Through the opening two weeks of the season, few teams have looked as impressive as the #2 Alabama Crimson Tide and the #15 Ole Miss Rebels. In what will be a rematch of one of the best games from last season, Nick Saban's squad will look to avenge their down-to-the-wire loss to Hugh Freeze's team. The game a year ago followed the typical script for knocking off the Crimson Tide: limit the run, force Alabama to kick field goals, win the turnover margin, and throw the ball around the field. Ole Miss only had 327 total yards in that battle in Oxford last season, but they put together a couple of timely drives in the second half that ended up making the difference. How did Ole Miss pull it off last season, how have these two teams changed, and what can Alabama do to make sure this game doesn't end up being a repeat performance?
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
The 2012 season was the year that the SEC fully embraced the spread, and Hugh Freeze was one of the main people who catalyzed the movement. Sure, Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen, and Gus Malzahn had been running their versions of the spread for a few years, and Bobby Petrino had been utilizing a Pro Style Spread at Arkansas, but it wasn't until the 2012 season that things really changed quickly in the country's premier conference. The additions of Texas A&M and Missouri obviously made a huge difference in this regard, but the Rebels hiring of Freeze added yet another spread-oriented mind to the equation. Teams were finally starting to realize that they couldn't beat Alabama and LSU at their own game, so they needed to approach things in a different way.
Ole Miss currently runs what is considered a Traditional Spread (or as football guru Ian Boyd describes it, a Finesse Spread), as opposed to the Smashmouth Spread Option that Auburn and Mississippi State utilize or the Air Raid Spread that Texas A&M runs. The Rebels simply want to spread the defense out and attack it all over the field by quickly getting the ball to their playmakers. They will first look to stretch the field horizontally before looking to take shots downfield in the passing game.
On this play, Ole Miss is running one of their signature packaged plays. First year quarterback Chad Kelly will make the read at the line to either hand the ball off to runningback Jaylen Walton on the counter run, or throw it out to superstar wide receiver Laquon Treadwell on the hitch route. With the cornerback playing about seven yards off the line (indicating a Cover Three look), the decision is an easy one for Kelly. Get the ball out to your best player quickly and let him make something happen.
These packaged plays are a staple of the Ole Miss offense, and they are especially dangerous when the threat of the run is credible. However, Freeze's Rebels haven't been known as being particularly proficient in the run game, and against Alabama's monstrous run defense, Ole Miss may not be able to threaten the Tide much on the ground. They've never been able to establish much of a running game on the Tide in the past, and despite currently leading the SEC in rushing as a team, there is not much reason to believe that this year's match-up will be any different. If Laremy Tunsil is held out again this weekend, there is even less reason to think Ole Miss will find much success on the ground.
Ole Miss will more than likely have to find other ways to move the ball on Alabama's defense. The good news for the Rebels is that they did just that last season.
With the game on the line and only three minutes left to play, Ole Miss was facing a 3rd-and-Goal from the 10-yard line. Clearly, there is no chance the Rebels are running the ball here. Freeze's bunch will set up in an 11-personnel shotgun with tight end Evan Engram lined-up in the slot and Treadwell posted off of the line at the bottom of the screen. Walton is also lined up on the short side of the field, and the Rebels have two more receivers set out wide to the opposite side. Alabama is going to counter with a 4-1-6 Dime look, and they are going to utilize Nick Saban's famous pattern-matching defense to try and shut down this obvious pass play.
This particular defense for Alabama is called "Cover Seven". Saban wants to outnumber the offense's options in the passing game by splitting the field in half and playing a defense similar to the match-up zone in basketball. On the field side (the side with the most open field; the top of the screen in this example), Alabama will have three defenders to the Rebels' two receivers. On the boundary side (the side closest to the boundary, or the bottom of the screen here) the Tide will send four defenders to counter the Rebels' three options. The defenders have to work together and make decisions on the fly after the snap. Each defender will approach his target receiver with a man-to-man technique, but only when said receiver enters a certain area of the field.
Saban ruled college football for a long time due to his pattern-matching schemes, so it was only a matter of time before other coaches found ways to try and beat it. In this example, Freeze is going to focus solely on the short side of the field, hoping to catch the Tide defensive backs hesitating as they think about what they need to do. Treadwell and Engram, two of the best receivers in the country, are going to be nothing more than decoys on this play. Treadwell will run a quick screen to draw Tony Brown in towards him. That's one defender down.
