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Hope For the Best: Ole Miss edition

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While Bama has dominated the SEC West for nearly a decade, there's an up-and-comer making a claim as the strongest team in the league. Can Ole Miss undo history and beat Bama in back-to-back years...in Tuscaloosa?

Bama running back Kenyan Drake could be the key to unlocking the Rebels' stingy defense
Bama running back Kenyan Drake could be the key to unlocking the Rebels' stingy defense
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama versus Ole Miss brings about a recurring theme: each year, amidst the bluster of early-season victories, a plucky Ole Miss squad has high aspirations of knocking off an Alabama team that has dominated the SEC West for nearly a decade. With great confidence, bold predictions are made, with many forecasting the final felling of the crimson giant by the perennial underdog...in this case, the new kid on the block, aka Rebel head coach Hugh Freeze's particular rendition of the new-wave uptempo offense.

Last season, for the first time in a decade, the Rebels made good on their promise and proved their pre-game confidence warranted, knocking off the Crimson Tide in Oxford by a touchdown. With a team that is better (or at least equal) at every position on the field (and most importantly, at quarterback), can the Ole Miss Rebels do the unthinkable and beat Alabama for a second consecutive year...in Tuscaloosa? Let's take a historical perspective, if only for a moment.

An Ole Miss victory over Alabama, regardless of site or ranking, is a once-a-decade event. Without considering NCAA-mandated win abandonment, the Tide leads the series 51-9-2 across 62 meetings stretching all the way back to 1894. Geographically speaking, Ole Miss has not fared well in the state of Alabama, with an all-time record of 1-35-1 when playing Bama in Sweet Home, the lone victory coming in 1988.

Looking outside of the "rivalry" game, Alabama has traditionally performed very well under the current circumstances, regardless of opponent. One must look all the way back to the 1973 and 1974 seasons to find a team (in this case, Notre Dame) who beat Alabama in consecutive seasons when the Tide was ranked in the top three nationally. Then there's the infamous "revenge" factor...under Coach Nick Saban's leadership, the Tide is 9-1 when facing a team that beat Alabama in the previous season. The one loss came in 2011 against LSU, a defeat the Tide avenged later that year in the National Championship game with a 21-0 victory over the Tigers.

Given these historical trends, it would be easy to forecast a Tide win Saturday. But to do so based on history alone would be premature, as while the Tide aces the history exam, it is the Rebels, at this point in the season, that are putting up Honor Society marks in Statistics and Analytics. The Rebels have demonstrated offensive explosiveness early in 2015, albeit against teams of lesser quality. The offense is averaging north of 600 yards per game in total production with a top three ranking nationally in explosive plays (plays of over 20 yards). With a veteran defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in the major categories, this year's Ole Miss team is a horse of a different color, to say the least.

Of course, it's easy to say that Ole Miss is the best team that Bama has faced this season (given the short-comings of Wisconsin and Middle Tennessee State). But in honesty, that isn't saying much. While Wisconsin boasted a strong defense, their offense was fairly inept against Bama's shutdown defensive unit. Outmanned Middle Tennessee State really had little chance of doing little more than escaping with a lukewarm moral victory by scoring a single touchdown. Not only does Ole Miss represent the best team the Tide has faced to date, but this Rebel squad is likely one of the best two teams the Tide will face in the regular season this year.

Scared yet? You will be...you will be. Let's take a closer look...

The Alabama offense versus the Ole Miss defense

Ole Miss, hands down, has one of the best two defenses Alabama will face this season. Loaded with four- and five-star talent and utilizing a difficult-to-attack 4-2-5 defensive scheme wielded by veteran coordinator Dave Wommack, this is not your father's Ole Miss Rebel defense.

Make no mistake, this unit is loaded, and as stated earlier this week, Ole Miss boasts one of the few units in the country that can match defensive talent with Alabama. Everyone knows about super-freak junior defensive tackle (and sometimes end) Robert Nkemdiche (6'4", 295 pounds) and his athletic ability. Nkemdiche against almost anyone on the Alabama offensive line outside of left tackle Cam Robinson (and possibly center Ryan Kelly) is, quite frankly, frightening.

