Four years ago today, then-Florida quarterback Tim Tebow made a post-game speech after an upset loss to Ole Miss that set the stage for a national championship and was later immortalized on a plaque outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. On Wednesday, University of Alabama coach Nick Saban said that speech should serve notice to his players as well. Florida was ranked No. 1 in the nation and was playing Ole Miss at home then, just as UA is top-ranked and hosting the Rebels Saturday. The similarities, Saban hopes, will end there. "Guess what? Guess who? Guess when? Somebody beat them," Saban said, referring to Ole Miss' stunning upset. "At home, in their place and then there was the famous speech. 'It's never going to happen again.' Well, do you have to have an 'I told you so' game and does somebody have to give that speech for you to do what you need to do, to realize what's at stake?"
Saban said he is trying to make his team realize the potential threat of every team before Alabama plays them, rather than after. "Well, do you have to have an ‘I told you so’ game and does somebody have to give that speech for you to do what you need to do to realize what’s at stake?" he said. "To realize the opportunity you have to have a very successful, significant season if you can play one game at a time and respect the people you play, and play to your very best each and every time that you play?" Saban’s message seems to have stuck with his players. Senior tight end Michael Williams said he’d rather not be in the same boat as the 2008 Florida Gators. "We don’t want something bad to happen for something to wake us up," Williams said. "So we’re very aware of that speech and how everything happened there, and we’re going to come out and play for 60 minutes."
Nobody quite seems to know what to make of this 6-foot-4, 204-pound enigma. Is he a passer who can run or a runner who can throw? Is he a touchdown or a turnover waiting to happen? Is he ready for the SEC? Is the SEC ready for him? Ready or not, the Rebels (3-1) will meet top-ranked Alabama (4-0) at 8:15 p.m. CDT Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. "Anytime you go against a defense like that and you perform well, people are going to start looking at you," Wallace said Monday of his opportunity to shine in a big, loud stadium on national television (ESPN). Readiness was an issue last week before the Rebels routed Tulane 39-0. "He didn’t play his best," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. "I didn’t think he prepared well all week. I’ve shared that with him. Hopefully he’ll learn from that and prepare better." Freeze said he could tell in Friday and Saturday walkthroughs that Wallace was lackadaisical. "We’re very open with each other in our dialogue," Freeze said. "He called me that night and told me that. I said, ‘Forget about it. It’s over. Let’s move on but learn from it.’"
Though Wallace, who has also run for 179 yards and two scores, is now expected to play Saturday, Freeze has provided Wallace’s backup, Barry Brunetti, with a significant amount of first-team repetitions. Brunetti has appeared in all four games this season, completing 15-of-21 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown. He's also carried the ball 27 times for 153 yards. "Barry has had some good moments in games, and we have confidence that he can move our offense," Freeze said on today's SEC teleconference. "He’s a little inconsistent in practice, particularly in the passing game, but we’re getting him prepared."
As Freeze has said at least twice this week, the undefeated and defending national champion Crimson Tide is "the gold standard in football right now," and that is focused on a defense that was No. 1 last season and back among the nation’s best this season. "The thing you don’t see is they just don’t get out of position," Freeze said. "It is very, very rare. They’re just not giving up big plays. They’re always in position and very fundamentally sound. When you add to that how talented they are, it is very difficult to say they have a weakness. Our challenge will be just to stay on schedule and not put ourselves behind the chains very much. That’s the truth every game, but against them it’s even more important."
When he took over at Ole Miss this season, Hugh Freeze inherited a lethargic offense, one that would have ranked last in the country among BCS conference teams in 2011 if not for Kentucky. So, it seemed a bit strange to hear Alabama coach Nick Saban talking about his respect for that offense Wednesday ahead of Saturday's meeting in Tuscaloosa. It's a matchup that produced a 52-7 Alabama win last year. "Their hurry-up offense is something that gets defensive players out of their comfort zone," Saban said. "We're trying hard to get a picture of that and work on that. It's difficult to get a picture in practice you'd like to get, but they have some pretty good players doing some of this stuff."
