Time for our weekly peek into the upcoming opponent, courtesy of those that know them best. This week, Juco All American from Red Cup Rebellion was kind enough to answer our questions.
1. Ole Miss had more defensive success against Alabama last year than any other SEC opponent. To what do you attribute that success, and do you anticipate a similar defensive performance this year?
First off, freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche was incredible, forcing two fumbles including a strip sack. Sophomore safety Cody Prewitt also had a huge day, stuffing the run well and making big hits. The key last season was in stopping the run, something Ole MIss did well. Alabama was held to 3.7 yards per carry by a defense that was very undersized.
That defense is still undersized but lost almost nothing and added two true freshmen who have already stepped up as impact starters in Robert Nkemdiche (DE) and Tony Conner ("Husky" which is a LB/S hybrid). Both replaced returning starters and have played very, very well. The foreseeable problem is that Denzel Nkemdiche (the linebacker who made a big impact against Bama last season) injured his knee against Vanderbilt and hasn't played since then. He is practicing this week and is expected to be back in the lineup against Alabama, but it's tough to forecast how much of an impact he can have if he's still favoring one leg. I would guess that Ole Miss could stop Alabama's running game if they had a good idea it was coming. Unfortunately, the secondary has had trouble stopping the pass, and I imagine Alabama will have success through the air.
2. Ole Miss was the national signing day darling as they pulled in a ton of talent. Initial impressions from this observer are that the young stars have lived up to the hype thus far. Who has stood out the most to you so far, and which of the new guys do you look to have a standout performance this week?
Oh... they have definitely lived up to the hype. Five true freshmen have already won starting jobs, with four stealing the job of a returning starter. Tight end Evan Engram (who was grossly underranked as a three star with no good offers) and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (the #1 WR recruit nationally) have exploded as offensive playmakers, being 1 and 2 on the team in receiving yardage. Laremy Tunsil (the #1 OT) has taken the starting left tackle job from a returning starter who is a fifth-year senior. He's playing better football than any freshman lineman I've ever seen. Robert Nkemdiche hasn't gotten a sack yet, which disappoints some fans, but he leads the nation among freshmen in tackles for loss with four total. Some have been just beautiful, with Nkemdiche abusing linemen. Against Vanderbilt, he fought off a triple-team for a TFL. Against Texas, he blew straight by the right tackle for a 5 yard TFL on a run up the middle. Tony Conner got an interception on his first collegiate snap and has been involved in tons of plays, batting balls down and getting clutch tackles in the flats.
If I had to point to one as the difference in our season, I guess I'd go with Engram. It's difficult to do that, but Engram was thrust into a starting job at tight end where Ole Miss didn't have a returning scholarship player. The team had signed three tight end recruits. Engram was considered third among them. Then one didn't qualify and the other (Christian Morgan) was injured in Spring practice. Many thought tight end would be a glaring weakness. It has instead been a huge, huge strength. Engram can't be used as a typical tight end, since he's undersized for the position. He's a fantastic flex tight end though, continually making plays over the middle and blocking nickel corners and linebackers remarkably well.
3. So far this season, Ole Miss has seemed to be fairly run oriented, calling run plays 55% of the time (which is more often than Bama, at this point). Do you anticipate Ole Miss will stick with the run this game, or will they be tempted to air it out a bit more and test Bama's secondary?
It's very much matchup-based. Against Vanderbilt, the run game worked alright, but the short passing game was very effective. Against Southeast Missouri State, there was very little passing after the halfway mark of the second quarter (at which point Ole Miss led 28-0). Against Texas, why pass? They couldn't stop the read-option all day, allowing Jeff Scott to rush for over eight yards per carry.
It will all depend on what the Alabama defense shows. If I had to guess, I would think that Ole Miss will leaan a little more on quick screens and short passes and a little less on the read-option. Saban's 3-4 generally makes it a little tougher to run the ball to the outside, something that is the bread and butter of Ole Miss' run game. It will be interesting to see how the Rebels respond after the first inevitable TFL. Jeff Scott has been remarkable about not losing yardage on runs, but it may be tough against Bama.
4. Has there been any word on linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche? Do you expect he'll play, and will he be near 100%?
I talked about this a little earlier, but I'll say more here. He is expected to travel and play. His knee has apparently shown little to no swelling this week, and he's just a phenomenal leader. The team looks to him for guidance, and Nkemdiche has a knack for making big plays and generating turnover opportunities. He led the team last season in tackles, fumbles forced, interceptions, and tackles for loss.
While Nkemdiche has been out, the Rebels have played their other undersized linebacker, Serderius "Bird" Bryant. In the two games without Nkemdiche, Bryant has led the team in tackles each game and really carved out a good niche for himself upon Nkemdiche's return. Bryant is quick and gets behind hte line of scrimmage very quickly.
5. How do you feel about the three score betting line? Do you think Ole Miss isn't getting the respect they deserve? What is your prediction for how the game will ultimately play out?
It's just so hard to say. Does the Alabama offense from the Va-Tech game show up along with the defense they showed against A&M? If so, Ole Miss could definitely win. Does the opposite occur? Then Ole Miss gets blown out. I've predicted a 14 point Alabama win, and I'll stick with that. The only outcome that could really surprise me would be a blowout win by Ole Miss. Close wins by either team or a blowout win by Bama are all coceiveable.
I'd guess that Bo Wallace will throw his first, an maybe second, interception of the season. He's a good quarterback, but Alabama just has some incredible discipline and strategy on defense. They'l likely run adequately, but I'm a little afraid of the Alabama linebackers. Ole Miss will probably bottle up the Bama rushing attack (other than a couple of big runs by Yeldon) and struggle to stop the Bama passing game.