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Previewing the 2014 Alabama Crimson Tide Schedule: Ole Miss Black Bear Rebels

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Ole Miss is the poster child for the phrase "close but no cigar." But head coach Hugh Freeze is putting together the recipe for success in Oxford...will this be the year the Rebels stake their claim to the hotly-contested SEC West?

Can third year QB and part-time hippie Bo Wallace lead Ole Miss to the top of the heap in 2014?
Can third year QB and part-time hippie Bo Wallace lead Ole Miss to the top of the heap in 2014?
Joe Robbins

A flash in the pan. Evolution. A prolonged case of trickeration. Offensive genius. A passing fad. Regardless of your personal opinion regarding the HUNH offense, it would be hard to dispute that Alabama has struggled more with those fast-paced "race-car offenses" (to use the lingo of Coach Nick Saban) than with more traditional, conservative brands of football that dominate the Southeastern Conference.

Auburn and Texas A&M have surfed the wave of the fast-paced offensive strategy, built to offset the athletic advantages curried by perennial powerhouses like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU. Though they share a system, Ole Miss has not enjoyed the same level of success as its hurry-scurry brethren. After a pair of solid years of recruiting, Mississippi head coach Hugh Freeze knows the expectations are high, and consistency will be necessary to propel the Rebels to the top-flite of a hell-at-the-breech SEC West division. Time will tell whether Freeze's "Little Engine That Could" can parlay recruiting success and a dangerous offense into post-season hardware as well as the respect of its conference running mates...finally.

What Happened Last Year?

Highly-touted coming into the 2013 season as a potential sleeper pick in the SEC West, Ole Miss started strong, fizzled, flexed its muscle again, and then finished the season with a sputter. At a school that has endured more than a quarter-century of mediocrity outside of the most recent Manning Era, one would assume a second year coach finishing 8-5 with a bowl win would be well-entrenched in the good graces of Rebel Nation. While no one in the Ole Miss fan base is calling for Freeze's head, it is imperative that he and the Rebels improve upon last year's 3-5 SEC record and continue to build the positive momentum that can lead to a culture change for the program.

Last season, Ole Miss won its first three games and showed flashes of explosiveness on offense. However, last season's match-up with Alabama (and their loss in that contest) began a three-game skid including losses to the Tide, Auburn and Texas A&M. Ole Miss managed to beat LSU before closing out the regular season with losses to Mizzou and rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. The Rebels managed a Music City Bowl win against Georgia Tech in the post-season, winning by a score of 25-17.

The high-octane offense was the strength of the Ole Miss squad in 2013, as the Rebels mustered the league's 5th ranked offense with 473 ypg. Despite the success in moving the ball, the Rebels fielded only the 8th best scoring offense with 30 ppg.

In last year's meeting with Alabama, the Rebel offense was largely held in check by Bama's stingy defense, led by C.J. Mosley. The Alabama offense, in a word, struggled. Coming off of a rough but effective winning effort against the Colorado State Rams, Alabama's offense sputtered once again against the aggressive, attacking Ole Miss defense. Lead Bama tailback T.J. Yeldon had a workmanlike performance, finishing the day with 121 yards and a long 68 yard touchdown despite the struggles of an offensive line that had a hard time coping with the Rebel's lighter, quicker defenders. Kenyan Drake had a good day as well, tallying 99 yards with a 50 yard touchdown sprint.

Bama center Ryan Kelly was injured for the game, but now-departed reserve center Chad Lindsey stepped up from the reserve ranks and was effective at sparking the run game, if nothing else. As the game wore on, the Tide offense began to assert itself against an outmanned Rebel defensive unit. Ole Miss Quarterback Bo Wallace had been spectacular in the three games before the Rebels met Bama, but Mosely and the Tide defenders kept him largely in check throughout the day, limiting him to a 17-of-30 performance for 159 yards. The Rebel rushing attack was largely squelched, as the Alabama defense yielded a mere 46 yards on 25 carries.

The kicking game, or lack thereof, was pivotal for Ole Miss. On numerous occasions, the Ole Miss offense threatened only to have Freeze forgo the option to kick FGs on fourth down in scoring position. Apparently, the still-green SEC coach thought he had to match pace with Alabama's offensive talent and would not win the game settling for field goals. But the Tide struggled offensively, however, setting the stage for Bama angst and leaving many Ole Miss faithful to wonder what may have been had Freeze taken the special teams scoring opportunities in earnest.

Most Bama fans have become accustomed to beating Ole Miss year in and year out. However, most of us would be lying if we didn't admit to a little nervous energy during that 2013 match-up, at least in the early going. A struggling Crimson Tide team did little to encourage confidence for much of the Ole Miss game last season before using superior depth and conditioning to grind the Ole Miss attack to a halt.

How Does Ole Miss Look in 2014?

