One team had everything to play for. The other, only pride.
Ole Miss could have rolled into Atlanta for the first time in program history, if it had only found a way to beat Alabama. An Alabama team eliminated from playoff contention. An Alabama team that, either just prior to kickoff or during the early stages of this game, was eliminated from the SEC Championship Game itself. More importantly – an Alabama team that suddenly was questioning its own mettle, as well as batting back countless questions from outside naysayers.
Yet, Ole Miss couldn’t pull it off.
It couldn’t pull it off with a superior running game – the Rebels outrushed Alabama 191 yards to 108. It couldn’t pull it off with a head coach who is openly considered a candidate for one job (Auburn) larger than the one he has, and perhaps another one (Alabama, depending on which rumor one was listening to), and who was trying to state his case for either (or both) by finally getting one over on Nick Saban.
Had it happened – had Ole Miss finally found a way to kick the football out of Lucy’s hold and stop being the SEC West’s embodiment of placekicker Charlie Brown – the college football world, which was already lit up with talk about a possible retirement party for Nick Saban, would have self-immolated. Aliens five galaxies away, looking at planet earth through their own deep-space telescopes, would have been able to detect the glow.
And yet, here we are again: Ole Miss, head hung in disappointment; Alabama, walking off the field as the victor.
Alabama is where it is at the moment due to two losses on the two last plays of two games, but it got there by being fundamentally unsound at the worst possible times. Sometimes, a team can access luck and good fortune and still manage to worm its way out of a tough spot, but other times, it pays the maximum penalty. Alabama, in 2022, has been victimized by – or, has victimized itself with – the latter scenario. There will be no title of any kind in 2022.
For Nick Saban, the moment the Alabama-LSU game ended, talk suddenly erupted over his age, his comportment on the sidelines and an analysis of his preference of continuing to chase championships versus chasing grandchildren. Lane Kiffin’s name immediately emerged as the most likely candidate to replace him. All Saban had to do was ride off into the sunset.
Alabama, after all, had become a difficult team to manage. Between name-image-likeness concerns, there was the typical hand-wringing over how Saban could possibly manage so many egos of so many players convinced of their own stardom from the moment they signed with the program. There has been the question of player buy-in, and there has been the question of how many assistant coaches are stealing a paycheck. It all added up to a certain Ole Miss victory.
Until it didn’t.
It’s quite possible that just as much as the seven national championships he’s won, more than the influence he’s had on the game and the hiring practices of his rivals, some of Nick Saban’s best work has been done with teams that were flawed, backs against the wall and left for dead. There’s always something on the horizon to prepare for, something that demands a sacrifice today for a future payoff some of the players won’t still be in the program to collect upon.
Alabama beat Ole Miss by getting back to basics. That doesn’t mean running the ball 50 times in the game and throwing only when it couldn’t be avoided. It meant that Alabama got the boring stuff right. It blocked, it tackled, it protected the football. It wasn’t perfect, it certainly wasn’t flashy, but it was effective.
It also doesn’t mean that Alabama will be in any better or worse shape next week than it was a week ago or a month ago. Fortunately, Alabama’s remaining schedule is Austin Peay, which the Crimson Tide should dispatch fairly easily, and its annual tilt with Auburn, a program that has been reinvigorated somewhat by the departure of Bryan Harsin and the enthusiasm of interim head coach Carnell Williams – but still a troubled program with a talent issue, and not playing at Jordan-Hare Stadium this time around.
The Ole Miss win was a gut-check. If it had been a term paper, Alabama would have come home with a B+ or A- and the parents would have been happy.
But right now, that’s all it was. The question is whether Alabama can continue to achieve those marks. The win over Ole Miss proved Alabama isn’t dead yet, but the strides taken in this game will be meaningless if Alabama can’t repeat them against Auburn and again in the bowl game.
