"What makes Freddy Krueger such a horrible character? What makes him scare you to death? You can't get rid of the guy. He never goes away." - Nick Saban
Relentlessness. That golden standard to which Coach Nick Saban aspires, and to which he pushes his players in pursuit of legend, championships...and, dare we say, perfection.
If there's a common trait amongst Saban's championship teams at Alabama, it is that they are nothing if not relentless. They split the opponent's wig from open to close, leaving no doubt which team was the more physical squad on the day. The 2009 team was relentless. Through Rocky Block and former running back Mark Ingram's efforts against Auburn and South Carolina, that team was nothing if not relentless. The 2011 and 2012 teams were relentless in chasing their goals, even when obstacles presented themselves in LSU and Texas A&M, respectively.
Conversely, the teams that fell short of their lofty goals, it could be argued, lacked that relentlessness, that killer instinct that made their predecessors (and successors) so difficult to conquer. In 2010 and 2013, try as they did, Bama just couldn't sustain the kind of effort, mental toughness and relentlessness to beat back the burgeoning tides of barbarians at the gates.
Does the 2014 edition of the Crimson Tide possess that all-important quality, the relentlessness that their master so covets? Much is to be determined. Sure, Bama beat back the challenge of West Virginia's fast-paced offense, and Bama's own offense literally shredded what was supposed to be one of the nation's best defenses in Florida in their most recent game. But at this point in the season, what do we really know? And how does that knowledge translate in terms of Alabama's chances to join in the pageantry of the first ever college football playoff?
Again, much remains to be determined. Sure, Bama's defense has settled in and returned to form, sitting near the top of the statistical rankings after four games. The run defense has been nearly impenetrable, the pass defense (the team's perceived Achilles' heel) has done enough to get the job done, even if not convincingly enough for some. Blake Sims has become Bama's starting quarterback and champion, and his run thus far has been statistically historic. Amari Cooper has been unstoppable. One could argue there haven't been any glaring weaknesses in this year's team.
But Alabama's foe this week is enough to give even the biggest sunshine-pumper pause. The thought of an Ole Miss team without a Manning at the helm knocking off the Crimson Tide seems almost laughable, surreal, like some Grove-inspired Dali-esque rendition of American Rules Tackle Football. Ole Miss surely can't beat Bama, right? In the illustrious history of the series, the Rebels have only managed nine wins to Bama's 47. And after all, Alabama is the current number one team in the nation in many polls. So what gives the Rebel faithful any confidence that they can knock off Bama at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium Saturday night?
Call it swag. Call it confidence, if you'd like. Call it what you will, but the Ole Miss players, staff and followers believe this is the year that their Rebels will unseat the crimson giant to the east, planting their flag on the SEC West and daring all comers to take it.
But are their visions of victory realistic? Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Alabama offense versus the Ole Miss defense
Do not, and I repeat, do not take the Ole Miss defense lightly. To do so would be a huge mistake. Whether one uses the "eye-test" from the first few games or the statistics compiled by Ole Miss to date in 2014, the fact remains that that Rebel defense is loaded with veteran talent. And that talent isn't representative of some untested recruit-nik meat-market, but rather has proven to be dominant on the field as well. Look no further than words uttered this week by Saban himself (in fairness, Saban usually offers a complimentary outlook for the opponents), who called the Rebels "the best team we've faced all year."
"Their defense is really aggressive and very fast, best defensive team we've played all year. This is the best team we have played all year, but their defense is especially quick and run well good pressure team up front, they had a ball hawking secondary picked off a lot of passes, some created by pressure and some created by quality of players that they have."
Many believed the Florida defense would be the true test of the Alabama offense, but that simply didn't materialize. Despite four turnovers, Alabama's offense rolled to a historical day against the Gators in terms of offensive production, with Blake Sims and Amari Cooper making headlines with their explosiveness throughout the contest.
However, the Ole Miss defense is better than the Florida defense at this point, that much is certain. When viewing the Rebels' impressive stats, one can speak to the level of competition the Rebels have faced this year. But even then, the statistics are daunting, to say the least. Two of their opponents (including SEC foe Vanderbilt) failed to produce 200 yards of total offense against the quick, aggressive Rebel defensive unit. Boise was held in check in large part, as was Louisiana-Lafayette. That is why the Ole Miss is ranked number four in total defense through four games (the Tide, for the record, is ranked behind them at fifth.)
