It’s rare that Alabama faces the situation it is in at the moment: out of the running for the College Football Playoff (unless all heck breaks loose in the final few weeks), out of control for the SEC West, and facing an Ole Miss team on the road that suddenly appears to have the upper hand.
Even though Alabama’s two losses on the year have come by the tightest of margins, the glaring issues those two losses revealed – fundamental issues with the defense in a loss to Tennessee, and a lack of ability to close the deal on either offense or defense at LSU – don’t exactly foster confidence given that in those games, Alabama at least had the carrot of something bigger to play for. Now, save for watching LSU get upset twice over the next three weeks in games the Tigers should easily win, Alabama can’t even play the role of spoiler in the SEC Championship Game.
On top of that, Lane Kiffin has a lot on his plate. The Auburn job is open, and a lot of Tiger fans who want nothing more than to hurt Alabama at all costs are clamoring for their school’s administration to make Kiffin the top priority to replace Bryan Harsin. Then there’s Nick Saban’s job, which is not open, but is one that Kiffin covets, and beating Saban and Alabama would be akin to making a statement of qualifications in advance of a job interview.
On the field, Ole Miss has become an unlikely running team, especially with Lane Kiffin calling the plays. The Rebels are third nationally in rushing, and are doing it mostly behind a true freshman from Pike Road, Ala., that Alabama didn’t even recruit on a serious basis. Defensively, however, the Rebels started out on solid footing but have since fallen off badly, especially against the run.
Kiffin’s offense is based out of the same one-back, pro-style spread Alabama’s offense is, but the Rebels have focused on running the ball and Kiffin has become an unlikely devotee of moving the ball the old-fashioned way. Ole Miss ranks 11th in total offense, 3rd in rushing, 79th in passing and 16th in scoring offense. Alabama has better balance overall – 23rd in rushing, 28th in passing, 6th in scoring – but ranks 17th in total offense, still a respectable figure. The biggest difference may be design of the respective offenses, and Alabama fans got an up-close viewing of Lane Kiffin was capable of doing during the time he was Alabama’s offensive coordinator.
One of Kiffin’s priorities this year was to attract a veteran quarterback transfer, and while Jaxson Dart may not have fit the veteran mold perfectly, he was a highly-rated talent at Southern Cal. But Dart has been uneven at best, and his passing numbers reflect a quarterback too prone to make mistakes. Dart is a dual-threat talent and the team’s third-leading rusher, carrying 80 times for 473 yards (5.9 avg.) but no scores. Through the air, he has thrown for 1,911 yards and 14 touchdowns, but also 7 interceptions. Luke Altmyer got heavy work earlier in the season when the job was still somewhat up for grabs, but at this point has less experience than Alabama’s backup, Jalen Milroe.
For Alabama, Bryce Young has had to carry the offense more on his shoulders than Dart has carried Ole Miss. Young’s QB rating is similar to Dart, (152.0 to 150.3) but Young can do more things throwing the ball and works the pocket better. It doesn’t usually take Kiffin long to make a quarterback better, and Dart has improved over the season, but Bryce Young still has a higher ceiling. Advantage: Alabama
When Ole Miss signed Quinshon Judkins out of Pike Road last February, nobody blinked. He was considered a good option for depth but was otherwise unremarkable. It’s a good bet other programs would like a second swing at recruiting him now. Judkins has rushed 180 times for 1,036 yards (5.8 avg.) and 13 touchdowns. He’s been good enough to make TCU transfer Zach Evans (108 carries, 680 yards, 6.3 avg., 7 TD) into a complementary piece. They’re the top one-two punch in the SEC at the moment, and in Judkins’ case especially, it gives Ole Miss an inside running threat that most teams lack. Ulysses Bentley IV adds depth.
