Hope For the Best: Ole Miss edition

Can Ole Miss use a balanced passing attack and perimeter running to slay Saban's giant? - Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

The barbarians are at the gates...will Ole Miss be the team to sack Tuscaloosa and change the pecking order?

"Time is a violent torrent; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place." Marcus Aurelius

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown...and fans of the Crimson Tide know this truism first hand. The team is undefeated, the defending two-time champion of college football, holder of the throne for three of the last four years. So why the wailing and gnashing of crimson teeth amongst the Bama faithful as the team stands ranked #1 at 3-0?

Because we are students of the game, students of history. We know all that flows must one day ebb, leaving behind it not the golden glory of yesteryear, but rather the brown, tea-colored strata of previous high-water marks. Empires come, and empires go. Dynasties rise from amidst chaos, carving order from the granite monolith of struggle and strife. Currently, the Crimson Tide wears that crown, sitting atop the college football world, the once and future king.

Some worry, because we all remember with far too much clarity the days of wandering, the Dark Ages during the reign of The Mikes when we as fans of the program yearned for a return to the greatness of the Bryant era, when the barbarian hordes feared a confrontation with the crimson-clad centurions representing the University of Alabama.

The Crimson Tide is proof positive that just because the waters recede does not mean that they will not one day rise again, a dynamic of nature that is mimicked in the human annals of endeavor. That which is built will be destroyed, then built anew and razed yet again. Over and over this cycle repeats itself, and in this game of football, this dynamic does indeed hold sway.

What Alabama has accomplished in the last five years is nothing short of amazing, a historic run that will blaze brightly in sports history, placing these young men alongside legendary dynasties of the past. There is no question about that. However, mystery lurks, as while we know this current run will at some point reach its terminus, we know not when, nor how. Will our beloved program flame out in supernova, exploding in a flash in a single moment that can be precisely recorded for future generations? Or will Bama, like Rome, whither over time, its greatness eroded with the passing of players and years. Apathy creeps like a plague throughout any body of mankind, and in the world of college football, it is a quick-killing pestilence. Yesterday's champion becomes tomorrow's worm food all too quickly when competition is fierce. The wise leader must be vigilant to ward off such lapses, but alas, that same wise leader knows that one day the river will overswell its banks and lay waste to the kingdom he or she worked so hard to create.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown indeed, for if we know anything for certain, it's that the crown-bearing head will one day roll. This is the uncomfortable perch upon which the Alabama Crimson Tide now finds itself. Hungry successors line up for their shot at the throne, one is defeated as the next rolls forward. Preservation of dominance is a sacrifice unto itself, as the pressure to execute is chronic and unyielding. The moment one lowers his guard, the foes swarm him like famished locusts determined to devour the body of the fallen. Young men age 18-23 were not intended to bear such worry, but such is the life of the champion.

One question we must ask ourselves is this: are the pessimists right? Has the Crimson Tide reached the high water mark? Are we witnessing the initial ebb of the Tide as it recedes into the gulf of memory? Without context, we cannot answer that question. But we do know that with each week, there is yet another opportunity for the giant to be slain, the king to be deposed and replaced by an upstart fueled by hunger and rage at years of oppression.

Three games into the season, there are chinks in the crimson breastplate, to be sure. Accustomed to a smothering defense and bludgeoning running game, followers of the Tide have been shocked at the disparity between this year's performance and the exploits of previous years. Three games in, and with two games against opponents lacking the ability to match Alabama's talent, the Tide has, to some, appeared complacent, undisciplined, lacking. Obvious changes to personnel, particularly along the offensive line and defensive back field, have been partially to blame for this potential decline. But there is something different in this team, as Saban himself has proclaimed that the Tide has yet to establish an "identity for itself."

While it's too soon to sound the death knell for the Crimson Legion at this point, anyone with eyes to see can't help but notice that the barbarian hordes are at the gates, waiting for retribution and an upsetting of the current arrangement. Who will be the next to unseat the ruling order? Could it be, of all adversaries, Ole Miss? Is a changing of the guard unavoidable this season, be it at the hands of the Rebels or the Bayou Bengals? That remains left to be seen. But one thing is certain: to use the Latin, "Vae victis," or "Woe to the vanquished..." Those former champions who have fallen, with the exception of LSU, have fallen hard.