In many ways, the 2014 incarnation of the Ole Miss Rebel squad should mark an overall improvement from last year's team, despite a clear lack of experience at critical positions. Wallace showed marked gains in his second year starting last season. Though he threw for fewer touchdowns than in his first campaign, as a junior Wallace cut his interception numbers nearly in half compared to 2012, with a ratio of 24 TDs to 10 INTs in the 2013 effort. Wallace finished the season as a 65% passer and amassed 3,346 yards through the air, along with an additional 355 yards on the ground.

As a senior, Wallace has continued to progress while adding about 15 pounds of bulk, according to Freeze. The coach certainly has confidence in his QB's ability to lead Ole Miss out of the wilderness, and with a solid-if-not-spectacular set of returning receivers, 2014 may be the year Bo Wallace becomes a household name...even if only in Mississippi.

Leading the WR corps is future NFL draft pick Laquon Treadwell, who had 72 receptions and 608 yards receiving. While those numbers are not eye-jarring, there is no doubt that Treadwell will be the Rebels' chief target as the younger wide receivers behind him continue to develop. Speaking of the youth, expect Vince Sanders, Quincy Adeboyejo and Cody Core to get plenty of balls thrown in their respective directions, as Freeze likes to spread the ball around and utilize the talent on his roster.

While many outside of Oxford would be stumped to name a single Ole Miss running back, the Rebels are fortunate to have options in their offensive back field. Running backs I'Tavius Mathers (563 yards rushing with three TDs in 2013) and Jaylen Walton (523 yards and six TDs) are back to lend their experience to the offense. Also, there's a positive buzz about sophomore tailback Mark Dodsen, so expect to see a myriad of Ole Miss backs in the mix against Alabama in 2014.

The sticking point for the Ole Miss offense is not at the offensive skill positions, but rather along the all-important offensive line. The Rebels only return two starters in guards Aaron Morris and Justin Bell, and though they have recruited well along the line in recent years, prized prospects like tackle Laremy Tunsil are still developing into SEC caliber plow-hands.

Defensively, Ole Miss was neither the worst nor best in the conference. The Rebels finished the season ranked 7th in points allowed at 23.7 ppg, and 9th in yards allowed with 370.5 ppg. While not the bruising type of defense fielded by teams like LSU and Alabama, the lighter Ole Miss squad played with aggression and physicality, as was evident in the 2013 match-up with the Tide.

The bright spot for this year's Black Bear defensive squad comes in the form of seasoning, as the D will return nine starters from last year's middlin' team. Linebacker (and RBR favorite) Serderious Bryant was the team leader in tackles last year with 78, despite missing two games to injury. Denzel Nkemdiche, while not as highly-touted as his brother (and NFL prospect) Robert, is a damn good SEC linebacker, and is equally effective as both a pass rusher and run-stopper. Behind Bryant and the elder Nkemdiche, the linebacking corps is not star-studded, but the supporting cast should be good enough to support opponents' running games.

The aforementioned Robert Nkemdiche should be a force this season with almost a full year of SEC combat beneath his belt. For those who may not remember the 2012 recruiting cycle, Nkemdiche was at times ranked the number one overall recruit in the nation, and his measurables had coaches across the country drooling. Nkemdiche translated those stars into performance last year, as he tallied eight tackles for loss in only 11 games as a freshman in 2013. At 6'5", he is an imposing terror rushing from the end position, and he has the size to play effectively from almost any position on the line. He will be the player to watch on the Ole Miss defense as the season progresses, as the guy has freakish size and athleticism, in addition to an ever-developing football IQ.

Despite solid contributions among the front 7, the defensive back field may be the strength of the Rebels' defense this year. Safety Cody Prewitt is the wheel upon which the Ole Miss secondary turns, as he was named to the pre-season All-SEC team for 2014. An experienced, solid athlete who could start for any SEC squad, Prewitt will be counted upon to marshal the Ole Miss defense. He'll be joined by sophomore Tony Conner, who was heavily recruited by Bama and showed flashes of brilliance in 2013 at safety (66 tackles and one interception). With an ideal body size and combination of speed and athleticism, Conner should be even better for the Rebels this year. The balance of defensive backs is experienced and competent, as Trae Elston (62 tackles, two fumbles recovered), Mike Hilton (52 tackles and one interception) and Senquez Golson (41 tackles with two interceptions) are expected to round out the personal grouping in style.

While the Rebels can feel good about their level of experience on defense, such is not the case at the special teams skill positions. Ole Miss will be breaking in a new punter and place kicker, and the Rebels don't have an explosive option at kick returner. Walton handled kick return duties for the most part in 2013, so expect him to be the first choice for the role again this year. Much remains unsettled for the Rebels special teams this year, which could be the difference in tight SEC games.

Why Ole Miss May Win...