For Alabama, Jahmyr Gibbs continues putting up big numbers, carrying 113 times for 771 yards (6.8 avg.) and 6 touchdowns, but the development of backups Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams has stalled a bit, likely a result of lingering effects of their leg injuries from last year. The one advantage Alabama has across the board is in how the Crimson Tide uses its running backs as receivers; Alabama is about four times more likely to throw to the backs as is Ole Miss. But while Gibbs is one of the most dynamic players in the sport right now, Ole Miss’ combo of Judkins and Evans is without peer within the SEC, with no drop-off from one to the next. Advantage: Ole Miss
While Alabama has struggled to get any kind of consistent receiver rotation going, Ole Miss has been able to cobble together a good starting unit, although there isn’t much depth. Malik Heath, Jordan Watkins and Jonathan Mingo have been reliable, especially Mingo, who is averaging a whopping 22.1 yards per catch. There isn’t much behind this trio, though, thanks to an injury to Jaylon Robinson, who will likely miss this game. Dayton Wade and J.J. Henry figure to get most of the bench snaps; they’ve combined for 17 catches for 188 yards on the year.
Tight end Michael Trigg was good for a couple of catches per game, but was lost for the season with a collarbone injury. Casey Kelly and Kyirin Heath now have to fill in.
Alabama compressed its playing rotation to roughly five players for the LSU loss – Jermaine Burton, Ja’Corey Brooks, JoJo Earle, Kobe Prentice and Isaiah Bond. Traeshon Holden, a starter for most of the year, didn’t play much if at all. Brooks has been the team’s leading wideout for much of the year, but had a couple of critical drops against LSU and unfortunately, that’s part of the deal with him. It will be interesting to see if the rotation stays as is this week.
Cameron Latu gives Bama an edge at tight end, and Kendall Randolph is a good situational blocker there. Despite Bama’s edge at tight end, Ole Miss has far more experience in its receiver unit, and Mingo’s abilities downfield give the Rebels something Alabama has yet to develop. Advantage: Ole Miss
While Alabama’s line has improved since the beginning of the year, and typically does enough to allow the offense to put up substantial production, the Rebel offensive line was deemed perhaps the best in the conference in the preseason, and has really done nothing since to lose that ranking. The Rebels rank 69th in tackles for loss allowed, which is understandable given how much priority they put on the running game, but rank 4th nationally in sacks allowed. Micah Pettus and Jayden Williams will start at the tackles, with Caleb Warren at center and Jeremy James, Nick Broeker and Eli Acker all in the mix at guard.
Alabama will start J.C. Latham and Tyler Steen at the tackles, with Javion Cohen, Emil Ekiyor Jr. and Tyler Booker working at guard. Seth McLaughlin will start at center, but still had a noticeable limp against LSU, and Darrian Dalcourt may see some action there. Alabama is 38th in sacks allowed and 53rd in tackles for loss allowed, but has the superstar here in Latham at right tackle. Despite Latham’s presence, Ole Miss has done a better job playing cohesively and is better in the running game. Advantage: Ole Miss
Ole Miss operates more from a traditional four-man front, basing from a 4-2-5. While productive in getting to the passer, in recent games this group has been tested. The Rebels have fallen to a ranking of 69th in total defense, 78th against the run, and are 61st in raw pass defense and 65th in pass efficiency defense. While better than Alabama at forcing turnovers, the Rebels rank just 49th in turnover margin and aren’t very dynamic on defense. Alabama brings its 3-4 over/under scheme to this game, ranking 12th in total defense, 11th against the run, 29th in raw pass defense and 8th in pass efficiency defense.
Ole Miss gets decent production from its ends, Cedric Johnson and Tavius Robinson, and backup Jared Ivey is just as good as the starters. But there is precious little depth otherwise on the edges, with only Demon Clowney and Brandon Mack seeing much time. The bigger issue is up the middle, where K.D. Hill and J.J. Pegues have been underwhelming for most of the year. Jamond Gordon, Isaiah Iton and Tywone Malone offer depth, but no one has jumped off the page.