If Alabama represents the Roman Empire, then surely the Ole Miss Rebel Black Bears could assume the mantle of the Goths, ragged contenders for the same fount of glory, the same resources, the same territory of division and conference titles. They've been the oppressed, the vanquished, for many years now, a marginalized bottom-dweller who, unbelievably to many fans of the current generation, was at one time THE power in what is now the SEC West under former field marshal Johnny Vaught. In a role reversal, it was Vaught and his Rebels who were deposed and pressed into the pages of SEC history by Coach Paul Bryant and his Alabama teams of generations past.  Will this dynamic replay itself once again, only this time in reverse? Can Coach Hugh Freeze and his Rebels sling the rock that fells Saban's Goliath? Again, only time will tell.  Let us look at this game in more detail, as we most assuredly can agree, the barbarians are restless, and they are now, indeed, at the gates...

  • Can Alabama establish its "identity" in this game? In his time at Alabama, Nick Saban has oft-uttered the concept that each year's team must develop an identity of its own. Three games into the season, the 2013 squad has yet to do that. Whether through youth, inexperience or some other unseen hand working behind the scenes, this year's team does not yet have the calling card of previous champions. In 2009, the Tide was relentless and refused to quit despite the odds stacked against them. In 2011, there was that punishing defense, one of the greatest in college football history. In 2012, it was the unstoppable running game and emergence of AJ McCarron that defined that squad. What will be the weapon of choice for this year's team? That is not yet defined. But if nothing else is certain, one must know that a ship without a compass is destined to find itself marooned. This team must, in its fourth game of the year, decide what it wants to become. Can this defense flex against a high-octane spread offense of the HUNH variety? Such a scheme has oft-been been the asp that lands the bite on Saban's potent defense, the HUNH in particular representing to Saban the shears that shorn Sampson's locks. That weakness remains, as Texas A&M demonstrated in College Station this year when they posted historically high numbers against the Bama secondary, Saban's ultimate source of football pride. Will this week's match-up see a repeat of that? Can the offense develop a power running game despite the drop-off in experience along the front? Bama struggled to run the ball against a middling Mountain West team in Colorado State. Where the aTm game marked an improvement in that arena, the game against the Rams was a definite and obvious unexplained regression. Those two questions must be answered before Bama fans can entertain a modicum of comfort throughout the season.
  • Bama will be facing a tough test on its home field for the first time this year. In the past, the stage of Bryant Denny Stadium has not been kind to the Tide in closely contested matches against worthy adversaries. LSU 2011 and aTm 2012 come to mind as recent examples, but throughout our recent history, the team has struggled more at home than on the road. ODL cites an increased focus and management of detail on road trips, as well as the absence of the additional distractions presented to players when playing at home. I'd feel much better about Saturday's game if it was in Oxford. If distractions are indeed one of the devils in this year's details for the Crimson Tide, then the thought of managing the increased focus-assaulting load of a home game makes me nervous. This team is young, and mental clutter tends to have the greatest impact on the least seasoned members of the squad. The Crimson Tide simply can't afford to have young contributors get caught up in Rebel QB Bo Wallace's pre-game smack-talking, or the gravity of the moment, or the intensity of, for the first time, playing a "live" opponent at BDS. If these distractions affect any members of the team, it will undoubtedly be the youngest among them, a factor which the team can ill-afford with so many newcomers in the line-up. There's an old football adage that a team can count on a loss for each freshman that it starts...
  • Can the Ole Miss defense take advantage of Bama's weakened offensive line and prevent the type of shootout that occurred in College Station two weeks ago? Bama can win games in a multitude of ways, as demonstrated this season. Against VT, defense and special teams dominated the game. Against aTm, it was the offense that got the job done on behalf of the team. Last week against CSU, special teams were once again the strength of the effort, alongside the play of McCarron. If Ole Miss finds a weakness in the Bama secondary, and there are weaknesses to be exploited, can they run the score up on the Crimson Tide while manhandling the Bama offensive line when their defense is on the field? The game will turn on this dynamic. Whereas against JFF and the Aggi, Bama had the decided advantage against the A&M defense, such may not be the case this week. In the aTm game, the team was not so much concerned with keeping JFF in check, but rather with keeping up with him on the scoreboard. Ole Miss doesn't have much to offer in the secondary, truth be told. They have been horrific against the pass, and even Case McCoy was able to slice and dice the Rebels secondary in the first half of the Texas loss two weeks ago. However, don't be lulled into false security, as the Ole Miss front has played well against the run, and the linemen and linebackers are SEC caliber. If the Rebels can sustain a pass rush, and if they can stuff the anemic Bama rushing attack, then the passing game of the Tide will most certainly fall into decline. So much of the Tide's offense is predicated on the running game and its effect on play-action, so what has so far been a weakness for the Tide must quickly develop into a strength.
  • A key match-up in this game will feature Bama's DBs against the Rebel wide receiver corps. Bo Wallace is awfully fond of his receivers, as he boldly stated this week, but there may be more to his claims than pure bravado. Freshman Laqon Treadwell has been impressive in his first few performances, and Donte Montcrief will be playing on Sundays. Vincent Sanders and Ja-Mes Logan are better-than-steady veterans as well. Whether perceived or real, there is a perception that the Tide's secondary is simply not up to the high standard set in previous championship seasons. Deion Belue is a solid veteran player, but he's no Dee Milliner at this point in his career. The talent is certainly there for Alabama, but as has been proven many times over, it takes even the most advanced five star DB recruit at least one year of study under Saban before being unleashed. The system and responsibilities at corner and safety are so complex that it would take a superhuman athlete to internalize the plan and execute it to Saban's standard of perfection. Alabama will see Belue return to the field this week, but his ability to contribute may be limited. Behind him, there are simply few seasoned defensive backs outside of John Fulton, as safety Nick Perry was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. The thing that makes the Ole Miss WR corps that much more dangerous is the fact that they have a legitimate running attack with RB Jeff Scott, a factor for which Tide defenders must account. If Ole Miss can run the ball effectively and spread the field, they will be able to score. While Wallace is decidedly not Johnny Manziel by any stretch, he can run well enough to give Bama defenders pause, and that will undoubtedly open up the passing game. RB Jeff Scott is a grinder and enough of a break-away threat that he will take some of the pressure off of the Ole Miss passing game as well, loosening coverages and allowing Wallace to pick his poison. In last year's struggle, Wallace threw two interceptions that were pivotal in a closer-than-expected game. If he can keep the mental errors to a minimum and run effectively enough to make the Tide defense pinch the line, then Alabama's unarmored jugular, the secondary, could be exposed to the Rebels.
  • Will leadership rule the day, or will the mental lapses and lack of focus continue amongst the Crimson Tide? As fans of the program, we can only hypothesize about the reasons for the apparent malaise and lack of intensity. Is it an inexperience issue, a leadership issue, or a distraction issue? Theories abound, but rest assured, regardless of the catalyst for the current situation, it cannot persist if Alabama plans to write its name in crimson ink in the annals of college football history. Following a lack-luster performance against lowly Colorado State, news leaked of several leaders who spoke up to motivate the team to work harder, perfect the imperfections and mold this year's squad into a legion of Our Dark Lord's bidding. McCarron, Mosely and Sunseri all spoke freely to the team after the CSU game about discipline, hard work, the pain of disappointment. But will those words resonate? After all, it's not like the team has not been confronted with those talking points ad nauseum by ODL. Will it mean more coming from their peers? At the end of the day, while the players as individuals are accountable to the coaching staff, they are also accountable to one another. No one wants to be the guy who lets the team down, and a peer pep rally may instill in the younger members of this team the urgency to not stand still, to practice and play with urgency and relentlessness. Words are but ether, and once uttered, evaporate into invisibility, nothingness. Their only lasting edifice is the emotion they emblazon within the hearts of the audience, for it is that emotion, whether rage, fear, anger or disappointment, that motivates men to transcend their limitations and strive for perfection, knowing full well that they will fail and settle for excellence instead.