Now Ole Miss has narrowed it down to a two-on-three situation. Engram's route is going to be pivotal to this play's success. As he approaches the six yard line, both Trey DePreist and Landon Collins are going to meet him. In Saban's pattern matching scheme, DePriest, Collins, and safety Geno Smith (just off-screen to the right) have to realize what's going on and make a commitment one way or another. If Engram cuts in towards the middle of the field, DePriest needs to run with him. If he runs an out route towards the sideline, Collins needs to pick him up. If he goes vertical, which he does, Smith will take him on. With Smith picking up the star tight end, Collins and DePriest have to work their attention back towards the runningback, Walton. However, Engram commands so much attention here that Landon Collins isn't going to pick up on Walton until it's too late.
With Treadwell bringing Brown in and Engram pulling the safety help away from the play, Freeze is able to overcome the numbers advantage that Saban has created in his Cover Seven. What he ends up getting is a one-on-one match-up with Collins hesitating just enough to allow Walton to get a step on him. Bo Wallace throws a perfect pass just over Collins' reach, and Ole Miss scores what ended up being the game-winning touchdown.
These are the kinds of plays that Ole Miss is going to have to make on Saturday night in order to move the ball on the stingy Alabama defense. Kelly has a better arm than Wallace did last season, and with guys like Treadwell, Engram, Walton, Cody Core, and Quincy Adeboyejo, the Rebels have a plethora of weapons for him to utilize.
When Alabama Has the Ball
Ole Miss has a similar philosophy defensively as Alabama's opening night opponent, the Wisconsin Badgers, do. They want to use their speed and tenacity to swarm to the ball. Hugh Freeze started his rebuild in Oxford by emphasizing toughness at the point of attack, agility at the second level, and quickness in the back-end. He started this trend by bringing in lighter players to fit his 4-2-5 alignment. Then, he started added stud players like Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, and Tee Shepard to the mix, which only amplified the results. The Rebels had one of the best defenses in college football last season, and, as it currently stands, that doesn't seem to have changed this year.
Freeze knew that his 4-2-5 alignment could be susceptible to power running games, so he made it an emphasis to add multiple guys who are capable of winning at the point of attack. Nkemdiche's abilities need no repeating: the man is an absolute beast in the middle. But Ole Miss has a number of other very good players lined up in front as well. From the speedy Marquis Haynes to the brutish Isaac Gross, the Rebels can clog up run lanes with great effectiveness. Their ability to do so is what has made their defense so good, because it frees up the back seven to create all kinds of havoc.
Alabama is going to try and enforce their will on the ground, this is certainly not even debatable. However, the Tide will have to do a better job than they did last season against the Rebels in Oxford. Take the above image, where Alabama faces a 3rd-and-1 that would seem to be automatic for one of the nation's best rushing teams. Ole Miss comes out in their base 4-2-5, a formation that traditionally should not be able to hold up against the Tide's heavy set 22 formation. The four down lineman are all playing one gap, meaning they simply need to find a way to clog up the gap they are responsible for. Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche and do-everything "Husky" nickelback Tony Connor are playing up on the line as well, and they are responsible for the C-gaps in between the tackle and the tight end on their respective side. If all six guys can fill their lanes, the second level defense of linebacker D.T. Shackelford and safeties Cody Prewitt and Trae Elston will be free to roam. Those three defenders will either need to flow to the ball-carrier or drop back into man-on-man coverage, depending on what Alabama decides to do.
The Crimson Tide are, of course, going to run the football. How could they not in this situation? The offensive line and tight ends will all block down to the right, and Jalston "Nudie" Fowler will lead runningback T.J. Yeldon towards the right side of the line, looking to clear a hole.
Unfortunately for Lane Kiffin's offense, things don't go according to plan. The six Ole Miss defenders that were lined up on the line all crash their gaps perfectly, forming a solid wall with no crease for Yeldon. With Fowler leading right, there is no real option for a cutback, especially not with Elston ready to set the edge on the left side. The assumed-to-be undermanned Rebel front has totally stonewalled the Alabama offensive line. Yeldon has no choice but to try to bounce out towards the sideline and get to space in the short side of the field. Notice that both Shackelford and Prewitt do a great job of keeping their eyes in the backfield and staying on their toes, so as not to get burned by a play action.
