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Ole Miss preview: Suddenly, this is Alabama’s game of the year

Imagine for a moment that Alabama can’t find a way to get up off the deck and beat Ole Miss this Saturday, which would give Alabama two losses before Sept. 23. In such a situation, Alabama would likely be knocked out of the national championship picture.

The last time that happened? Try 20 years ago.

You have to go back to the 2003 season to find an Alabama team that lost twice before the conclusion of the Sept. 23 weekend. Not even Nick Saban’s first team, the 2007 edition of the Crimson Tide, suffered such a fate. Saban’s first team was 3-1 on Sept. 23, coming off a 26-23 overtime loss to Georgia in Bryant-Denny Stadium, a Georgia team quarterbacked by Matthew Stafford.

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Alabama Depth Chart vs Ole Miss

Mike Shula’s mediocre 2004 and 2006 teams also escaped a two-loss start. Shula’s first team, the 2003 edition of the Tide, lost to top-ranked Oklahoma in the second week of the year and were then upset by Northern Illinois in the fourth game, for a 2-2 start on the way to a 4-9 disaster of a season.

The 2023 Alabama Crimson Tide, at least on paper, is nothing like that 2003 unit. The current Bama team has far more talent and the coaching staff is barely comparable. But after three games, does anyone know exactly what the 2023 Alabama Crimson Tide actually is?

Alabama started out by soundly beating what’s probably going to end up being a pretty decent down-market MTSU team, but then lost to Texas and clearly looked like the inferior team while doing so. Then, last week happened: a 17-3 scrape-by against a South Florida team that probably isn’t as good as MTSU.

The confusion over just how good Alabama is or isn’t is being driven by a quarterback controversy – and, in fitting fashion, it’s a controversy among an undetermined number of candidates for the job. Is it a two-man race between Jalen Milroe and Tyler Buchner? Does Ty Simpson make it a three-man race? And what of Dylan Lonergan?

Milroe appears to be locked in as the starter, at least for now, but this Alabama team has plenty of other holes to fill. If it can’t get past an Ole Miss team led by a hungry Lane Kiffin, this could be the moment that knocks the wheels off the season entirely.

OFFENSE

Ole Miss’ offense is what Alabama wishes its offense still was. Lane Kiffin, who to some is the greatest offensive coordinator Nick Saban ever employed, has Ole Miss 11th in total offense, 4th in scoring offense and 9th in passing offense – and the Rebel running game, which was expected to be its strength, hasn’t even gotten cranked up yet due to nagging injuries to starter Quinshon Judkins. Ole Miss merges pro-style concepts with an innovative quarterback run game and a lot of tempo. It’s sort of Alabama’s offense on steroids and a few other controlled substances.

After Alabama’s explosive opener against MTSU, the Crimson Tide has reverted to plodding along. The rushing attack is 56th – which trails even Ole Miss’ ranking of 49th – and passing offense comes in at 100th on the dot.

QUARTERBACKS
We’re still not entirely sure what Alabama was doing last week, when it benched Jalen Milroe and dropped him to third on the depth chart behind Tyler Buchner and Ty Simpson. Buchner got the start and put up one of the most ragged performances ever by an Alabama starting quarterback, and was pulled before halftime started. Simpson actually performed pretty well, all things considered, and engineered two drives to help Alabama pull away. For his efforts, he was rewarded with … being the backup again this week, except it’s to Milroe again and not Buchner.

It seems curious to go back to Milroe if Alabama isn’t also going to edit the offensive playcalling, which very well might happen but is also not guaranteed to happen, either. Milroe needs more called runs, and Alabama needs more tempo and misdirection. Simpson’s weakest suit against South Florida was in processing speed; a couple of the sacks he took were due to his own indecisiveness and inability to read pressure.

Meanwhile, it was Ole Miss that was originally supposed to have the quarterback controversy, as Spencer Sanders and Walker Howard were allegedly going to pressure Jaxson Dart. Instead, Dart has grabbed the reins of the job and has quietly become the SEC’s most effective quarterback through the first month. Dart has amassed almost 300 more yards passing than all three of Alabama’s quarterbacks combined. He isn’t the running-back-as-QB that Alabama’s Milroe is, but Dart is the leading rusher on a Rebel team that has two fine running backs.

