After racing to 4-0 without breaking a proverbial sweat, Alabama faces something of a mild surprise in week five of the college football season: Ole Miss may not be quite the outright patsy that most had anticipated. The Rebels won't be stamping its ticket to Miami in the near future -- or, arguably, even Shreveport -- but Ole Miss has been something of a pleasant surprise in the opening month of the season.
New head coach Hugh Freeze deserves credit for bringing something to Oxford it hasn't seen in three years: A semi-reasonable degree of respectability. In his final two not-so-glorious campaigns at Ole Miss, Houston Nutt stretched the lower bounds of SEC incompetence for programs not named Kentucky and Vanderbilt. While garnering only one victory over a BCS conference opponent in the past two years, Nutt's self-promoted black gold turned into snake oil, with the Rebels becoming a glorified bye week for the conference's best programs. In the wake of his departure, he left behind a roster filled with gaping holes at nearly every position.
Freeze hasn't been able to make any of those holes go away in the short-term, and only time will tell if he can have the successes on the recruiting trails and in player development necessary to forge a long-term solution in Oxford. Nevertheless, through four games, Freeze and his staff have done reasonably well working around the biggest roster shortcomings and taking full advantage of what little talent is at their disposal. Their 3-1 record is largely inflated due to a weak schedule in the opening month, but in fairness to Freeze the Rebels have won those three games in relative ease, and a year ago they would have arguably been on the losing end more often than not.
Offensively, Ole Miss will remind many of Gus Malzahn on Saturday night. Routinely operating without a huddle, the new-look Rebels use a variety of formations and spread the field, and pre-snap motion and misdirection are the norm. Despite the spread philosophy, the offense is decidedly run heavy, and the quarterback position provides legitimate dual threat options.
The real shortcoming for Ole Miss is a lack of ability at the point of attack. Center Evan Swindall is a solid player, but tackle play outside has been poor and pass protection in general has been horrendous. Nevertheless, skill talent is sufficient on the offensive side, and quarterback Bo Wallace has been one of the biggest surprises in the conference to date. Donte Moncrief will be arguably the best receiver on the field tomorrow night, and despite his diminutive size, tailback Jeff Scott provides an explosive element at the position. Combined, the quick strike offense has been able to work around the weaknesses on the offensive line, and Ole Miss has found ways to score points despite being consistently overmanned in the trenches.
The biggest problem in Oxford has been non-existent production on the defensive side of the football, where defensive coordinator Dave Wommack has been unable to work any magic, with his defense ranked at or near the bottom of the conference in nearly every major defensive category. Ugly performances have been the norm, and browsing the roster it is easy to see why.
The defensive line is filled with tweeners, and there is no one in the rotation who really stands out as either a pass rusher or a run stuffer. At linebacker, Mike Marry is a load at 6'3 and 255 pounds, but the outside linebackers are undersized players even by 4-3 standards, and Denzel Nkemdiche in particular would be a free safety in Tuscaloosa. The defensive backfield has seen a handful of bodies rotated in and out, but there has been no consistent pass rush to give the secondary a boost and the defensive backs have struggled in space. David Ash of Texas, not exactly known for his passing prowess, posted a Playstation-esque stat line against this group two weeks ago.
Ole Miss normally operates out of a 4-2-5 base set, but they figure to respond with more of a traditional 4-3 look this weekend given the strength of the Alabama running game. A lack of size at linebacker should create numerous opportunities for Eddie Lacy and company, however, and the pickings seem ripe for AJ McCarron to take advantage of what has been a porous pass defense. The Alabama offense has been highly effective to date, and for now it doesn't seem that Colonel Reb should be able to stymie the attack.
Injuries, too, are a net concern for Ole Miss. Alabama comes into this contest reasonably healthy, with only back-up nose guard Brandon Ivory expected to miss the game. Wide receiver Kevin Norwood could be limited with a lower leg injury, but generally the roster is in good health. With Ole Miss, however, Bo Wallace is suffering from a shoulder injury, and while he expects to play, whether or not he can sustain for sixty minutes against the 'Bama defense remains to be seen. Additionally, wide receivers Korvin Neat and Collins Moore may miss entirely, and will all but certainly be limited, and the defensive line could be missing a couple of players from the rotation. The injuries aren't exactly overwhelming, but they do serve to make an uphill battle somewhat more difficult.
Nevertheless, though, this is an interesting test for Alabama. Ole Miss figures to be overmatched in terms of talent and depth, and the line match-ups look lopsided. Even so, their offensive attack should stress defensive back play and fundamental discipline -- which is typically related directly to experience -- and those are two legitimate concern areas in Tuscaloosa. On the opposite side of the ball, Alabama ought to have its way with the Ole Miss defense, so can AJ McCarron and company deliver when necessary given that the defense could possibly experience some issues and surrender some points? That will most likely be a necessity in the stretch run if Alabama is to earn a trip to Miami in early January, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out tomorrow night should it come to pass.
On the whole, Alabama has been untested in the first month of the season, and has yet to face a competitive game deep into the second half. The latter may change tomorrow, but even so an upset would be a major surprise and if Alabama plays like it has in the first four weeks they should win with relative ease. To that end, Nick Saban and company have preached the standard refrain all week: Remain focused, ignore the hype, continue to improve, and do your job. On the backside of Ole Miss, Alabama gets a bye week to prepare for what will be a difficult five-week run starting in October, but for any of that to mean anything 'Bama has to first secure victory tomorrow night in Tuscaloosa.
Hope for the best.