Like most cornerbacks, Dee Milliner understands the football cliche that he is "alone on an island" in man-to-man coverage. That doesn't mean he wouldn't welcome visitors. Milliner is likely to see more traffic than usual Saturday night when the Ole Miss Rebels come to Bryant-Denny Stadium for an 8:15 contest against the No. 1-ranked University of Alabama. The Rebels rely on a quick offensive tempo but aren't afraid to take shots down the field regardless of which quarterback, Bo Wallace or Barry Brunetti, takes the field. "We know coming in that they are going to throw vertical passes, double moves, all that sort of things," Milliner said after the Crimson Tide's Wednesday practice. "Lately, teams haven't done much of that against us, but hopefully they will take some shots and we will see what happens."
Through just four games, Ole Miss can boast among its SEC compatriots the third most offensive yards per game, the most rushing yards per game, the third most sacks, the highest third down conversion rate, the second most prolific red zone defense, and a multitude of other measurables which serve to demonstrate that the Ole Miss Rebel football team of 2012 is in significantly better shape than its 2011 version. But how does team, even with its statistical improvements, compare to the team which they will be playing this weekend, the consensus number one ranked Alabama Crimson Tide? The brief answer to that is "not all that well, for the most part." The more in depth answer is that, "while this team has come a long way, it still has a long, long way to go, and this weekend should demonstrate that."
Saban revealed the the Tide practices against the hurry-up style routinely, even when it isn’t the style of the next opponent. "The more you practice against that and the more you play against that, the more your players get used to that pace," he said. Saban later said that he believes his team is well-conditioned, but he is "a bit concerned" about the fact that his starters have not played a full game.
Alabama has yet to trail in a game so far this season. Why? Because the top-ranked Crimson Tide has outscored foes 56-0 in the first quarter. Overall, Alabama has scored a touchdown on 41.7 percent of its drives (20-of-48), while allowing a touchdown on 6.4 percent of opponent drives (3-of-47). Alabama is also plus-10 in turnover margin. So far this season, the Tide players have been able to maintain their focus after building a lead. "I think that we are constantly trying to teach our players that you play the next play," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "You are not worried about the circumstance in the game. That is an external factor. You need to focus on what you need to do to execute the very next play. Whether you’re ahead in the game or behind in the game, that really doesn’t matter. That is something that we’re constantly trying to instill in our players, from a competitive standpoint."
Since he replaced All-American Mike Johnson as a sophomore, Warmack has started 30 consecutive games. Over that time span, Alabama has averaged more than 225 rushing yards per game and saw running back Trent Richardson come up just short of winning the Heisman trophy. Warmack, an SI.com preseason first-team All-American who has already been named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week once this season, has preferred to hover in the background while he dominates the foreground. "I feel like I could have done better every game," Warmack said. "People tell me all the time, ‘You played your best game ever.’ I don't feel that. I'm still looking to have my best game."
"I think this is a game that should be all about what we have at stake," Saban said after practice Wednesday. "If you have a chance to be significant as a team, it's about what you do each week in this game. This is the most important game of our season because it's the game we play this week.
Freeze acknowledged the trip to Tuscaloosa will be a challenging one – he even referenced David and Goliath in the press conference – but the fact of the matter is that Ole Miss has nothing to lose in playing Alabama. "Why not go and have fun with it?" he said. Despite these feelings, Freeze does have certain expectations for his team. "Our defense is going to play better than it did against Texas," Freeze said. "I don’t think we played our best football that night on the defensive side. I hope we come out and play more inspired, maybe be a little more disciplined with our eyes and tackle a little better."
So far this season, Alabama has only given up two passes of 30 yards or more, both against Michigan in the season opener. There’s a reason for that, Ole Miss wide receiver Donte Moncrief said as he prepares to play the Crimson Tide this Saturday (8:15 p.m., ESPN). "They like to play over top, so it’ll be harder. So we’ll go underneath and a lot of short stuff that will get some pass stuff in," Moncrief said. Then, Moncrief said, is when you test the Bama secondary. "Do a double move to get deep," Moncrief said.
Heading into its game this week at No. 1 Alabama, Ole Miss is scoring nearly 37 points per game. Therefore, the Rebels might be a test for a Tide defense that has allowed a total of three touchdowns in its last nine games against SEC competition. Ole Miss was one of the teams that managed a single TD against the Tide defense last year; Florida and Mississippi State were the others. What's amazing is that Alabama doesn't even have the SEC's longest active streak of allowing no more than one TD to a conference opponent's offense. After last weekend's game against Auburn, LSU has now done that in 11 consecutive games.
While there is little for Alabama fans to get excited about in this game – other than seeing Rebel Black Bear in Bryant-Denny Stadium for the first time – there is some historical significance to this series and even Saturday’s game. When Paul "Bear" Bryant’s Crimson Tide squared off against Johnny Vaught’s Rebels on Oct. 4, 1969 at Legion Field, the two were squaring off under the lights. It was the first time a Southeastern Conference game was televised in prime time to a national audience. Today, the majority of SEC football games are played in prime time on national television. That Alabama-Ole Miss game 43 years ago led the way to what has become one of the most popular sports on television in our country.
"I think the SEC East is an outstanding part of our league," Georgia coach Mark Richt said on Tuesday. "Preseason everybody had an opinion on everybody’s schedules, and I felt like we just aren’t going to know how tough everybody’s schedule is until you play the season and you have a better idea of how tough it is. We felt like we had some very outstanding teams in the East, and so far they are proving it."
Of the six straight national titles won by the SEC, four of the last five, including the past three, have been won by either Alabama, Auburn or LSU, all teams from the West. Florida - during the Urban Myer era - was the lone team from the East to win national championships in that span, in 2006 and 2008. During the past two seasons, the team representing the East in Atlanta struggled to mount much of a challenge to the West Division winner. LSU crushed Georgia, 42-10, last season, only to lose in the BCS title game to Alabama, which had finished second in the SEC West. Certainly, when last season ended, the power in the SEC appeared heavily concentrated in the West, not only because of the Crimson Tide and Tigers, but because of Arkansas finishing fifth in the final AP Poll. Arkansas has subsequently fallen on hard times with the scandalous departure of coach Bobby Petrino and a 1-3 start under interim coach John L. Smith. Alabama still looks all but invincible, but LSU less so after narrowly escaping with a 12-10 victory at Auburn last weekend.