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Initial Impressions from the Ole Miss Game

A few thoughts from the immediate aftermath of Alabama's 52-7 win over Ole Miss:

Another week and another solid performance for the Crimson Tide. In a game where Houston Nutt was expected to pull out all the stops in a last-ditch attempt to save himself in Oxford, it quickly became clear that Nutt's punchless Rebels did not have the ability to meaningfully fight back against 'Bama. A busted coverage on the opening series and a somewhat sluggish start from the Tide offense kept things close for a short time, but once the third quarter commenced it looked almost like an NFL team playing a high school squad. Ole Miss was handed its worst loss in thirty years and 'Bama cleared out the benches in the second half.

Trent Richardson largely carried the offense in the first three quarters in what may have been his best performance to date. His 76-yard touchdown run may be the single most impressive run by any Alabama tailback in ages, and with 214 yards from scrimmage in just under three quarters of work the Ole Miss defense had no answer for Richardson regardless of how Jim McElwain chose to use him. As I've previously said in this space, Richardson has no real chance of edging out either Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson for the Heisman, but the actual on-field performances have been Heisman-esque and in any event he's clearly the lifeblood of the offense. Enjoy him while he's here because he's on borrowed time in Tuscaloosa.

AJ McCarron has been somewhat unheralded in recent weeks given the strong performances by the tailbacks, but lost in the spotlight has been his strong play and continued development. He still struggles to throw the deep ball, but has improved in nearly every other facet of the game, which was clearly on display last night as he went 19-24 for 224 yards and a touchdown while distributing the football to eight different receivers. He'll face tougher defenses in due time, but for the time being it's obvious that the game is slowing down for McCarron and he is moving in the pocket with more comfort and ease. We are beginning to see the tell tale signs of inexperience slowly fade away.

When Trent Richardson was wisely removed from the game with much football left, 'Bama experienced no major drop-off in his absence. Eddie Lacy played and looked fairly solid, but he's still recovering from the turf toe injury and it should come as no surprise that the coaching staff gave him a light workload last night. Jalston Fowler, however, made that decision an even easier one, and he simply pounded away at the Ole Miss defense. Blake Sims also had a solid showing in mop-up duty. Combined, it's a far cry from the fears that many had late this summer after Dee Hart went down with a knee injury and Lacy suffered a pectoral injury. With the emergence of Lacy mixed with the raw power of Fowler there may be no better tailback grouping in the country.

Praise for the tailbacks notwithstanding, the offensive line had another strong performance and they made several big runs easy for the 'Bama tailbacks by opening gaping holes. Outside of two holding penalties called on 'Bama center William Vlachos, it was nearly a flawless performance from this unit. The running game was both consistent and effective, and pass protection held up well in its own right, as McCarron was sacked just once on 26 passing plays (that "sack" was actually an intentional grounding call on a third and long). The key to victory against LSU will be the offensive line, where the Tide must establish the run and protect McCarron from their speedy rushers, and for Alabama to overcome the Bayou Bengals in three weeks it needs a performance similar to last night.

Another week and another slow start for Alabama, this time courtesy of poor coverage from cornerback DeMarcus Milliner which gave the Rebels a first and goal at the 'Bama two-yard line. That led to an early 7-0 lead for the Rebels, and while the 'Bama offense responded on the following drive to tie the game, the sluggish play continued throughout most of the first half. The defense rebounded, but the offense never really got off track after that and bad special teams did no favors. A slow start won't make any real difference against a team like Ole Miss, but it could be a serious problem later in the year against better competition.

Aside from the early big pass play to Nick Brassell allowed by DeMarcus Milliner, the defense was largely the impenetrable force that most have come to expect. After that touchdown drive to open the game, the 'Bama defense held Ole Miss to 69 yards on 47 plays from scrimmage (1.4 yards per play) and did not allow another point the rest of the way. The pass rush came to life in the form of five sacks and the run defense largely didn't give an inch to the tailbacks, so in the end the Ole Miss offense was really just reduced to a handful of random scrambles by Randall Mackey. It's no secret that Ole Miss is the poster child of offensive ineptitude, but even so the kind of performance Alabama had last night defensively is impressive regardless of the quality of opponent. It's a very big statement, of course, but this unit may be even better than the 2009 defense.

The kicking game has devolved to near the level of an outright disaster. Cody Mandell had a strong punt (44 yards) on his only appearance of the night, but the rest was just plain bad. Short kick-offs plagued the kick return defense, and later in the game 'Bama allowed another big return after having the Ole Miss returner pinned in deep. Those concerns only became worse even later on when Cade Foster went out with a concussion and Jeremy Shelley was forced to assume kick-off duties. Meanwhile, the 53-yard field goal try by Foster just had face palm written all over it. Houston Nutt knew he didn't have the leg to make it, and not surprisingly Foster's kick landed about eight yards short of the uprights, at which point the Ole Miss returner brought it back to the original line of scrimmage. And in the meantime, Foster was blown up by an Rebel blocker on the return and missed the remainder of the game. How much more fail can you have on one play? How a team can be so bad in the kicking game and so good at literally everything else simply boggles the mind.

In the preview on Friday afternoon I wrote that the games against Alabama and LSU would probably be the only real opportunities Houston Nutt would have to definitively secure his return for next season, and if the performance of last night is indicative of what it is to come we may as well wave a final goodbye to Nutt after fourteen match-ups. Getting out-manned is one thing -- that was fully expected -- but getting manhandled to the extent that the Rebels did last night was inexcusable, especially after an off week, and of probably greater concern in Oxford is that this team seemingly lost the will to fight on short notice. Inability is one thing, unwillingness is another, and more than a few Rebels spent the second half last night looking like they wished they were anywhere but Vaught-Hemingway.

In other quick thoughts, Brad Smelley was the key to the 39-yard completion to Michael Williams, as Smelley ran the pick route to perfection to free Williams as he crossed the formation. Chris Jordan made his season debut last night, as expected, which means that he will not be returning next season. Will Lowery had an PBU last night on a hard hit on a late pass over the middle. Christion Jones continues to see some meaningful playing time on offense but hasn't gotten the ball yet; surely we have something designed for him. Nice to see fifth-year senior Brandon Gibson with the touchdown catch last night. Courtney Upshaw missed the opening drives of the game last night likely as punishment for his kicking of the Vanderbilt player last week. The goal line stand late in the game showcased the kind of mentality you want a defense to have, i.e. to act like it's a sin to give up a single point even if it's in garbage time. C.J. Mosley played last night but really did little as he attempts to return from his elbow injury. Nico Johnson had another strong showing.

All in all, 'Bama found exactly what it was looking for in Oxford. This season will not be defined by wins over teams of this caliber -- and admittedly it is somewhat hard to make meaningful evaluations based on a game like this simply because the quality of opponent is so poor -- but it can certainly be derailed by one poor performance against an also-ran. 'Bama made the trip to Oxford hoping to get the win and stay healthy in the process of doing so, and to that end the Tide accomplished both goals with relative ease. A bad, beaten, and battered Tennessee team is on the horizon next weekend in Tuscaloosa, and once again the mission will be the same, as 'Bama hopes to smoke the victory cigars, get to the bye week and prepare for Bayou Bengals.