The SEC showdown of the week between Alabama and Ole Miss is right around the corner. The No. 19 Rebels will try to win a third consecutive game against the Crimson Tide, something no other team has done in the Nick Saban era. The top-ranked Crimson Tide will be out to earn a second win over a ranked team this season with an early edge in the SEC up for grabs.
To preview the matchup, our Ole Miss and Alabama writers Josh Criswell and Sami Harb got together for a Q&A:
Sami Harb: Much like Ole Miss, the Alabama offensive line has had its struggles early in the season, especially in the running game. Against a team with an unproven running game and a true freshman making his first career road start, do you expect the Rebels to load the box and force Jalen Hurts to beat them with his arm, or will the Ole Miss defense take a more traditional approach?
Josh Criswell: Given Alabama’s struggles running the ball this season, I don’t expect the Ole Miss defense to load the box regularly — at least not at first. That could change if Bo Scarbrough starts picking up momentum, but after an emphasis on slowing down Florida State’s rushing attack led to a 419-yard passing performance by freshman quarterback Deondre Francois, a more balanced scheme appears to be best option.
In regard to Hurts, the strategy will be to apply constant pressure and force him to get rattled. Hurts had a huge performance in the opener against USC, but that was at a neutral site with an Alabama-heavy crowd. This Saturday will be his first test in a hostile environment, as well as his SEC debut, and it will be against the most talented defense he has faced this season. The matchup between Hurts’ protection and the Ole Miss defensive front could easily be the key to this game.
Sami Harb: Perhaps the most exciting matchup in this game is the Alabama secondary versus Chad Kelly and Ole Miss’ talented group of receivers. Personally, I believe Ole Miss’ receivers winning those 1-on-1 battles gives the Rebels the best chance to pull the upset. Do you agree?
Josh Criswell: There’s not a more exciting matchup in this one. You can almost bank on several touchdowns from Kelly and at least one or two interceptions by the Alabama defense, based purely on the risk-taking nature of the Ole Miss offense.
If the Rebels pull off a third consecutive upset of the Crimson Tide on Saturday, it will be because of their highly-regarded passing attack. Much like their opponent, though, they will only go as far as their offensive line allows.
When Kelly is able to get comfortable in the pocket, there is not much that can stop this offense. You saw this in the opener against Florida State. The offensive line provided its quarterback ample protection early on, and the result was Kelly completing 14 of his first 17 passes as Ole Miss jumped out to a big lead. Then, the Seminoles amped up their defensive pressure, protection broke down, and the Rebels fell apart offensively. Kelly completed 7 of his final 22 passes and committed three turnovers in the second half, an offensive standstill that played a large part in the loss.
If the Rebels are relying on Kelly to move the ball on the ground, even against a team like Alabama that has a tendency to struggle with mobile quarterbacks, they are in major trouble.
What allows the Ole Miss passing attack to be so dangerous is when the running backs keep the defense honest and shift attention away from Kelly. This opens up the big plays that will be vital in Saturday’s potential upset bid. Unfortunately for the Rebels, their backfield has done little to spark belief it will find any form production against the vaunted Alabama defense.
That said, Kelly’s ability to be a threat with his legs creates the opportunity to expose defenses in crucial moments — something Alabama knows all too well.