Unfortunately for Alabama, it’s much the same story. Byron Young has put together a very effective senior season, and checks the all-important box of making his teammates better when he’s on the field. But lately, he’s been the only thing to write home about. D.J. Dale and Jaheim Oatis have been acceptable at nosetackle, but Alabama needs more out of Tim Smith, Jamil Burroughs and Jah-Marien Latham outside. Young is by far the best option on either roster, but there’s more consistency across the board for Ole Miss and arguably better depth as well. Advantage: Ole Miss
Troy Brown and Austin Keys collect a lot of tackles, but for inside linebackers in a 4-2 set, neither is particularly effective at penetrating the backfield or chasing down quarterbacks. Brown is good in coverage, though, and has a knack for knocking down passes, but otherwise this unit needs some help to be effective. Ashanti Cistrunk is a solid tackler off the bench, but the wild card is TCU transfer Khari Coleman, who leads the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and is among the leaders with 3.5 sacks despite not being a full-time starter. He isn’t particularly big, but he can turn a game around unlike any of the other options.
Alabama will counter with Henry To’o To’o and Jaylen Moody inside, with Will Anderson Jr., Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell at outside linebacker. Deontae Lawson provides depth inside. This almost isn’t a fair comparison, given how many ways Alabama uses its linebackers, to say nothing of having two additional linebacker positions. But as long as Bama can hold Coleman in check, the rest of this matchup falls very favorably to the Tide. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama can press an edge at cornerback, where LSU will start JUCO transfer Deantre Prince and true freshman Davison Igbinosun. Miles Battle and Markevious Brown provide depth there. Prince has shown a knack for breaking up passes, recording 9 PBUs, but none of the other players have made much of an impact. A.J. Finley and Isheem Young will start at the high safeties, while Tysheem Johnson and Georgia transfer Otis Reese play nickel and dime safeties. Reese, as one would imagine coming over from Georgia, is probably the closest thing Ole Miss has to a game-changer in its backfield.
For Alabama, cornerbacks Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Eli Ricks are both a few steps up from any Rebel corner, while safeties Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams, Brian Branch and Malachi Moore have plenty of experience and can account for big plays. The big question here for Alabama is whether Kiffin will try to leverage the weakness Alabama’s high safeties have in covering slot receivers. Even so, across the board, Alabama has superior experience and depth, and holds a big edge at the corner spots. Advantage: Alabama
Caden Costa has been suspended most of this season for a substance violation, but Ole Miss hasn’t really missed a beat with Jonathan Cruz and Christian Schanefelt. Cruz is the primary kicker and has gone 9-for-10 for the year, missing only a 50-plus-yarder. The Rebels rank 31st in net punting, with Fraser Masin handling those duties. The Rebels are ok in punt and kick returns, but punt return defense could use some work.
Alabama will start Will Reichard at kicker and James Burnip at punter; both are having solid years. Alabama’s punt-return game, ranked 3rd nationally, can change games. Coverage units have been sound. There’s nothing wrong, really, with either team’s special teams units; Alabama has just been more dynamic in returns, and Reichard has been very reliable late in games. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in four categories, as does Ole Miss. Aside from probably linebacker, though, all of Alabama’s leads are by fairly close margins. As for OL-DL cross-matchups, that’s where the Rebels pull ahead. Alabama OL holds a slim edge over Ole Miss’ DL, but when the ball is in the Rebels’ hands, the Rebel offensive line holds a large edge over Alabama’s defensive line.
Couple that with this being a road game, the aforementioned “job interview” opportunity Kiffin believes he has been afforded, and Alabama’s mindset regarding being (probably) eliminated from national title contention, and suddenly Alabama is in danger of losing a third regular-season game – a possibility that was given virtually zero chance of coming true in the preseason.
The question of mindset is the most important here, as Alabama has the athletic potential to gloss over any of the supposed edges Ole Miss enjoys in this game. Can Nick Saban provide the motivation to do so? Alabama hasn’t been in this state for quite some time, and we’re not entirely certain that this game is coming at the right time on the schedule.
Expect it to be close, but we’re taking the Rebels here. Alabama has to win its swagger back.
Ole Miss 38
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN