I had a great conversation with Red Cup Rebellion this week about the upcoming game. They seem a bit nervous about their chances, especially with the weakened secondary and a one-dimensional offense. This gets a little wordy, but is hopefully worth the read.
RCR: Ole Miss' strongest unit is easily is receiving corps. The only way they find success offensively (in my opinion) is by exploiting any mismatches there. What does Alabama's secondary look like, particularly with respect to size and experience?
Brent: After quite a few years of having issues in the secondary, 2016 looks to hold the best Alabama since 2011- a team with Dee Milliner, Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron, and Robert Lester.
Marlon Humphrey leads the way at cornerback. The 3rd year sophomore is a big player at 6'1" and around 200 pounds. He's also a track star with very impressive speed. Humphrey is a smooth and graceful athlete who can lock down receivers as well as make some impactful hits in run support. He has a good shot at being a top-15 draft pick as a sophomore.
Next is Minkah Fitzpatrick. The true sophomore from New Jersey plays the nickel corner, or star, position, and is a shade bigger than Humphrey. While not as good of a pure cover man as Humphrey (and also a little prone to pass interference calls), Fitzpatrick is an exceptional ball hawk with an uncanny ability to stick his nose in every single play.
At safety, Eddie Jackson is the 5th year senior and ringleader of the group. He's a former cornerback, so his ballhawking ability was on display as he led the SEC in interceptions last year. He also seems to get a touchdown almost every time he intercepts the ball. For all his ability, however, he has a bit of an Achilles heel when it comes to making a tackle at an angle. He over pursues more often than not, and runners can easily cut back inside of him.
The other safety is true sophomore Ronnie Harrison. Like Fitzpatrick, Harrison made an impact last year as a true freshman, and returns for a second season with more experience. He's a big hitter at 6'3" 215, and a surprisingly nimble cover man. He plays with unmatched fire a passion, a trait that sometimes gets the best of him, whether it be by over aggressiveness to play fakes or getting into arguments on the sideline.
The new member of the secondary this season is redshirt junior Anthony Averrett. The smallest member of the backfield at a generous 6'0" 180, he's also the fastest, reportedly tied with Calvin Ridley as the second fastest player on the team. Despite that, he's a little raw and unsure of himself still. USC dropped a couple of deep balls on him early, and Western Kentucky tried to do the same, though he corrected his mistakes in game two. He's also been surprisingly effective in run support so far, and actually leads the team in tackles. If Ole Miss is going to pick on a weak link, it will likely be Averrett.
When in a dime defense, safety Ronnie Harrison will move up to cover the 4th receiver while junior safety Hootie Jones, a 220 pound monster, will take his spot deep. Jones has been the primary backup for three years, but has never been given much playing time. He's mostly an unknown, but the coaches seem to trust him.
In a similar vein, my question is about your receiving corps. What do the different receivers look like? Their strengths and weaknesses? How do you think they'll match up?
RCR: Yay! I get to talk about something good first.
Ole Miss' receiving corps lost two players to the NFL draft last season, but it's set up to remain strong. While other units at Ole Miss would be decimated by The loss of two NFL-caliber players, the coaches have recruited well at the position.
The Rebels return Damore'ea Stringfellow, who is huge and quite good. He hasn't been featured in the offense as the Rebels spread the ball around, but he is clearly the most likely receiver to emerge as Treadwell's production replacement. He is good at using his body when the ball is in the air, and he has reliable hands. He isn't a burner, but he has adequate speed.
Quincy Adeboyejo is the other outside starter. He's good and all, but he hasn't ever really developed into anything more than a really fast receiver. He's at his best when asked to take the top off of a defense, but if the Rebels are looking for a few tough yards, Chad Kelly is generally looking elsewhere.
The starter in the slot is redshirt freshman Van Jefferson, who was a top ten receiver coming out of high school. He is the best route runner on the team and is known for having good hands (though he did not display them against Wofford). Jefferson isn't particularly fast, but the hope is that the crispness of his routes lowers that issue.
Damarkus Lodge, a true sophomore who should have redshirted last season, is a very capable outside receiver, but he hasn't distinguished himself in the rotation yet. He was also a top ten prospect out of high school, and fans still expect a good bit out of him.
Markell Pack is the only other significant veteran. The junior has made several tough catches during his career, but he has never dominated. He's a solid possession receiver but doesn't ever make plays for big gains.
AJ Brown is the freshman of note, after major red zone threat DK Metcalf broke his foot against Wofford. Brown is reminiscent of Laquon Treadwell in terms of his abilit yto pick up yards after the catch by physically decimating opponents. He's not Laquon Treadwell, but there are similarities there. In particular, there was one play against Florida State in which Brown stiff-armed a corner to the ground and didn't appear to lose any speed.