Peering into the well even deeper, one can see that the numbers behind the numbers are impressive in their own right. For example, Ole Miss held Memphis and its spread, hurry-up offense to a mere 23 rushing yards in their most recent contest. In fact, the Rebel defense so befuddled the Memphis offense that they only accrued 104 total yards of total offense on the day.
Yes, one may argue, but Alabama's offense is far more potent than any of those the Rebels have seen thus far. And that's certainly true. But that past performance does not indicate a reversal of the trend versus Alabama. In fact, if any conclusion can be drawn, it's that to date, the Ole Miss defense has been extremely stingy. And in the red zone, the Rebels have been touchdown-misers, allowing only two touchdowns in opponents' 10 trips to the red zone this season.
Given the eye-test, the Rebels pass the examination. With NFL prospects like Robert and Denzel Nkemdiche, Serderious Bryant, Senquez Golson and D.T. Shackleford filling out the roster, Ole Miss has every bit the defensive talent in the first unit as their foe this Saturday. True, Alabama's talent may run deeper, but when the first 11 line up against the Bama offense, the units will be as equally matched as any the Tide has faced this season.
Cheer up, as it's not all doom and gloom for Bama Nation. Cooper has proven himself nearly unstoppable this season, making plays all over the field and serving as the one sure thing on an Alabama offense that was forecast to have question marks across the board. Despite the Rebels' stout defense and well-qualified secondary, even they possess no one capable of covering Cooper in man. There may not be a single defender in college football who can consistently contain the likes of Cooper. Also, one must take into account that Bama has enough weapons to victimize the Ole Miss defense if it is consistently forced to devote additional personnel to Cooper.
No defense has been able to routinely pressure Sims to date, and the senior QB has responded like a champion, slinging the ball with a heady confidence and new-found skill. Then again, no defensive line has been able to rattle Sims' cage as of yet. That may change this Saturday, though. This Ole Miss defense definitely has the horses to get after the quarterback, and despite the growing confidence in Sims' ability to lead the Bama team back to the Promised Land, a few ill-timed turnovers and the return of A-Day's "rat-trap" performance would all but sink the Tide's SEC West hopes.
Ole Miss' defense will present a different set of challenges for the Bama offense, that much is certain. Bama's offensive line, oft criticized during the previous campaign, has failed to impress in regard to run blocking thus far in the season. They've been able to grind their way to victory against lesser opponents, and though Florida has a strong run defense, Alabama's biggest test of the early season has yet to come.
While Bama's line has been stellar in pass protection, giving Sims ample time to work through his progressions, the run blocking has left something to be desired. Let's take for example the O line's performance against Southern Miss this year, which as it stands, is Bama's best rushing performance (333 rushing yards) since last year's Arkansas game. The Tide had 31 carries with the first team offensive line, 22 of those between the tackles and nine on the edge. Between the tackles, the Tide earned only 102 yards for a 4.6 yards per carry average, while the outside runs netted 107 yards for an 11.8 ypc average.
And bear in mind, that was against Southern Miss, which has fielded probably the most ill-equipped defense Alabama has faced this season.
Those numbers don't portend well for the Tide's chances of dominating the running game against the Golden Eagles' brethren to the north, as Ole Miss is stocked with A-list talent and an aggressive scheme that will test the belly of Bama's rushing beast. If Alabama can run between the tackles with authority, the tone for the game will favor the Tide and a victory is well within reach. That is easier said than done. If Alabama once against struggles when called upon to play gritty old-school football in the run game, it could make for a long afternoon.
That said, despite their talent and improvement on the defensive side of the ball, the Ole Miss rushing defense still ranks 34th in the nation. There are gaps to be exploited there to be sure, but this apparent Rebel weakness does not necessarily play to this Alabama team's strengths. Bama will likely test the edges, though doing so will not guaranteed success with a speedy veteran linebacking corps and secondary. Rather, trying to run outside the tackles could prove to be a fool's errand against a defense as speedy and athletic as the one Ole Miss fields. And if Alabama can run the ball neither inside nor outside, the offense's predictability could become a self-inflicted wound.