Essentially, Dart is doing what Milroe’s biggest fans hoped he would do, given the opportunity. Advantage: Ole Miss

RUNNING BACKS
Quinshon Judkins came into the year as perhaps the best returning running back in the SEC. He’s been dinged up, which has allowed backup Ulysses Bentley IV to shine, but even more than Bentley, Jaxson Dart has helped pick up the slack. Ole Miss also has a budding future stalwart contributor in Matt Jones, who has carried just 6 times so far in 2023, but for an average-per-carry of more than 8 yards and with 2 of his runs going for touchdowns.

Bentley is averaging 6.3 yards per carry so far himself, but there is uncertainty as to whether his smaller size will allow him success between the tackles against bigger teams. Judkins has been bothered by nagging injuries that have limited him to 3.3 yards per carry on 44 totes, but he does lead the team with 4 rushing touchdowns. If he’s healthy for this game, it will give Ole Miss a decided boost to its running game, but at last word, Judkins was going to be playing at some level less than 100 percent.

Alabama got an excellent performance from Roydell Williams against South Florida, and despite Jase McClellan badly blowing a protection block, McClellan put up solid numbers while rotating with Williams. Together, they’ve been more effective than the Judkins-Bentley tandem for Ole Miss, but they aren’t as dynamic as Ole Miss’ rushers are. Alabama has better depth behind the starters in the combo of Jamarion Miller and Justice Haynes, but they haven’t played much with the game on the line.

Judkins’ health actually makes this one fairly close, but we’ll give Ole Miss the benefit of the doubt for now. Advantage: Ole Miss

WIDE RECEIVERS
While Alabama’s receivers have overperformed relative to preseason expectations, there is still room to go. Jermaine Burton drew fire during the South Florida game for not trying to lay out for a Tyler Buchner pass into the end zone, but for the most part, the starting group of Burton, Malik Benson and Isaiah Bond has been solid. Kobe Prentice and Ja’Corey Brooks provide the primary depth there. Tight end C.J. Dippre made a big impact on the USF game and Amari Niblack has been a weapon there as well. Danny Lewis Jr. and Robbie Ouzts add depth to that spot.

It’s been a good group so far, but it’s a group outclassed by Ole Miss. The big question, again, is one of health, as Ole Miss has three receivers and two tight ends on the injury sheet this week. Tre Harris, Dayton Wade and Jordan Watkins are expected to start, but depth falls off quickly after that. Only Ayden Williams has caught multiple passes among the backups.

Missouri transfer Jalen Knox, who was expected to be a big contributor, is one of the three walking wounded. UTSA transfer Zakhari Franklin, who was on the Biletnikoff Award watchlist prior to the season, has also been out. Tight end Hudson Wolfe is still out, so that position will be manned mostly by Kyirin Heath and Michael Trigg.

Alabama is certainly healthier than is Ole Miss, but Wade and Watkins have given the Rebels more than enough production and Harris has 5 touchdown catches already. Advantage: Ole Miss

OFFENSIVE LINE
This one is harder to call than one would expect, because neither unit has been all that good. Ole Miss covers up a lot of issues with inventive playcalling and tempo, but the fact of the matter is that when each team has to line up and go hat-on-hat with the opposing defensive line, neither Alabama nor Ole Miss is in a great spot. Jayden Williams and Micah Pettus will start at the tackles for Ole Miss, with Jeremy James and Quincy McGee at the guards and Caleb Warren at center.

Ole Miss is 56th in sacks allowed and 71st in tackles for loss allowed, not great numbers to begin with and worse still given the level of competition the Rebels have faced. But Alabama is 123rd in sacks allowed and 105th in tackles for loss allowed, a substantially worse figure. Seth McLaughlin will start at center with Kadyn Proctor and J.C. Latham at the tackles, but the rest of the lineup depends on Tyler Booker’s health. Booker missed the USF game with back spasms and was replaced by Terrence Ferguson, who had just a so-so game.

If Booker is back, he’ll start at left guard and Ferguson will return to a battle with Darrian Dalcourt for right guard, a battle that to this point, Dalcourt has won. Neither group has done anything to suggest it is among the better lines in the conference, but Ole Miss has struggled less. Sort of. Advantage: Ole Miss

Continue to Defense Preview

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