I guess sometimes the script gets flipped on you.
Think back to the 2009-2012 seasons when Alabama would simply show up, play virtually mistake-free football, and wait for the other team to kill itself with inevitable blunders. Yeah, about that...
Take nothing away from an Ole Miss team that kept coming at Alabama all night long. Robert Nkemdiche was his virtually unblockable self, the veterans in their secondary showed up big, Chad Kelly persevered against a nasty pass rush and made the plays he needed to make, particularly in the fourth quarter when Alabama had made the game close and placed all the pressure on his shoulders. That last part should portend well for him and Ole Miss in the future, probable losses of several NFL caliber players notwithstanding. They look like real contenders to make the playoffs.
Still, this is where we talk about Alabama and what Alabama did in the game. Quite simply, Alabama played the role of the inexperienced team that hasn't found its way and made fatal mistakes that allowed the Rebels to win two in a row for the first time in series history. In addition, the worst fears from the summer came to fruition in this one, as the passing game was exposed as simply not good enough against a secondary that can match up athletically. For Tide fans, there was definitely more to hate than to like about Saturday night.
First off, there were a few positives. Derrick Henry ran hard against an elite front, gaining a healthy 127 yards on 23 carries. OJ Howard and Calvin Ridley showed flashes of brilliance. The defense was tough against the run and applied plenty of pressure on the passer for most of the evening despite being put in terrible situations for most of the first half. The Tide fell behind by 20 points in the third quarter and I frankly had written them off, only to watch the defense step up and get the offense back in the game. Cyrus Jones once again played bigger than his size, covering star WR Laquon Treadwell admirably.
Outside of two awful fumbles we will discuss further below, the special teams actually played a great game. Kick coverage was outstanding again outside of a lone return that made it out to about the 40. Amazingly, JK Scott was only asked to punt twice but did so effectively, including one pin inside the 10-yard-line. Adam Griffith made all of the kicks he was asked to make, though strategic decisions made it more than evident that the coaching staff had no faith in anything more than chip-shot field goal chances. The team executed an onside kick beautifully to earn one more chance late. In fact, the greatest positive to take away from this game is the team's resolve. Time and again they made mistakes to put themselves behind the eight-ball, but every time they battled back to get themselves back in the game.
Beyond that, it was ugly. You could almost start and end this piece with two words: five turnovers. Even worse, the Tide forced zero turnovers from Ole Miss. When your team loses by one score after going minus-5 in the turnover column, it is fair to say that they blew an opportunity in a highly winnable game. The bottom line on the offense is that it simply isn't good enough at this point to come from behind. Jake Coker and Cooper Bateman combined for three interceptions, with neither putting up a terribly impressive stat line. The problems weren't new: misreads, throws into coverage, throws behind the receivers that limited or eliminated the opportunity to run after the catch. Unless the QBs find a way to get in sync with the receivers, the team will be limited by the passing game.
Defensively, the big play was once again a problem, with the most glaring coverage bust coming at the hands of freshman Marlon Humphrey on one of the infamous POP passes, complete with missed offensive linemen and eligible receivers illegally blocking five yards downfield. Despite the missed flag, blame simply has to be placed on the true freshman for leaving his man with the QB still behind the line of scrimmage. He is young and will undoubtedly learn from it, just as Dee Milliner learned from his trial-by-fire season in 2010. Red zone defense faded in the second half, but that is to be expected when placed in bad field position over and over again. Another freshman, Minkah Fitzpatrick, had a shot at an easy interception that may have been returned for a touchdown and put the Tide ahead late in the game, but in contrast to the opportunistic Rebels' secondary he was unable to catch the ball.
Lastly, the ball simply bounced their way tonight. The crazy ball that Kelly threw off of Minkah Fitzpatrick's helmet while being drilled that subsequently, somehow, became an Ole Miss touchdown summed up the night perfectly. Alabama inexplicably fumbled the ball twice on kickoff returns, both went to the Rebels. Chad Kelly fumbles the ball, it squirts under A'Shawn Robinson and to an Ole Miss player. Jake Coker throws a desperation pass while getting hit, it gets intercepted. Chad Kelly throws a desperation pass while getting hit, it's a touchdown. The officials will need to ultimately decide whether they wish to get serious about the lineman downfield rule as teams are intentionally making a mockery of the rule currently with little to no retribution.
Going forward, the team should feel much worse about the way it played than where it stands. It has to be fairly obvious at this point, if it wasn't already, that Coker is the starting QB. Cooper Bateman may get some additional opportunities, but they will likely come in special packages and mop-up duty. When they watch the tape and look at the box score, the Tide will see a game that should have been won by a couple of scores by just eliminating a few of the mistakes. The good news is that the team has plenty of talent and room to grow. The bad news is that after next week the schedule gets absolutely brutal. Hopefully they get some of the issues ironed out, along with some better luck, and go on to a successful season.