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Week Six Preview: #3 Alabama at #16 Ole Miss

The Alabama v. Ole Miss series isn't one filled with hatred quite like the Auburn or Tennessee series, nor is it generally a series that has a high degree of relevance on the national level. Nevertheless, over the course of the past four years, no series anywhere in the country has produced as many gut-wrenching, nail-biting contests as what we've seen when the Tide took on Johnny Reb.

The past four games in this series have been decided by a grand total of thirteen points, and that statistic alone does not even begin to adequately describe how close things have been. The 2005 game ended on a time-expiring kick, while the 2006 game ended in overtime. The 2007 game was decided on a controversial penalty with seven seconds remaining, and last year's game also went into the final minute. And most shockingly of all, somehow, someway, all of those contests have fallen in our favor. How we've had the good fortune from the Football Gods to pull all of those games out, I'll never know.

After Ole Miss rallied late last year, this game has been marked for months as one of the games of the year. Of course, though, Johnny Reb effectively wet the bed in its only real test thus far in the 2009 season, and that has knocked a lot of the luster off this game. Ole Miss was clearly overrated as a top five team, and had no real business being ranked that high. That said, however, the Rebels are still a quality team and a very dangerous opponent. This game is likely to be yet another close one that goes down to the wire, so let's take a closer look at the match-ups:

Alabama Offense v. Ole Miss Defense

Even with a slow start in the passing game and some questionable early play-calling against a good Kentucky defense, Alabama nevertheless managed to rack up 38 points and 352 total yards in Lexington. The Alabama offensive juggernaut has seemed to slow with each and every game the past three weekends -- largely because the quality of the defense faced has increased each week -- and things won't get any easier this week when we go to Oxford.

The strength of the Ole Miss defense is clearly at the point of attack. The defensive end rotation of Greg Hardy, Kentrell Lockett, and Marcus Tillman is easily the best we'll see all year long, and while Hardy has not been able to get completely healthy -- and thus he's really no longer an every down player -- he's still a dangerous weapon when he is in the game. The ends are also solid on running downs, and mixed with the size of the interior players, it forms a very difficult run defense up front when these guys show up to play. Interior tackles Ted Laurent and Lawson Scott are both over 300 pounds, and the monster 340 pound Jerrell Powe is quickly starting to show why he was a five-star prospect coming out of high school. You can make all the reading jokes you want, but literacy isn't really a core competency for playing nose tackle, and Powe can at times dominate interior offensive linemen like he's a man among boys.

At linebacker Ole Miss has had more than their fair share of struggles since Patrick Willis went to the NFL, but they've got a solid group there now. The unit is led by Patrick Trahan, the senior linebacker that Houston Nutt signed out of the JUCO ranks in his first class in Oxford. Trahan started his collegiate career as a safety -- he was a former track athlete in high school -- but he kept getting bigger and bigger so he was moved to linebacker. The end result now is a 6'3, 225+ pound 'backer with great athleticism, and he's tough on opposing offenses. He's big enough to play the run, but also versatile enough to play the pass and rush the passer. He's a legitimate three-phase linebacker. Jonathon Cornell and Allen Walker start alongside Trahan, and while they aren't quite the caliber of Trahan, both are upperclassmen who are more than adequate.

The real surprise of the Ole Miss defense to date, however, has been the defensive backfield. Ole Miss was almost universally expected to struggle in the secondary this year, but surprisingly enough they have allowed very little success through the air. That said, however, we really don't know anything about this group because they have yet to face a decent passing attack, so it could be all a paper tiger for all we know, and if nothing else the Alabama passing game will be easily the best this unit has faced all year. What we can safely say is that so far this year Cassius Vaughn and Marshay Green have been solid at cornerback, Johnny Brown and Kendrick Lewis have been more active than usual at safety, and the back-ups have generally been pretty adequate. But, again, we really have no clue as to whether or not this Ole Miss defensive backfield is a contender or a pretender.

Looking at how we match up against Ole Miss, you really have to worry about our running game. We ran the ball well against Kentucky on the meaningful attempts -- i.e. factoring out the garbage time, clock-killing carries late -- but Arkansas still shut us down, and frankly this is easily the best defensive line we've seen all year. Ole Miss shut down our running game last year better than any other team on the schedule -- we had 31 carries for only 107 yards, averaging a meager 3.1 yards per carry -- and it's going to be very difficult to run on these guys again this year. These guys can flat out whip you in the trenches, and we're going to have to show up ready to play at a very high level if we look to move the football on the ground in Oxford.

