In their first season under coach Hugh Freeze, the Rebels (3-1) already have won one more game than last season. They opened with victories over Central Arkansas (49-27) and Texas-El Paso (28-10), then lost to Texas 66-31. They rebounded Saturday in their first road game, rolling to a 39-0 victory over a Tulane team that was playing without its starting quarterback. "We are getting better," Ole Miss cornerback Charles Sawyer said Saturday. "Every day is a test for us, and we just need to work together to get better every single day." The easy victory over Tulane was just the boost the Rebels needed going into their Southeastern Conference opener, defensive end C.J. Johnson said, acknowledging a 14-game league losing streak. "Anytime you get a win, you gain some confidence, especially with the state that we've been in the past two years," he said. "It's great to get a win, but we just have to put our hard hats on and get prepared for Alabama next week."
The postgame focus was more on fine tuning than celebrating a win that wasn’t really in doubt even before kickoff. "That’s the mind-set for coach Saban," right tackle D.J. Fluker said. "He always says we can do better. There’s room for improvement. That’s the mind-set you have to have going into each week and every Saturday. You’ve got to have that ‘I will not be denied’ attitude. When you have that type of attitude, you have to go out and do it."
If you look at the Sagarin computer rankings put together for USA Today, Alabama is ranked No. 1, but the Tide’s strength of schedule is No. 78. Michigan is the highest rated opponent so far at No. 37, which is five spots behind Mississippi State. This will change, however. According to the Sagarin ratings, Alabama will play seven of the nation’s top 50 teams in the remaining eight regular-season contests: LSU (3), Texas A&M (11), Missouri (24), Mississippi State (32), Auburn (44), Tennessee (46) and Ole Miss (50). And if the Tide makes the SEC Championship Game, the opponent could be South Carolina (5), Florida (6) or Georgia (10). "We have got a lot of good conference games coming up, so we need to still focus on improving and doing things that we need to do to make our team better," Alabama coach Nick Saban said after his Tide beat Florida Atlantic 40-7 on Saturday.
The schedule, from this point on, becomes significantly harder. No more games against FCS opponents or the bottom-feeders of Conference USA. It's big boy SEC time, with No. 1 Alabama playing host to Ole Miss next Saturday in the conference opener for the Rebels. Ole Miss has navigated this first month fairly well. The team is 3-1 ,which is what many thought they would be. There was the devastating 66-31 loss to Texas, but also encouraging and decisive wins against the other three opponents. This team is in almost every way better than it was a year ago, and already has more wins to show for it. But there's still so much progress to be made, and probably some losses to come.
If there is anyone out there who believes there is a direct correlation between Ole Miss' 39-0 victory against Tulane on Saturday and what to expect this week at No. 1 Alabama, it is not Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack. "I think we got a long ways to go," Wommack said. "I really do. False pretenses of who we played. I don't mean that to insult anybody but we all know there is a difference in playing Alabama and Tulane. There's a huge difference."
The opportunities weren’t exactly as abundant as they were in Alabama’s three previous games this season, when it forced a total of 12. The Owls rarely threw the ball downfield, ran just 45 plays and picked up just one first down before their final possession of the game. "They didn't really throw the ball or take a lot of shots at us," cornerback Dee Milliner said. "We thought they would, but they didn't. Great that they didn't. That's better for our linebackers and our D-line for them to get more plays."
Life on the road in the SEC isn't easy, no matter how secure people are about Alabama's dominance. Yes, the Crimson Tide is a near-unanimous No. 1 in the country, with only one holdout. Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News, best known for butting heads recently with USC head coach Lane Kiffin, was the lone holdout. Yes, Alabama has one SEC road game under its belt but that was at Arkansas, a program exploding from its own internal pressure. A quick glance at Missouri, or Tennessee, or even Texas A&M, probably doesn't inspire fear at the moment. Either one might elicit a shrug, or a 30-second review consisting of "they're terrible" and not much else. But how many people were saying the exact same things about Auburn last week, particularly among the Alabama fan base, which grows smug as quickly as Kenyan Drake hits a hole at the line of scrimmage? My theory on how that Auburn-LSU game would go was not much different.
Coming off his 145 yards of total offense and two touchdowns in Cincinnati, Richardson huddled the team after warmups on Wednesday and preached the winning mentality. At Alabama, he starred for a program that went 36-4 in his three seasons and won two national championships. "It takes a lot of courage and guts to stand in front of the team and address it and to back it up," said Jackson. "Once you put yourself out there on that platform, much is expected of you. Coming from a young guy, it meant a lot to myself and the rest of the team, I'm sure."