The right side of Alabama's line looked decent versus Wisconsin aside from a few breakdowns, but last week against MTSU, things were downright ugly at times. Right tackle Dominick Jackson is a large man and is at home when run-blocking straight ahead, sled-style. But speed ends gives him fits, as does the all-out edge rush. He was beaten routinely by smaller Blue Raider defensive ends last week, which doesn't bode well for his ability to battle the Rebels uber-speedy and athletic junior defensive end Marquis Haynes. Defensive end Fadol Brown is no slouch either, though his edge-holding role would better suit a player with Jackson's style of play. When Haynes lines up over Jackson, there is big play potential for the Rebels, without question.

Junior right guard Alphonse Taylor has fared well early on, but again, against the likes of Nkemdiche and senior nose tackle Woodrow Hamilton, there's no way to predict how Shank will fare. Fortunately, Taylor will get help from Kelly against the Rebel's stellar interior line, which offers some comfort until one considers Wommack's typical pass rush schemes thrive when all five offensive linemen are engaged and tangled up with the four down linemen at the point of attack. It is at that point that Wommack brings his penetrators into the game plan, whether in the form of senior Stinger linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche (5'11", 208 pounds), senior Mike linebacker (and converted defensive end) C.J. Johnson (6'2", 225 pounds) or junior nickel defensive back Tony Conner (6', 217 pounds).

Against powerful, large pro-style offenses, Wommack's light, speedy defensive roster turns the size of opponent's O linemen into a cumbersome liability to be exploited. While Alabama's offensive line thrives against the typical 4-3 SEC defense, the 4-2-5 creates inherent speed mismatches that favor the defense against both the run and the pass. Passing lanes are clogged by defenders, and the excellent cornerbacks can play on islands of man coverage while safeties, the nickel and a linebacker can play a four-man underneath zone to take away the short routes.

Not only does this tactic take away the easy pitch-and-catch and safety valves needed for both spread and pro-style short passing principles, but it also allows the speedy defensive backs to stay in prime position to defend against the run in the event that offenses use a heavy run-pass option component. Simply stated, defensive reads become easier and defenders are rarely out of pocket.

This is a very difficult style of defense to attack, particularly for an offense built in the mold of the one Lane Kiffin has constructed at Alabama.  Kiffin's offensive dynamics rely on the short and mid-range pass, whether in the form of slants, quick-outs or tunnel/ bubble screens. Against aggressive, attacking defensive lines, these tactics are quite successful, using the pursuit of the defense against itself. Kiffin can flood the field with play-making receiving options, even with basic 21 personnel on the field, distributing the ball inside to out, from the flats out to the boundaries and up the seam, based on what the defense is giving. Such was the case with Bama's offense in 2014 with Blake Sims at the helm, and Sims' running ability offered yet another weapon with which the offense could attack opponents.

This year, such confidence in the quarterback has not developed...and with good reason. That's not to say that Jake Coker or Cooper Bateman can't eventually snatch the reigns and replicate Alabama's historic offensive output from a year ago. But as of yet, the tools just aren't there to build such an edifice. Coker's arm strength is tremendous, but his accuracy at this point appears mediocre at best. This liability takes away the deep pass threat, and regardless of the presence of skilled receivers, Kiffin (and more likely, Saban) are loathe to let Coker probe the deep pockets of the field. With a couple future NFL prospects in the secondary (namely Conner and senior free safety Trae Elston), the toss-it-up, jump-ball technique is not advisable for a quarterback who has not proven he can consistently execute the deep passing game at a high level.