Simply put, it's that damn HUNH offense they run. While Saban and DC Kirby Smart had the Rebels dialed up last year, one has to expect an offensive mind like the one possessed by Freeze to scheme a way around Bama's strengths if given another shot at the upset Promised Land. Bama owned Wallace for the most part in last year's match-up, keeping the quarterback flustered and unproductive with both scheme and execution. The HUNH offense is one that feeds off of rhythm, and Alabama did a great job of keeping the Rebel Black Bear Akbar offense out of cadence for much of the game en route to the shut out.

If Wallace can get into rhythm, and the Rebels can generate something of a running game to keep the Tide defense guessing, Ole Miss will be able to score. The Tide defense will be breaking in a great deal of new talent early in the season, so there will be opportunities to be exploited by the Rebels, particularly in the match-up between Rebel slot receivers, TEs and backs and the Bama linebackers. This fact, combined with Bama's distaste for the HUNH, could lead to frustration among Tide defenders if they are duped early and often.

No one knows what to expect from Bama's QB-to-be-named at this point. But whether Jacob Cocker or Blake Sims starts, it will be imperative that the QB commands the offense, plays within the system and protects the ball. If the offensive line lacks cohesion and the running game stalls, the Rebels have the defense to cause myriad problems for a new quarterback. That secondary alone is enough to put a shiver into a green signal-caller making possibly his first start, and there will be real danger in trying to execute the passing game against the Rebel defensive backs.

The recipe for an Ole Miss victory involves winning the turnover battle, getting the offense into rhythm, and keeping the Tide offense from making the most of its outstanding skill players. While many would laugh it off, please believe, people...in 2014, Alabama can indeed lose to Ole Miss. Let that sink in.

Finally, not to cause further undue concern, but after two years of playing the game at Bryant-Denny Stadium, this year the Tide must travel to Vaught-Hemingway. At least we know Ole Miss will win the party...

Why Alabama May Win...

Because they should win. As is the case with most teams on the Tide schedule, there is a great disparity in the talent fielded by the two squads. While Freeze and Company have done a god job of stocking the cupboard, few teams have the arsenal of a roster enjoyed by the Tide. While much of the talent is young, it is talent nonetheless...and under the supervision of the nation's best top-to-bottom coaching staff, to boot.

While it may be true that Freeze has adapted his attack to exploit Alabama's weaknesses, we also know that Saban has taken the HUNH offense as an affront to organized American rules tackle football. He long ago began the work of adapting to smaller, quicker offenses over the last two recruiting cycles. If anyone in the nation can crack the HUNH code, it is the defensive mastermind with the big office and Little Debbie stockpile in Tuscaloosa.

While questions swirl regarding the starting QB and his eventual ability to lead the Tide into the playoffs this year, one must realize that as in previous successful campaigns, Alabama has not needed the second coming of Joe Willie Namath under center to produce wins. An efficient, disciplined field general like Greg McElroy had enough talent to get the job done, and I have no doubt that either of the young men vying for the starting role this year can evolve into a solid player. Alabama has the stable of running backs and receivers to make any defense look foolish when it is executing at a high level, and the Tide doesn't need a Heisman campaign from either potential QB's to do enough to wear down the Ole Miss defense. The QB must simply play within himself and his skill set, avoid costly turnovers, and execute the offense as drawn up, regardless of how vanilla it may be. Easier said than done, sure...but there' no reason to believe that one of the two young men can't provide a workable effort.

What I Think Will Happen...

Of course, Alabama should win this game. But the gap between the two programs is narrowing, even if in small increments. I expect the Rebels to be buoyed by the home crowd, and they will come out of the gate quickly, pads poppin' and players flying around like meth-addled Wallendas (as was the case in Bryant Denny last season). If a young Bama defense can weather the first few squalls, there is no doubt that the Tide can wear the Rebels down and wear them out. Few teams can stand up to a three and a half hour drubbing at the hands of our beloved Crimson Tide defense...that's just simple physics, folks. Yeldon, Drake and Derrick Henry shouldn't have much trouble over-powering the Ole Miss rush defense over time. The Rebels may hold the Tide receivers in check for a while, but despite the prowess of the Rebel DBs, one simply can't contain the likes of Amari Cooper and DeAndrew White for four quarters. Those gentlemen will make their plays regardless of who starts at QB, and those plays will be enough to beat back the upstart Rebels.

Bama will win by a score of 28-10. Freeze won't repeat his mistakes and pass up scoring chances, while the young Bama defense will need a series (and a punch in the mouth) to get their legs under them. Otherwise, the Ole Miss side of the scoreboard could likely end up the same as in last year' game. Ole Miss is salty...just so happens Alabama is too after a disappointing end to 2013. Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide with a chip on its shoulder and something to prove...that's just a beautiful thing, y'all.

Roll Tide.