Ultimately, this battle in the trenches will likely decide the war, as if Alabama can make hay against the Ole Miss defense and set the tone for the contest in the running game, there won't be enough that the Ole Miss offense can do to stem the Tide. It is critical that Alabama establishes the run to some degree, otherwise the Rebel defensive coaches will turn loose the hounds.
Alabama defense versus the Ole Miss offense
Bo Wallace is the Jacob Marley of Ole Miss football, a ghost of failures past. In the past, the Rebels have had such high hopes riding on the now-senior quarterback's shoulders against their perennial foes across the state line. Wallace would be proclaimed the second coming of Eli, only to see his star fall after a thrashing at the hands of Bama's defense. The refrain is familiar, as twice before, Wallace has entered the season with guns blazing, only to see the bulletproof Tide defense hold him and his playmakers in check.
Despite Wallace's successes thus far in the season (and the development of sensational receiving threat Laquon Treadwell), many forecast a regression towards the mean for Wallace when he faces off against his familiar foe against this Saturday. But is there any reason to expect that this year's Bo Wallace will be able to do the things that the Bo Wallaces of 2012 and 2013 left unaccomplished?
Yes and no. It's true that the defenses Ole Miss has faced in 2014 are not exactly top-flight. Of the group, the only two that place in the top 50 in college football are Boise (42nd) and Memphis (44). However, what Ole Miss did with those defenses bears a closer look. Against Boise, the Rebels were explosive (despite occasional struggles), putting up 458 yards of offense, with 387 yards of that total coming through the air. Against Memphis, the Rebels leaned on Jaylen Walton and the running game, with 178 yards of their total 426 yards of offense coming through the running game.
Again, these defenses are a shadow of the one the Tide will bring with them to Oxford to face the Rebels, and in the past, Coach Hugh Freeze and his QB have struggled to impose their offensive will against the stingy Alabama defense. With Alabama currently ranked the number three rushing defense nationally, one can imagine that Wallace will be called upon to get the job done through the air. However, as Saban pointed out this week, the Rebel offense uses the short passing game as a proxy running game, and they are very effective in throwing the short pass. In other words, the Rebels have proven they have a variety of ways to land lethal blows, so it would be foolish to discount any avenues of attack for a Rebel team that is as hungry as any Ole Miss team in recent memory.
In past contests, one of Bama's keys on defense was to disrupt the passing game. Despite Saban's praise earlier this week, this is a potential weakness on this Ole Miss team, as the Rebels return only two guards from last year's line. That said, sophomore left tackle Laremy Tunsil was a five-star recruit, and the Ole Miss line has been quite effective in protecting Wallace against lesser defenses in 2014. Can Alabama's revamped (and vastly improved) defensive line have their way with the young O line unit? That remains to be seen, but the Rebels will rely on some combination of double-teams and quick releases to keep the likes of A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Williams, D.J. Pettway and Denzel Devall from wreaking absolute havoc against the Rebels' potent passing attack.
The other key for Alabama will be secondary play. Saban indicated earlier this week that he had intentions of letting sophomore corner Eddie Jackson battle it out with true freshman Tony Brown for the roster spot this Saturday. If one assumes that Cyrus Jones is the starter at the other spot, the Tide can only benefit by evolving a stable of corners who can effectively run the Saban/ Smart system with controlled aggression. And regardless of who starts, the secondary will have its hands full with Treadwell, a future NFL'er with great speed, a huge frame and great hands. While Treadwell (20 receptions for 307 yards and three TDs) is the primary playmaking weapon on the Ole Miss roster, but don't overlook crafty veteran Vince Sanders. Treadwell has gotten the ink, but Sanders has gotten the job done, posting 261 yards on 18 receptions with two touchdowns. Having the luxury of several steady, if not explosive, receivers can help open up the Rebel offense and pressure the Tide where it is presumably weakest: namely, in pass defense.