Taking away the deep threat, what can Alabama's offense do to attack the Rebel defense? Alabama will likely attempt the gridiron equivalent of waterboarding by chipping away at the defense with dips and dumps. That said, the quick outs and wide receiver screens, against the tightly-played Cover-3 executed by the Ole Miss defense, could have disastrous, pick-6 type results, with speedy intuitive corners and "Rover" Mike Hilton (5'9" 184 pounds) waiting to pounce. As one can see, the Rebel D has the ability to shrink the field, and the accompanying list of offensive options.

As is generally the case, Alabama will need to successfully run the ball to have any chance of success in moving offensively. Historically, when the Tide loses, it's because the running game fails to yield an average of four yards per carry. Expect Alabama to test the Rebel run defense early. Guard play will be extremely important, as Taylor and sophomore left guard Ross Pierschbacher will need excellent outings to make the correct reads and physically dominate a large, quick and talented defensive line (especially considering the apparent liability of Jackson.)

Derrick Henry is the kind of back that is necessary to attack a run defense like the one Ole Miss wields. Henry outweighs the Rebel linebackers (with the elder Nkemdiche at 208 and Johnson at 225), and given their importance against the run in Wommack's scheme, that is one of Bama's greatest mismatches. As previously stated, the defensive linemen are charged with tying up blockers so that the free-flowing, speedy backers can filter through the line and into the running lanes or opposing backfield. Imagine the task ahead of a guy like Nkemdiche or Connor when he is expected to pop into a gap and bring down a snorting Henry under a full head of steam...that is an image that should put a smile on the face of anyone praying for a Bama victory on Saturday.

Henry's success will breed success in Bama's other star tailback, Kenyan Drake. Drake's speed and agility represent his upside, and he has the ability to press the hole aggressively at the point of attack. Against a larger defense, his skill set can be lethal, as his acrobatics take pressure off of the offensive line. His quick wiggle creates gaps independent of the work of the line, and in space, he is simply electrifying (as displayed last week against the Blue Raiders.)

Ole Miss has the speed and scheme (with as many as five defensive backs playing tight against the box if not inside it) to offset some of the advantages inherent in Drake's natural athletic ability. However, that does not count him out of the game plan at all. With Drake's intuitive ability to pick through defenses to daylight, the underneath zone can be exploited in the short passing game (if the quarterback can get the ball out quickly and accurately, which remains to be seen.)

Like many SEC offensive play-callers, Kiffin loves him some jet sweep, and much like Reggie Bush at USC, Drake's skill set is tailor-made for that call. Freeze expressed concern about "Drake the athlete" this week, and specifically mentioned the jet sweep, in which the speedy back sucks up a push pass at full speed while moving laterally down the line. When he sees the gap he wants, Drake hits it aggressively, taking laterally pursuing defenders by surprise. Given the way Wommack likes to use linebackers and defensive backs to pinch towards the box in run support, if Drake beats the first man and gets through the gap cleanly, he'll have little legitimate opposition at the second level. This could be a devastating play for the Tide offense, and could go a long way towards neutralizing the vertical speed upon which the Rebel D prides itself.

Drake's scatback ability and Henry's straight-ahead power running make for a dynamic tandem, and against the Ole Miss defense, they together create a recipe for success. Henry is the steady, draining, telephone-pole-straight jab to Drake's knockout-inducing flash uppercut.

While the strength of the 4-2-5 as run by Wommack is the availability of speedy, athletic defensive backs and small, fast linebackers in both pass defense and run support, there are inherent liabilities therein. For example, take the linebackers...they are neither large enough to consistently face off in winning fashion against Henry, nor are they fast enough to deal with the raw speed and elusiveness of a guy like Drake. Such is the winning combination for Alabama in the run game, and Kiffin will have to be atop his play-calling game to properly exploit it and create confused desperation among the veteran Rebel defenders.

Regarding Bama's quarterback... Saturday will be a gauntlet, to be sure. The Ole Miss defense is comprised of salty veterans who present confusing fronts. No other team in the SEC does as good a job disguising schemes outside from Alabama. Combine this with the defensive back-heavy base defense, a great pass rush and stellar secondary play, and the result could be an absolute nightmare performance for the eventual Bama signal caller.

