads in six categories, Ole Miss in two, and in both categories in which Ole Miss leads, Alabama is right on the Rebels’ heels. In the OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama appears to have moderate leads in both.

On paper, this would equate to a three-score victory at least. But the Lane Kiffin factor can’t be dismissed. With the game in Tuscaloosa, and Alabama having a year to digest what (nearly) happened in in 2020, there is at least some that Alabama’s defensive performance of 2020 – a shoddy one at best – won’t be repeated. However, Alabama’s offense doesn’t have the firepower it had a year ago, either.

Is Ole Miss really the 12th-best team in the country? Most likely not. It’s probably a combination of, once again, a top-heavy college football landscape combined with the media’s infatuation with Kiffin, who is as much a character as he is a good coach. In the end, we have to trust what the numbers tell us, and what the analysis points to, and that is a solid Alabama win. The only question then becomes one of eventual total output.

Alabama 44
Ole Miss 27

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Follow Jess Nicholas on at @TideFansJessN

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