But for those wanting to push Nick Saban out of the picture, that won’t be happening today.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Ole Miss:
1. The game turned on Zach Evans’ fumble – and showed the (missing) value of Alabama’s turnover stats. Alabama didn’t stop the Ole Miss running game but it did stop Zach Evans (6 carries, 12 yards), and the turnover Alabama forced late in the second quarter flipped the game around. Alabama was able to close the gap to 17-14 just before halftime and also get the second-half kickoff. It might not have been the play that won the game, but it did keep the game in check and served to deflate the Rebels heading into the halftime locker room. It also shined a bright spotlight on one of Alabama’s must frustrating issues up to this point in the season – the inability to cause turnovers and create similar moments to this one in other games. A great deal of the art of causing turnovers is luck, certainly, especially fumbles versus interceptions. But Alabama needs to continue to work on whatever it can to increase the number of turnovers it collects.
2. Byron Young made himself a lot of NFL money in this game, and other DL showed flashes. Alabama faced a tall order in this game because Ole Miss’ offensive line is one of the biggest strengths of the Rebel team. Byron Young recorded a massive stat line for an interior defensive lineman: 11 tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 PBU, 2 QB hurries. Those are all-American numbers and is probably one of the best single games for any Alabama interior DL, ever. There have been too many times in 2022 when Young was the only lineman playing to potential, however, and Alabama needs to find him some help down the stretch. D.J. Dale played well in relief of Jaheim Oatis, but Jamil Burroughs was even more disruptive when he was in. In Bama’s two losses, the defensive line was unable to become a factor in the game, especially against Tennessee. This game showed the value of good DL play, neutralizing Ole Miss’ offensive line for the most part, especially in pass protection.
3. Jase McClellan allowed Alabama to get more downhill, and the OL responded in kind. Alabama sort of backed into this one after Jahmyr Gibbs went down with an ankle injury, but Jase McClellan should receive kudos for stepping up in Gibbs’ absence. Neither McClellan nor Roydell Williams have looked quite the same since coming back from their respective knee injuries, but you wouldn’t know it looking at McClellan Saturday. McClellan finished with 84 yards on 19 carries, but a 12-yard run during a drive in the third quarter may have been one of the best runs of any Bama back in 2022. McClellan dished out as much punishment as he took, and seemed to have a complementary effect on Alabama’s offensive line, which appeared to become more aggressive after McClellan had found his own success. Alabama especially got improved play from its guards and center, and the Crimson Tide is a hard team to stop when the OL is firing on all cylinders together. Less finesse, more power going forward.
4. Bryce continues to do Bryce things, and we saw some improvement from the WR corps. Some of the wide receivers appeared to take their cues from Jase McClellan, as Jermaine Burton, Ja’Corey Brooks and Kendrick Law made several physical plays during the course of the game. There were still some glaring flaws, however: Burton, for instance, missed a TD catch by turning the wrong way on what should have been an easy back-shoulder hook-up, instead running into the coverage. But he also made a great catch on a slant route that went for a touchdown earlier in the game. The addition of Law to the A-rotation comes at the expense of Traeshon Holden, who has gone from starter to third-teamer and out of the mix over the span of less than a month. Law’s physical play makes him a welcome addition to the unit, and if he can show some ability to get separation, he could be a key weapon down the stretch. Alabama’s offensive play design staff is still not scheming its receivers open, however, making Bryce Young even that more crucial to the success of the team. Young was able to throw his receivers open several times in this game, most notably on Brooks’ final touchdown catch.
5. PK Will Reichard was money with the game on the line, and P James Burnip had a strong showing as well. Both kickers have had rough patches at times this year, so it was a sight for sore eyes to see both of them posting dominating performances against Ole Miss. Reichard’s three field goals – especially a 49-yarder late that forced Ole Miss to go for a touchdown late in the game rather than kick a tying field goal (and dialed up the pressure in the process) – were all down-the-middle no-doubters. Burnip punted for a 44.0-yard average and consistently kept the opposition pinned, something Ole Miss P Fraser Masin couldn’t say about his kicks. Alabama ended up routing the Rebels in this category.
Follow Jess Nicholas at @TideFansJessN