Alabama won't need the quarterback to win the game with his arm, whoever he may be. What Bama will need from Coker or Bateman is heady, mistake-free play. No forcing the ball into double-coverages (as Coker did no less than five times last week against MTSU), no huge losses on sacks (such as those that plagued Coker early versus Wisconsin). The quarterbacks will need to read coverages, find the safest option on the check-down and execute as quickly as possible. If they catch the defense napping on an explosive play opportunity, they need the confidence to take a shot boldly. Certainly, Kiffin will give the quarterback some leeway to make adjustments in-time through run-pass options, but the Rebels' Rubix-cube like coverages and ability to defend the pass and run efficiently from the same alignment will add another layer of difficulty to that task.

All in all, Alabama's offensive talent (and in a way, its offensive philosophy) will be mightily tested by the balanced, veteran Rebel D. Sloppy play along the offensive line and in receiving routes will result in a loss. Whiffs, slow-developing plays and missed opportunities will result in a loss. Above all, turnovers will result in a loss. If Alabama has a mistake-free game in store for 2015, this match-up against Ole Miss better be it, or else the rest of the season's pursuit of a championship could be for naught.

The Alabama defense versus the Ole Miss offense

Despite the incredible hype surrounding the Rebel offensive unit following two 70+ point wins to open the season, it is this match-up that better favors the Crimson Tide. While many have prophesied that Bama's D versus the Rebel O is the key to the game, it is defensively that the Tide has the best chance of dominating the game.

Sure, the Rebel offense is extremely efficient. Look no further than new quarterback Chad Kelly, who in many ways is the anti-Bo Wallace, averaging nearly 300 yards per game as a passer while completing 76 percent of his throws. Unlike Wallace, Kelly has elite arm talent and can make every throw on the field, a fact the Rebel offense has leveraged for great effect in early 2015. The Rebel O is third in the nation in explosive plays (plays over 20 yards) with 18. Ole Miss also has 10 plays of 30+ yards, and is tied with Baylor for the lead nationally in plays of 50+ yards.

Not to mention, at least in the first two games of the season, the Rebels have found something they lacked against Bama in 2014: namely, a running game. The two leading Rebel backs, senior Jaylen Walton (5'8", 172 pounds) and sophomore Eugene Brazley (5'9", 189 pounds), are averaging over a 100 yards per game...each. Ole Miss hasn't had as potent a running attack since the days of Deuce McAllister, if the first two outings are any indication.

That sounds pretty scary, right? Indeed, as this is an Ole Miss the likes of which Bama hasn't seen in years. But pump the brakes on the hype train: The Rebels' success has come against inferior competition, for one. And make no mistake, the Rebels aren't just facing a "better" defense in Alabama this weekend. They are facing the best defense they'll see this season, particularly when it comes to stopping the run. Once one takes into consideration the Bama defensive line and run defense, it's a lot easier to see vectors for success when the Bama D faces the Rebel O than vice-versa.

Speaking of that defensive line, Alabama has an embarrassment of riches in depth and talent in the front seven, particularly along the line. Tackle Jarran Reed has been a wrecking ball, consistently going "HULK-SMASH" on opposing backfields while his better-known counterpart A'Shawn Robinson draws double teams. Given the attention both tackles have gotten early this season, athletic Jonathan Allen has become a force, whirling through blockers like a gargantuan Tasmanian devil and dropping opposing backs in their tracks.

Alabama's linebackers excel against the run as well, with Reggie Ragland leading the charge, followed by Reuben FosterDillon Lee and Shaun Dion Hamilton. If there is a pronounced strength among this corps of backers, it's their performance against the run, as they are collectively gap-sound, and run aggressively to the ball with great fundamentals (though Foster's habitual head-down tackling style is plain scary, for his sake).