Alabama is 24th in the nation in passing yards allowed, something which has given Bama fans cause for consternation in the early part of the season. In the opener versus WVU, the Mountaineer offense had its way at times with the short passing game, slicing the soft underbelly of the Alabama defense and moving the ball with ease at times. If Alabama gives the same kind of license to Wallace and company, the Ole Miss defense has the talent to make Bama pay in both yards and scoring.
There are several hidden (or not so hidden) hands moving behind the scenes of this game, one of which will be the locale. This will be Bama's first SEC road test of the year, and they'll be playing before a raucous Ole Miss crowd that not only believes its Rebels can win, but will win. (And in case y'all haven't heard, GAMEDAY IS COMING, GAMEDAY IS COMING!!!) Poll the Ole Miss faithful and you'll find an up-swell in believers that this team can succeed where the teams of the past have failed. Ole Miss supporters believe it is their time, and it is up to the Tide to march onto their field and prove to them that they are not quite ready to run with the likes of Alabama.
At Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Sims will get his first real test in running the offense efficiently before a hostile crowd. Little things like snap count and the play clock can be marginalized in importance when playing at home. However, in front of the enemy crowd, in the opponent's home base, those little issues can quickly grow to enormity. Can Sims and the offense continue to operate efficiently outside of the cozy confines of Bryant Denny Stadium? What happens if Ole Miss goes up early, and the crowd cranks up the volume? Will Sims be able to handle it? Can he rally the troops from behind and seal a last second victory ala AJ versus LSU 2012? We won't know until the Tide is in the midst of the enemy, and by then, adjustments will be difficult to make, at best.
Will the Alabama defense be able to play seamlessly against the uptempo Ole Miss attack? Alabama teams of the past have struggled from an endurance standpoint when faced with hurry-up teams. Last year, Alabama's defense locked down and dictated tempo to a large degree. But that was in front of the home crowd. Though the Tide has begun to shift and recruit players who can keep pace with the NASCAR offenses that have come into vogue, the struggles against wide-open hurry-up offenses have been well documented (and have continued to a degree early in 2014.)
Finally, in games in which the talent is equally matched, the outcome often times comes down to which team wants the victory more. In other words, which team can best embody the relentlessness our leader seems to fancy so much? While one would assume that no team can out-relentless a Saban-coached squad, the motivation has to be there for the Rebels, both individually and as a team. Wallace has choked gloriously against Bama in their two prior meetings, and in his senior campaign, one must expect that we'll see his best effort to date. When Wallace is in rhythm and on fire, he's as good at slinging the ball as any QB in the league. Bama's job will be to prevent him from finding that rhythm with the pass rush and smothering secondary play. Anything short of that will put Bama's hopes of victory in jeopardy.
As a team, Ole Miss has consistently been the bride's maid to Alabama's bride. For years they've been the downtrodden, and one has to imagine that at some point, they will rise and attempt to cast off the yoke. There is no time like the present for Ole Miss, as after several strong recruiting classes and with Freeze's system firmly in place, the Rebels are as well-positioned as at any time since the departure of Eli Manning to upset the crimson legion.
But "want-to" does not always translate to reality. It won't be enough for the Rebels to simply want the victory more than the Tide, as they will be forced to impose their will if the Tide is to be slain. The Tide has its own motivation, as after what was an embarrassing two-loss season by Alabama standards, this Tide team is hungry to prove that last year's season-ending debacle was an aberration rather than the new rule.
Can Ole Miss beat Alabama? Yes. The chances of that happening are indeed greater than they have been for the last two years. But probability doesn't dictate reality, and for whatever reason, Alabama has continued, both historically and in recent years, to have the Rebels' number.
Will Alabama begin to separate itself from the playoff chaff with a victory over a highly-touted Ole Miss team? We'll have that answer in about 36 hours. Until then, know that this will be Bama's biggest test of the year thus far. The margin for error is becoming ever-so slim, and a setback this Saturday would be a death blow to Bama's hopes of returning to the title game. But a win will be a resume builder that doubters around the country cannot deny, as this will be the best Ole Miss team the Tide has faced since a Manning roamed the sidelines in Oxford.
Not much left to do, folks, but batten down the hatches. A storm is a-brewin'...as always, hope for the best.