In recent years, the Alabama Crimson Tide have faced few obstacles in exerting their dominance over the SEC, winning each of the past two conference titles. One division foe, however, has remained a constant thorn in Nick Saban’s side during this span — the Ole Miss Rebels.
Ole Miss enters Saturday’s showdown in Oxford seeking its third straight victory over the reigning national champions. Although the Crimson Tide occupy the top spot in the polls, as well as a defense that is being heralded as one of the best of Saban’s tenure, another upset would hardly be a shock.
The Rebels’ high-powered passing attack is elite, and can enable a game to get out of hand quickly, even against an opponent of Alabama’s stature. Led by the conference’s leading passer from 2015 — senior Chad Kelly — the unit has the potential to go the distance on any play. If the rushing attack and offensive line do not provide some form of relief, though, any hopes of another upset bid will immediately vanish.
Defensively, Ole Miss is presented with a unique opportunity. Alabama has undergone changes at several key positions this season, but has also looked dangerous early on — evidenced by a 46-point blowout of USC in its opener. The Rebels will attempt to rattle true freshman Jalen Hurts with pressure up front and force the young quarterback into costly mistakes, while containing a rushing attack that is still searching for its identity after the loss of 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.
In order to gain a better perspective on the Crimson Tide, Sami Harb, who covers the team for Today’s U, provides some insight.
The theme of the Ole Miss offense in 2016 is once again to take chances and ride or die on the arm of Chad Kelly, a premise that was quite successful last year. Against an Alabama secondary that has already forced three interceptions through two games this season, do these risk-taking tendencies play to the strength of the opponent?
On one hand, this Alabama defense has the talent to feast on teams that take too many risks. On the other hand, teams haven’t had much success doing anything else. Of the three field goals the starting defense has surrendered (the only points the starters have given up this year), one was set up by a deep completion on USC’s opening drive and one was set up by a Western Kentucky flea flicker.
Bottom line: Taking chances certainly comes with a certain degree of risk, but for most teams, including Ole Miss, the risk is likely worth it.
Ole Miss certainly has the talent at quarterback and at receiver to test the Alabama defense vertically. Ole Miss hasn’t run the ball effectively this season and Alabama hasn’t allowed teams to consistently gain good yardage on the ground. I would expect Hugh Freeze to have the full arsenal ready to attack Alabama through the air. Chad Kelly can improvise if Alabama takes away the first or second option on a given play.
One of the driving factors in the Rebels’ collapse in the opener against Florida State was poor offensive line play — something that will be put to the test this weekend. The Crimson Tide manhandled a quality USC offensive line in their opener, and they are bound for another strong showing on Saturday. What makes this defensive front so dangerous?
In a word, speed. Alabama has boasted some pretty ferocious defenses during Nick Saban’s tenure, and while it’s obviously far too early to rank this defense among them, I would already argue that is the fastest group Saban has coached. It also helps when guys like Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams forego an NFL Draft when both surely would have been selected relatively early.
This year’s defensive front doesn’t have the same depth as last year’s Crimson Tide team, but they have managed to get faster while also maintaining the ability to plug gaps in running game effectively. Alabama’s defensive front versus an Ole Miss offensive line that has failed to impress thus far is likely the Tide’s biggest advantage in this one.
Getting consistent pressure on Kelly in crucial for Alabama because, as you’ve said, we’ve seen the damage he and the receivers can do when the offensive line does its job in pass protection. Allowing Kelly to stay comfortable in the pocket could spell disaster for Alabama.
The identity of these two offenses could not be more different this season, with Ole Miss returning its most vital piece in Chad Kelly and Alabama forced to replace starters at the quarterback, running back and center positions. True freshman Jalen Hurts has shined at quarterback so far for the Crimson Tide, but he has not yet faced either an SEC opponent or a true road test. If the Rebels force a shootout as they did last year in Tuscaloosa, will Alabama suffer another early-season upset?
A shootout is the last thing Nick Saban and Alabama want in this game. There’s no doubt this Alabama team is built on its defense and will have to win that way while the young cogs in the offense continue to mesh. Jalen Hurts has shown flashes of brilliance while also providing some of the head-scratching plays one would expect from a true freshman. A shootout would essentially put this game in his hands, which isn’t ideal for a QB starting his first road game and first SEC game.
If the Ole Miss offense from the first half against FSU shows up Saturday afternoon and scores in bunches early, the Rebels would be in perfect position to win this matchup for the third consecutive year.
Ole Miss is 11-50-2 all-time against Alabama.
12-50-2? It would feel extremely satisfying for Hugh Freeze.