How is injured quarterback Bo Wallace doing, and what about backup Barry Brunetti? "I should know more today. We held him out yesterday, even though he told us that he thought he could go. So we’ll see how the ball is coming out of his hand today, but I feel optimistic about it. ... Barry has had some good moments in games, and we have confidence that he can move our offense. He’s a little inconsistent in practice, particularly in the passing game, but we’re getting him prepared."
In all seriousness, No. 1 Alabama (4-0) has some weaknesses. Despite utterly dominating everyone in its path, the defending champs insist there are issues that have to be cleaned up. They might not be so easily visible to outside viewers, but they’re there. Senior center Barrett Jones admits they aren’t "glaring" issues, but there are little things involving execution that they aren’t doing well. Jones hasn’t been happy with Alabama’s slow starts to games and wants third-down execution to improve. Alabama is currently tied for sixth in the SEC with a third-down conversation percentage of 44.4. "It’s a tough league, and any day you show up average is the day you’re going to be beat," Jones said.
Mississippi's defense is undersized, inexperienced and doesn't have much depth. The No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide has a punishing, effective offense that has steamrolled every team it has faced this season. The mismatch that presents is obvious. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said his team's job is to ignore it. "We are who we are," Freeze said. "We have to get our kids to play above and beyond what we've played before to be competitive in this game. They'll be excited about it. It can be a David versus Goliath deal. Why not go and have fun with it? "We have nothing to lose."
Down on the field, Alabama coach Nick Saban, who won his first BCS national title coaching the team he was about to put out of its misery, was moments away from winning his second national championship for the Crimson Tide in his last three years. Saban had not taken off his headset. He had not given anybody a congratulatory handshake, or patted his players on the back for a job well done. "I look out there on the field," said Alabama senior center Barrett Jones, a former Evangelical Christian School standout who was on the sideline enjoying a job well done, "and Coach Saban is yelling at one of our defensive backs for messing up the coverage. "I thought, 'That's why we're great. It's not about the score. It's about doing it the right way.' That passes down to us, and it's changed the way we all think. It affects every area of your life."
Michigan put up 14 points in a 41-14 neutral-site loss. Western Kentucky and Arkansas did not score. Defensively, can the Rebels post better numbers than they did against Texas and give themselves a chance? It’s these things that will affect the Ole Miss mental state as its moves into a stretch of home games against Texas A&M and Auburn, more realistic targets for the Rebels to end an SEC losing streak that stands at 14 games. And these things that will give us a better read on where restoration stands.
During his three years at Ole Miss, cornerback Charles Sawyer has seen one stud Alabama player after another go through the program. There was Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, and Trent Richardson. Now it’s Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and A.J. McCarron. But the Crimson Tide (4-0), the defending national champions and the No. 1 team in both polls this week, never really change. In an era when everything is about misdirection, tempo and formations that seek to find the tiniest sliver of space and exploit it all night long, Alabama still lines up and seeks to pound you into submission. That’s concerning in its own right, but the familiarity is at least somewhat comforting as Ole Miss (3-1) prepares to play at Alabama on Saturday (8:15 p.m., ESPN). "No tricks, or anything like that," said Sawyer, a junior. "If it’s a run, it’s a run. If it’s a pass, it’s a pass. You just got to stop them."
If you’re thinking, "This is Ole Miss, so it can’t be that fast or that good," Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban would like a word with you. He promises he isn’t giving in to "coach-speak" when he says the Rebels’ offensive pace could cause a problem Saturday for Alabama. "More and more people are running the no-huddle, so the players are more accustomed to it than they were a few years ago," Saban said. "But they have good people and speed, especially at quarterback and wide receiver, and this is a difficult preparation not only from the no-huddle part, but also from their ability to execute with some pretty good players."