Though Bama is still on top, three games into the young season, the Gumps are restless, fearful of our potential fall, whether this weekend, next year or in the next decade. Have we succumbed to the human whim of memory? Historian Edward Gibbons wrote, "There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times." Is this the dynamic at play here? Are we as bad as we think? Or do we view other past championship teams through the holistic lens of what was accomplished across the season, rather than in the minutia of each game-by-game? We have struggled in each of our championship seasons, and examples of games in which the team looked unexpectedly beatable abound. Is this team really that different, or are we simply looking at their efforts through the short term, rather than the long view, of what will be accomplished this year? Such questions will be answered in time, but as for now, whether due to on-the-field performance or some slant of perception, many brows will remain furrowed across the Crimson Tide fan base. At least until Saturday evening.

Like another band of plucky, Empire-shattering Rebels of modern lore, Ole Miss will need a combination of luck, fortuitous timing and superb execution to avoid what has become their traditional fate at the hands of Alabama. They will stride boldly into the Death Star known as Bryant Denny, not knowing what the future will ultimately hold but assured that they at least have a chance of accomplishing the unthinkable and knocking off the all-powerful Crimson Tide. Their chances are better than they've been in some time, as are our chances of falling to a team that is hungry for what we now hold dear.

Whether or not they get that chance will remain a mystery for the time being. Mystery also surrounds the enigma of Alabama football thus far this season, and only the cauldron of battle will reveal what there is to know about this year's squad and their chances at becoming legendary. Pessimism, and optimism on the reverse side of the proverbial coin, abounds.

Is the Crimson Tide truly ready to become legendary? We will soon know.

Prepare for the worst ...but as always, hope for the best.

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