If the Rebels are smart, the running game will factor little in Saturday's game by design, as there's just no reason to expect that the patchwork Ole Miss offensive line and smallish backs are going to last against the tsunami the Tide brings in run defense.

The Rebels, after all, will once again be without future NFL left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who continues to sit in regard to unspecified (at least, officially) potential NCAA infractions. With Tunsil (easily the Rebels' best lineman) out of the game, 6'5" senior right tackle Fahn Cooper will slide to the left edge, with redshirt freshman Sean Rawlings (6'5", 280 pounds) moving into the right tackle position (bless his heart). Rawlings isn't the only freshman on the depth chart for the Rebel O line, as left guard Jevon Patterson (6'3", 307 pounds) also carries that designation. Filling out the line are junior center Robert Conyers (6'5", 290 pounds) and senior Justin Bell (6'2", 347 pounds!!!).

Though there is senior leadership on the line, the presence of two freshmen does not bode well for Ole Miss when considering the vicious wave after wave of crimson-clad defensive linemen they'll be expected to corral. If the Alabama pass rush can't flourish under such circumstances, then the unit may be overrated. That, however, is not likely going to be the case. A team simply can't replace a player like Tunsil, there are no two ways about it. And with youth in key positions in the Rebel running game, expect Alabama's run defense to look impenetrable.

The same cannot be said, however, for Alabama's pass defense. In what was supposed to be a glimpse (albeit a less talented one) of the Ole Miss offensive style last week versus MTSU, Alabama struggled mightily against the uptempo offense in general, and the underneath passing game specifically. This will be a huge problem against Ole Miss this week, and Bama will have to hope its "bend-but-don't-break" approach works to limit the Rebel offense to field goal attempts.

Hear me now: do not fool yourself with Gumpish optimism. Ole Miss will move the ball through the air against Alabama. It is a foregone conclusion. Don't panic when first quarter graphics indicate that the Rebels have over a 100 yards passing early. Such is the nature of the beast when defending that particular type of offense helmed by a skilled passer. The more important number will be on the scoreboard, as games are still determined by points scored rather than yards accrued (much to the chagrin of Art Briles). All the passing yards in the world will matter little if Bama bows up in the red zone and keeps the Rebel kicker busy with attempts of the three-point variety.

Expect the Ole Miss passing game (which, like Bama, sports numerous receiving options) to thrive against the Bama linebackers and secondary. Even with a snuffed running game, the Rebels will turn short slants and quick outs into a proxy rushing attack, using the low-risk, high-percentage pitches to pick up small bites of yardage. If the Rebels are successful on first down, they will race-car the Bama defense by design. Bama's best bet to manage the tempo will come through limiting the Rebels to short gains on the all-important first down of a series. This cannot be underestimated in its importance.

Speaking of the wide receivers, Ole Miss has spread the ball around in their first two games, with nine receivers registering catches. That said, the big three are the electrifying junior Laquon Treadwell (who gave Bama fits last season), senior Cody Core (6'3", 205 pounds) and junior Quincy Adeboyejo (6'3", 195 pounds). All three have big play ability and fantastic size, which along with the Rebel scheme and uptempo approach, will present myriad problems for Alabama's still inexperienced secondary.

While senior corner Cyrus Jones has been excellent through the first two games, the rest of the rotation has high points and low points. Eddie Jackson was thought to be a fit at safety, but at times he has looked absolutely lost in pass coverage, which was his presumed strength as a safety. Minkah Fitzpatrick has played above his head for a true freshman, but counting on an first year player against an offense like the one the Rebels' field does not inspire confidence. Likewise, sophomores Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey have played well enough against lesser competition, but were out of position badly at times last week against MTSU.

As good as Alabama's linebackers are versus the run, they are often a liability in coverage when called upon in pass defense. The breakdowns have not just been due to speed or height mismatches either, which is often the case when an offense is fortunate enough to get a linebacker covering a receiver in the slot. The mistakes in the linebacking corps (aside from Ragland, who is on top of his game in all phases) have been schematic, as they were out of position and seemed confused about responsibilities. Against MTSU, such confusion resulted in short completions that were frustrating if not particularly troublesome against lesser talent. Against Ole Miss, however, such completions are the jabs that set up the big right hook, and every completed pass puts the Rebels' closer to another tempo-commanding first down opportunity.

