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Initial Impressions from the Ole Miss Game

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That was a tough one.

Party on, Rebs. You earned it.
Party on, Rebs. You earned it.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

If this weekend has taught us anything, it's that winning on the road in the SEC West is going to require a virtually flawless performance. Unfortunately for the Tide, they were unable to play to the standard required. Make no mistake, Ole Miss played hard the entire game and made the big plays when it mattered most. Still, any time you outgain an opponent and hold a lead for the entire second half only to see it evaporate at the very end, you tend to focus more on your own failures than the other team's accomplishments. Several factors contributed to the loss in this one, and only time will tell if the team can improve enough to compete for a title in a brutal division.

First, the running game. In what has become a common theme, Alabama struggled to find success between the tackles. Arie Kouandjio and Leon Brown continue to underwhelm while also accumulating penalties. At this point I'd be fine with the coaching staff shaking things up inside just to see what happens. Ryan Kelly hasn't exactly played like an All-American either, but his loss could still be big if it forces freshman Bradley Bozeman into a key role before he is ready. Bozeman should look better with some first-team reps, but the awareness factor for things like the play clock will probably take a while. Fortunately, TJ Yeldon was able to find some yards on quick sweeps, particularly running left. Derrick Henry was rendered virtually useless in this one, which isn't surprising considering he is a straight downhill guy who lacks the pure speed to get the edge. Hopefully this will quiet the Yeldon detractors for a bit. He and Henry offer a great one-two punch, and both are needed, particularly with the loss of Kenyan Drake. Terrible injury for that young man, hope he is able to recover to full health.

So, that passing game. It's pretty evident after this one that no one is going to completely shut down Cooper this season. Ole Miss has excellent players in the secondary who bracketed him pretty much the entire game and he still caught nine balls for 91 yards, including a couple of tough third down conversions where he held onto the ball while getting blasted. Coop continues to be a manchild. OJ Howard got involved in the passing game as well, hauling in three balls for 87 yards including the longest play of the afternoon. Of course, after said longest play Alabama managed to lose ten yards on a missed block by OJ and a Leon Brown false start penalty, leading to a converted 44-yard FG after reaching the red zone, but I digress. OJ also had a bad drop on third down to go with a couple of holding calls, so it's likely that he proved to be a net negative in this one. DeAndrew White was clearly missed. Five other players caught passes, but none made a significant impact on the game. Some other receivers will need to step up at some point this season.

Blake Sims struggled, which isn't surprising considering it's the first hostile environment he's played in and the receivers were covered better due to the quality of the opponent. He certainly had his bright spots, again using his athleticism to avoid a pass rush that absolutely would have resulted in a couple extra sacks in previous seasons, and delivering some clutch throws on the last drive to lead the Tide into scoring position. Unfortunately, he had some gaffes as well, throwing a couple of ill-advised balls that easily could have been intercepted in addition to the interception on the final offensive play of the game. I said at the time that I felt the last play was a bad read, but the reality is that the team should have never been in that position and OJ could have helped his QB by making a better play on the football and at least knocking it away from Golson. Blake also managed to run backward on a play when he should have simply dived forward for what he could get rather than turn it into a five yard loss, and the team had to burn two timeouts in the second half due to the play clock running down, though one of those seemed to be on the new center. Third down conversions were a big problem for the first time this season. Going forward I would like to see Blake take off a bit more, particularly against stronger secondaries. Sometimes you have to tip your cap to the cover guys and pick up what you can with your legs. This extra dimension is something that Saban has expressed frustration with as a defensive coach, and I'd like to see us utilize it as well.

Defensively, this is what we have this year. We were once again able to shut down the run game, with a draw play by Bo Wallace in the first quarter gaining the biggest chunk on the ground for the Rebels. The pass defense was adequate, with a few busts thrown in. With a young secondary and no pure free safety on the roster this is to be expected. Still, giving up 251 yards through the air is not usually going to get you beat in this day and age. Granted, Ole Miss had a couple of wide open drops that may have made the stat sheet look much worse if caught, but mental gaffes are going to happen with a unit that hasn't completely jelled, particularly against a senior signal caller in an offense that uses exotic formations meant to confuse. Ole Miss executed the back shoulder throw time and time again against single coverage, a virtually unstoppable play against that type of scheme. By the end of the season I think this secondary has the chance to be really good, but growing pains will continue to be a concern. The pass rush wasn't great in this one, but after the first draw play I think the coaching staff went into contain mode again, which I don't necessarily agree with considering the skill sets of the players on the roster. The strategy did produce a few batted balls at the line, but the Ole Miss line has struggled all season and it just seems that the coaches didn't do enough to exploit it. Reggie Ragland showed out against the run in this one, laying out a couple of ball carriers. Cyrus Jones played a solid game at CB and seems to have a stranglehold on the #1 job at this point. Tony Brown played well for the most part, though fans will remember him getting beat twice including the post route that tied the game. Kid certainly has talent though, reminding of a young Dee Milliner who was also forced into prime time prematurely.

JK Scott was certainly the special teams MVP, booming the ball over 60 yards in the air twice. It's hard to believe that this kid is only a true freshman, but he is a weapon that will be nice to have in future seasons. Unfortunately Adam Griffith had a terrible game, hitting the opening kickoff fat leading to a line drive kick and easy return into Alabama territory, while missing a tackle on the return. He also missed two field goals, though both of them were long in blustery conditions. It's hard to fault Saban for kicker play in this instance, as Adam was universally considered a top 5 kicker coming out of high school and every scout I read gave him rave reviews. I think the kid just has things to work on, that's all. Now, the kick coverage and return teams are another story. Both units were an utter mess. Ole Miss managed to break two kickoff returns giving them starting field position in or near Alabama territory, while Christion Jones ran one out of the end zone for only 14 yards and fumbled on the kickoff after Ole Miss had tied the game, leading to the winning score. I don't know what the answer to the special teams play is, but it's something that needs to get fixed as it arguably cost us this game. I should note that Christion did break one out to the Alabama 40 on the first Ole Miss kick of the day, but that was pretty much the lone bright spot.

Bottom line on this one is that ten offensive points simply isn't good enough, particularly when you ring up 400 yards on a very good defense. This game mirrors other Alabama losses in that the team struggled to continue drives after getting into the opponent's territory, stalling out time and time again in creative ways, seemingly on a quest to discover new strategies to defeat themselves. This is in no way an attempt to short-change an Ole Miss team that played a great game. Bo Wallace wasn't spectacular but he did enough, certainly showing better than his last two outings in BDS by a large margin and making big throws at the biggest moments. Laquon Treadwell is a monster and that defense is for real. The good news is that many of the issues are correctable, particularly the penalties and communication in the secondary. The question is whether they will be improved on quickly enough for Alabama to compete in this brutal division. To be sure, all is not lost. LSU looks awful and the three strongest looking teams in the division to date all have to come to Tuscaloosa. This team still has the talent to take this division, which would essentially be taking the conference and a playoff spot by default. After next weekend's Baylor-TCU game there will be only three undefeated teams left outside the SEC West, and two of those will meet when Notre Dame plays FSU. Yes, there is still plenty to play for with every single goal on the table and within reach. Here's hoping the team bounces back from this tough road loss to a very good team and goes on to contend. Roll Tide.