Yeldon is fully committed to running right at this point, as Connor has released off of the edge into the backfield, and Elston is waiting right behind him. This is where things really fall apart for Alabama.Tight end Brian Vogler gets owned by Denzel Nkemdiche, as the smaller linebacker uses his superior speed and quickness to pull off a nifty spin and blow right past him. This forces Fowler to have to pick up the elder Nkemdiche. Now Alabama finds itself in a two-on-two situation, with right tackle Austin Shepherd climbing to the next level to meet Shackelford and Prewitt and Yeldon following behind him. If Shepherd could possibly seal one defender by blocking the other, the play has a chance.
Shepherd isn't able to pull off that tough double-block, and Prewitt comes free, ready to meet Yeldon in the only lane left open. However, it wouldn't have mattered anyway. After getting torched by Nkemdiche, Vogler looks to atone for his mistake by chasing after him. All that does is end up clogging Yeldon's lane even more. To make matters worse, the quick-striking Haynes is about to rip off of right guard Leon Brown's grasp, ending this play before Prewitt even has to do anything about it.
The Rebels don't have to do anything clever or cute here; they simply beat Alabama at the point of attack, undersized or not. Alabama is going to have to do a better job of blocking up front in order to move the ball effectively Saturday night. Ole Miss has a number of both light and heavy guys who they use to show offenses a bunch of different looks in the trenches. If the Crimson Tide's right side of the line doesn't do a better job of blocking quick alley players than they did against Middle Tennessee, Haynes, Nkemdiche, and Connor are going to be living in the Tide's backfield.
Of course, one way to keep guys like Nkemdiche and Connor out of the backfield is by keeping them honest in the passing game. Jake Coker is going to be tasked with moving the ball though the air against an elite secondary. With guys like Shepard, Tony Bridges, Elston, Mike Hilton, Kendarius Webster, and Connor roaming around in the defensive backfield, Coker is going to have to do a better job of reading the defense and making smarter throws than he did last Saturday.
That ball has to be thrown either into the stands or out of bounds in the flats. The Ole Miss defensive backs will be licking their chops if they get an opportunity like that this upcoming weekend. That's an interception waiting to happen, and in a game that will be as low scoring as this one, those are extremely important points wasted on a first down.
This is either horrible decision making, or a terrible pre-snap read. Regardless, this definitely won't fly against Ole Miss. Middle Tennessee is playing a Cover Three with a corner blitz on the strong side. With only one vertical route attacking downfield, it's obvious that both safeties are going to be running with receiver ArDarius Stewart. There is a near-zero chance of this play-action bomb working unless one of the deep safeties bites really hard on the run-fake or Stewart blows right past both of them. Coker locked on to this route the minuted it was called, and it cost the Tide a possession near the fifty-yard line.
If Coker had worked through his progressions, he would have been able to come back to Derrick Henry in the flats and pick up some positive yardage. The blitzing cornerback has given up on his failed assignment and started to climb back downfield as he watches Coker's eyes. Coker had the perfect opportunity to look off both safeties, the once-blitzing corner, and the linebacker that will run with tight end O.J. Howard down sideline. If he had done this correctly, all it would have taken is a quick dump-off to Henry just over the head of the lineman bringing pressure and this could have been a big play. It would have been a preferred outcome at the least.
Alabama is going to face a tall task on Saturday night, arguably the toughest of the young season. With Ole Miss setting all kinds of school records so far this year, the Crimson Tide are entering the annual battle with their Oxford neighbors with a bit more of a sense of urgency than usual.
Nick Saban's squad remembers the outcome of the game a year ago well, but unless the Tide can perform at a greater, more efficient level, they will be doomed to repeat themselves in what should be a slugfest of a match-up. Hugh Freeze has assembled a club that can not only counter Alabama, but also find sustained success against the Southern dynasty. How much Alabama has grown from last season, as well as how much Saban and company have learned from last season's match-up, will go a long way in determining how this epic SEC West showdown will play out on Saturday night.