Hopefully we will be able to take advantage of Ole Miss in a couple of areas. Their defensive line features a solid, deep rotation, but the linebacker corps is very thin. The starting three are good players, and back-up Lamar Brumfield is a solid, versatile player who can play all three positions. After that, though, all you really have is true freshman D.T. Shackelford -- an Alabama native who the Tide passed over last, so extra motivation there -- and while he has been a bit of a freshman sensation, he is also slowed by a high ankle sprain, and he likely won't play a lot against the Tide. So, it's a thin unit already, and both Trahan and Walker also play extensively on special teams, so hopefully we can wear them down and take advantage of their lack of depth. Likewise, the Ole Miss secondary is also a very small unit -- all starters are 5'11 and under, and three starters are 190 and under -- so hopefully we can really take advantage of the size match-ups with the likes of Julio Jones, Mike McCoy, Earl Alexander, and Michael Bowman.

Now, along those lines, I do like how our passing attack matches up against the Ole Miss secondary, but of course success there is predicated upon us being able to protect Greg McElroy against a very good pass rush. If we can give McElroy time, we should be able to move the football through the air. On the other hand, though, if Ole Miss can legitimately rush the passer, this is not going to be pretty. Either way, this isn't going to be an easy assignment for the Tide's offensive line. Ole Miss is tough off the edge, and Nutt will likely be aggressive in blitz packages, so the offensive line has its work cut out for them.

All in all, this one is a tough match-up for the Tide. Hopefully we can have some success running the football and block Ole Miss off the edge, but that's a lot easier said than done. Ole Miss will be tough to run on, and if they can get to McElroy, we're likely to find ourselves in Oxford with an offense that cannot run or throw effectively. It's going to be one heck of a fight, and we're going to have to play very well to move the football against this defense.

Alabama Defense v. Ole Miss Offense

The good news for Alabama is that this match-up favors the Tide a bit more. The Ole Miss offense is no slouch, to be sure, but it is a unit that has struggled early. Jevan Snead hasn't played anywhere near well enough to justify the preseason hype, the loss of Mike Wallace has hurt more than its gotten credit for, and there has been nothing close to a comparable replacement for Michael Oher.

Really, the struggles of this offense have started up front with the offensive line. The run blocking has been good at times, but has also been terrible at times, too. Smashes at the point of attack that spring good gains have been mixed with whiffs that result in tackles for loss. Pass protection, though, has really been the Achilles Heel of this group. Left tackle Bradley Sowell was beaten to a pulp against South Carolina, and right tackle John Jerry hasn't looked very good either. The interior linemen haven't played much better, either. Houston Nutt and company have rotated in a lot of linemen looking for the right mix, but they haven't found anything yet, and making matters worse this bunch simply looks out of shape. When John Jerry was literally begging to come out of the South Carolina game, all that came to mind for me was Mike Dubose, 2000, and the infamous "Pankcake Posse."

With the struggles up front, the rest of the offense just hasn't been able to compensate. Jevan Snead has been decent at times, but he has generally struggled to complete a high percentage of his passes and he has turned the football over a lot -- only a completion percentage of 51% and five interceptions. With Mike Wallace gone, the Rebels really do not have the big vertical threat in the passing game, and while the likes of Shay Hodge, Markeith Summers, Lionel Breaux, and Patrick Patterson form a solid wide receiver corps, they haven't been able to make up for the loss of Wallace. Likewise, Dexter McCluster is a threat, but he has really been more of a cog than a game-changer thus far in conference play.

The true strength of the Ole Miss offense to date has really been in the backfield with the tailbacks. Brandon Bolden has played as well as any back in the SEC to date, and at 5'11 and 220 pounds he is an absolute load. Back-ups Cordera Eason and Enrique Davis were both highly-touted recruits coming out of high school, and with their raw talent they form one of the most potent backfields in the country. Combined with Dexter McCluster's ability out of the Wildcat, this is a very dangerous group if their offensive line can give them any help up front.

Defensively for the Tide, I'll be brief on the overview because most RBR readers are more than well aware of who we are as a defensive unit, but I will address that the biggest issue we face here is exactly what we will do to replace Dont'a Hightower. Based on the practice reports, it's clear that Cory Reamer will be back at strongside linebacker this week, and we're going to have to be bigger inside to take on an Ole Miss team that will clearly look to be physical at the point of attack and establish the run. Chris Jordan is going to get a lot of playing time this week, and look for both Nico Johnson and Tana Patrick on the field -- even though playing will cost Patrick him a redshirt year.