Hugh Freeze's first season in Oxford has gotten off rather well. The Rebels opened the campaign with a 49-27 win over Central Arkansas, followed by a 28-10 victory over UTEP. Ole Miss closed out a three-game homestand against nationally-ranked Texas, but in front of the largest non-conference crowd in school history, the Rebels were no match for the Longhorns, suffering a 66-31 loss. The team hit the road for the first time last weekend and gained back a little momentum with a 39-0 shutout of Tulane in New Orleans. At 3-1, the Rebels have already eclipsed last season's win total. This marks the 60th all-time meeting between these two programs, with Alabama holding a sizable 48-9-2 series advantage. Ole Miss have not posted a win in this series since 2003.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, who coached in the NFL as an assistant under Bill Belichick in Cleveland and as a head coach in Miami, said whatever the system is, it should be equitable across the board. "I don't really have an opinion about injury reports. I just think if you're going to give injury reports, everybody should give them the same way," Saban said. "We kind of tell it like it is, if a guy's going to be out. But a lot of times in college, guys are day-to-day. ... Sometimes things come up that you can't be specific about. "I think anything that you do, there are still going to be circumstances and situations that aren't going to be something that can be clearly defined. Even in the NFL, I think people manipulate the system to put questions in people's minds about whether a guy's going to play or not."
Freshman Darren Lake has worked with the second-team defensive line during the open portions of practice this week, but Saban said there are other options as well. "If he handles the increased responsibility, he'll play. If he doesn't handle it, we'll play somebody else," Saban said. "We've played other players at nose before, and we're going to have to play a lot of players in this game and certainly keep the defensive line fresh, so there are going to be a lot of guys that get a lot of opportunities to play."
A number of freshmen have played at linebacker for Alabama in the first four weeks. From what Saban's seen, they're improving. "[Denzel Devall] is playing a position that he's starting to develop confidence in what he's supposed to do," Saban said. "He's done a really good job for us and been productive, and we think he's going to be a really good player. We have confidence in being able to play him. "Reggie Ragland was making really good progress and he was on a couple of special teams and got a high ankle sprain in the Michigan game, so he's just sort of getting back into it. We have high hopes for him. "Tyler Hayes has gotten some playing time on special teams. All those guys have developed nicely for us and we're happy that they're making a contribution."
Nick Saban, currently the head coach at Alabama, was the defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick when the two were with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s. While speaking to high school coaches at a recent clinic, Saban summed up the early problems of traditional spot-dropping zone coverage: "Well, when Marino's throwing it, that old break on the ball shit don't work." The answer that Saban, Belichick, and many others developed was "pattern-match" coverage — essentially man coverage that uses zone principles to identify the matchups. As Saban explained at the 2010 Coach of the Year Clinics Football Manual clinic: You can play coverages in three ways. You can play zone, man, or pattern-match man. Pattern-match man is a coverage that plays the pattern after the pattern distribution. That means you pick up in man coverage after the receivers make their initial breaks and cuts. We number receivers from the outside going inside. If the number-one receiver crosses with the number-two receiver, we do not pick up the man coverage until they define where they are going. In other words, the zone blitz had come full circle. What began as a way to blitz without playing man coverage had started incorporating man coverage all over again, this time in an entirely new way.
Saban was asked if he sets an example for his team about finishing. "Look, we coach all of our players all the time," Saban said. "It’s not just about the game. It’s about developing the players. I don’t care if it’s their conduct and attitude in terms of how they go about what they’re trying to do, but we’re trying to help our players get better and use the experience that they get out there so that they can improve. We’re coaching them, and it’s important to me that they develop. Someday, these guys are going to have to play." Some coaches who have big leads take their headsets off late in games and enjoy the clock running out. Not Saban. "I’ve never done that," he said. "I enjoy doing it. I think it’s the way it should be done. I’m not trying to set an example."
The most legendary quarterback to ever put on an Ole Miss uniform has gotten a close look at a University of Alabama quarterback whose legacy has only begun to form. And Archie Manning likes what he's seen of AJ McCarron. McCarron has been to the Manning Passing Academy for the last two summers, a Thibodeaux, La., camp that draws many of the nation's top college quarterbacks each year. Manning, whose NFL quarterback sons Peyton and Eli are heavily involved with the camp as well, said he's noticed significant improvement in the Crimson Tide's junior signal-caller. "I don't think there is any question AJ came back a more confident quarterback this year," Manning said. "From year one to year two at the camp, you could see he was more sure of himself. And of course he throws the ball extremely well."