Given, the struggles of Bama's linebackers in pass coverage, expect Rebel tight end Evan Engram to become a weapon for Kelly to use to slice between the hashes. Engram is a receiving tight end who presents speed mismatches against Bama's backers. Though he's only caught one pass this season, he had a huge game against the Tide last year. Expect the early season neglect of Engram to end this weekend, as much like Bama's O.J. Howard, he is a weapon too dangerous to keep in the holster.

Again, while it may be difficult to watch, Alabama won't hold the Rebel offense completely in check Saturday night. There will be moments of discomfort, to be sure. Bama's best bet will be to limit the big plays (which is a tall task against Kelly's arm and the Rebel wide receivers) and keep the Rebels in field goal situations when they inevitably penetrate the red zone. Though the Tide's run defense can keep Ole Miss one-dimensional, that one dimension can still do all the necessary damage on the scoreboard if allowed to operate at the Rebels' preferred pace of play.

Special Teams

Last week was once again ugly for special teams, and one must expect that Bama's beleaguered unit will be overmatched by those of the opponent, regardless of the competition. Adam Griffith has the physical skill to put the ball through the uprights, of that there is little doubt. However, a missed "glorified extra point" field goal attempt last week indicates a mental issue is likely haunting Griffith. Much like a golfer who's lost his swing (Tiger Woods come to mind), a kicker's game is all cadence and rhythm and confidence. Right now, Griffith has none of those things.

That said, his woes could end on a dime. With every made kick, his chances of rebounding increase. How long will Saban rely on Griffith, especially in short-distance situations where Gunner Raborn can be effective? That remains to be seen, but the thought of a tight game with Ole Miss is a terrifying prospect in regard to Bama's kicking game short-comings.

Though J.K. Scott managed to recover a little swagger against MTSU last week, he's still not operating at the high level Alabama enjoyed in 2014. Again, small inconsistencies and mental ticks can mean all the difference for kickers, and one can only expect with physical gifts like those sported by Scott, it is only a matter of time before the sophomore punter irons things out and is once again booting 70 yarders. Such a resurgence couldn't come at a better time than this Saturday.

Truthfully, it's not just the kicking that has been mediocre in the first two weeks. Bama's return and coverage teams have struggled to have any kind of positive impact, though thankfully any negative impact has been, for the most part, mitigated. With as much talent as Bama places on special teams, one has to wonder why the execution continues to be an issue in a phase of the game that is so important to Alabama's overarching philosophy. One can only hope it improves sooner rather than later.

As previously stated it, make no mistake: this is not your father's Ole Miss squad. It's not even the Ole Miss squad that beat Bama in Oxford last season. This team is better in all regards, and with a defense that can match Alabama in talent and depth, expect a gladiatorial battle of styles this Saturday: HUNH versus traditional smashmouth, spread versus pro-style, bigger and stronger versus smaller and faster. Much is at stake, as the loser may not only miss out on a trip to the College Football Playoffs, but will also likely cede the high ground in the race for the SEC West.

At press time, Bama is a 6.5 point favorite in Vegas, which indicates the smart money is on history to repeat itself. That said, ESPN analytics favor the Rebels, even accounting for the Rebels' rather weak early schedule. The quandary...who to trust? The mathletes or the money men? There's really no way to know which way the canoe will tip.

With all that the Rebels can throw at the Tide, and Alabama's perceived short-comings heading into Saturday's match-up, is it conceivable that the Rebels can undo the stitches of history by winning back-to-back games over Alabama? Can they really break the pattern and get the Rebels' second-ever win in Tuscaloosa?

The outcome has never been more in doubt. Be wary, and as always, hope for the best...