As a whole, we are going to have a good bit different look defensively this week. Again, Ole Miss is the physical, run-based attack that we've come to expect out of Houston Nutt, and we are simply going to have to play smashmouth football against these guys. Simply put, if our defensive line doesn't show up with more energy and intensity than they did last week in Lexington, it's going to be a long afternoon. This isn't a spread passing attack where we'll constantly be in the nickel; you're going to see a lot of base 3-4 this week with safeties coming into the box to stop the run. The Rebs are far from pass happy.

And with that in mind, Injuries may make an impact on Ole Miss' power running attack. Fullback Andy Hartmann, a senior, is one hell of a lead-blocking load at 5'11 and almost 250 pounds, and he may be the best lead blocker in the conference. However, Hartmann sprained a knee a couple of weeks ago and has missed time. He missed practice on Tuesday, and while he is going to play on Saturday, we don't know how effective he can be and we do not know how much he will be able to play. Likewise, tight end Gerald Harris missed the South Carolina game with a hamstring injury, and while he did return against Vanderbilt, he's probably not 100%. Their back-ups, Dan Hoffman and Ferbia Allen, are a good 20-30 pounds lighter than the first-teamers, so if Hartmann and Harris are at less than 100%, that is going to make it more difficult for Ole Miss to run the football.

Furthermore, we need to use our depth in the defensive front seven to our advantage. Even with injuries to Hightower and Damien Square, plus the suspension of Jerrell Harris, we are still very deep in the front seven, and if the South Carolina game is any accurate indicator, the Ole Miss offensive line isn't in very good physical shape. We need to rotate players all afternoon and wear these guys down. Few things can better insure a 'Bama victory than to have John Jerry once again begging to come out of the game in the second half.

All in all, we're just going to have to line up against Ole Miss and be able to stop the run. That has to be priority #1 going into this game, period. Jevan Snead is overrated, but he can still be a threat, and with Nutt at the helm you have to be adequately prepared for every trick in the book. Nevertheless, those concerns are secondary to stopping the run. Given Snead's turnover issues to date -- which is to say nothing of Ole Miss' struggles in pass protection and the struggles of the receiving corps -- Nutt and company will likely play a bit conservatively here and try to establish the running game. If Ole Miss does that, they can move the football effectively and that will allow them to selectively use Snead and the trickeration to their advantage. On the other hand, though, if we can stop the run, particularly on early downs, we get Ole Miss in a lot of obvious passing situations, which limits the use of the Wildcat and other trick formations, and which also gives our defensive line numerous opportunities to take advantage of their struggles in pass protection and tee off on a quarterback who will be forced to take a lot of seven-step drops while waiting for routes to develop downfield.

Putting It All Together

On the whole, this one looks to be much like the last four contests in this series... a very hard, physical game that goes right down to the wire. Yes Alabama has looked very good to date, and yes Ole Miss wet the bed in their only true test to date. And, yes, Ole Miss was overrated coming into the year, no arguments here. Nevertheless, this is still a pretty good Ole Miss team, and they are a dangerous opponent that is more than capable of pulling off the upset.

Furthermore, the West is still absolutely wide open right now -- three teams are still undefeated, and Ole Miss still controls their own destiny -- and that fact mixed with Nutt's love of playing the underdog role, not to mention the recent acrimony that is surely present in the Ole Miss roster thanks to how this game has turned out the past four years, you can bet your life that Ole Miss will show up to play football on Saturday like men possessed. For all of the talk of Ole Miss wetting the bed, if Johnny Reb can pull off the upset on Saturday, they will quickly vault back into the top 10 and they will once again establish themselves as the front-runners in the SEC West if Florida can beat LSU, as expected. And, of course, rest assured they are well aware of those facts. Make no mistake about it, there is a lot on the line here for Ole Miss, and they will play accordingly. Do not expect Colonel Reb to lay an egg Saturday afternoon.

I do think we are the better team here. We have a tad more top-end talent, and a good bit better quality depth throughout the roster. Nevertheless, again, this is a dangerous Ole Miss team that actually matches up with us pretty well thanks to the strength of their defensive front seven and their ability to rush the passer with a base four-man rush. If you think victory is a near certainty in this game, you really need to drink something other than the crimson Kool-Aid. This should be a close game, and if we play like we did last week in Lexington, we're probably in a lot of trouble. We are a better team here who is justifiably a slight favorite, but nevertheless we are going to have to play really well to go into Oxford and get this victory, and at the very least victory is unlikely to come without one hell of a fight.

Hope for the best.