The quarterback situation appears to be pretty well sorted at Alabama. What are Jalen Hurts' strengths and weaknesses?
Brent: We're pretty well familiar with A.J. Brown over here. That might have been the biggest recruiting loss for us last spring.
Jalen Hurts looks to have won the job. By all accounts, it seems he has, but Nick Saban won't admit it just yet for whatever reason.
Hurts is 6'2" 210, so he's well built and supposedly one of those weightlifting gym rats. The true freshman is poised beyond his years, and he has thus far looked unflappable in the pocket. That's something we didn't see with Jake Coker and Blake Sims the previous two years, despite the fact that both were 5th year seniors.
Hurts has a fairly strong arm (though not quite on the level of Blake Barnett, his main competition) and can drop 60 yard throws without having to rainbow the ball to the sky, and it's strong enough to routinely hit 10-15 yard outs. He also has a beautiful spiral and quick release that are the stuff of dreams for QB coaches.
Despite all of that, he has struggled a little with inconsistent ball placement. While some of his throws are absolutely perfect, others have been a bit off, particularly his deep shots. Some of that is likely due to slight hesitations that should plague a freshman, no matter his talent.
He's also a true dual threat QB with some wheels and elusive ability. He's been used extensively on read options and even QB draws, and many of his passes are on designed roll outs. He hadn't broken any big runs so far, but you can tell he's right on the verge of it.
His biggest issue so far though is that he's repeatedly stared down his receivers before throwing. It led to an ugly interception against USC, but Western Kentucky never capitalized on it.
The kid has a lot of talent and definitely has the right attitude and moxy to make it big, but he's still an 18 year old true freshman. He's going to make mistakes.
When Ole Miss's defense is on the field, which matchup do you think will show a Rebel advantage? Disadvantage?
RCR: Well, don't worry. Ole Miss won't be able to capitalize off his inconsistent ball placement as the corners are playing 5 yards off receivers at any given point.
Um... hm... I guess maybe the defensive line could potentially maybe have an advantage. The defensive tackle rotation is absurd, and there are two difference-makers at defensive end.
In the interior, starters DJ Jones and Breeland Speaks are excellent. Speaks stepped in when Nkemdiche missed time last year and was a major force who didn't miss a beat. Jones is huge and agile, something we don't normally see. Sixth-year senior Isaac Gross has a lightning-quick first step that simply ends a couple of plays a game before they even get started, though at 260 pounds, he's not really a capable every down kind of guy. The most welcomed sight has been true freshman Benito Jones. Any fans who watched his high school highlights could tell he had a tremendous first step, and his listed weight of 300 gives him a lethal combination. He has already logged two huge TFLs in his early career and had a sack against Deondre Francois negated due to the Rebels accepting a holding penalty on the play. He's a future all-star.
Ends Marquis Haynes and Fadol Brown are both major assets but for different reasons. Haynes is an explosive pass-rusher with crazy athleticism. He makes plays defensive ends aren't supposed to make. Unfortunately, he struggles a bit when teams run right at him. Fadol Brown on the other hand is a fantastic run stopper with an above-average-but-not-great set of pass-rushing skills. They really work well with one another. Unfortunately, Brown is on a snap count as he recovers from an injury that has plagued him since the spring. Past Brown is John Youngblood, a player who is fine and doesn't get out of position but isn't as physically talented as either of those ends listed ahead of him.
Speaking of, how has the injury bug hit Alabama this season? Are any contributors expected to miss time?
Brent: So far, the Tide has escaped in almost perfect health. Robert Foster, after missing an entire year from the broken collarbone he suffered from against Ole Miss last year, is being worked back in to receiver rotation and looks to be 100%.
Wide receiver Cam Sims, the 5th receiver in rotation, hurt his shoulder against USC and missed all of week two. He is supposedly able to go this week if needed, but I wouldn't expect to see him.
Linebacker Rashaan Evans, a speedy role player who excels at blitzing and QB spying, has been on a limited snap count the first two weeks, but all indications say he is at least close to fully healthy.
I saw your corner, Webster, go down against Florida State. Just how big of an impact will that make in the secondary?
RCR: Y'all don't have any major injuries because of course you don't.
Um, he was easily the best corner on the team. The rest of the corner rotation is... not good. It's a pretty dire situation, honestly. Against Florida State, even the "best" corners remaining looked lost all the time. It's difficult for me to even pinpoint one specific thing to talk about. Ken Webster was absolutely vital to a secondary replacing both starting safeties with a freshman and a sophomore. Without him, they can't leave corners on an island very often, and that pretty much messes up everything.
Can you make me feel a little better by talking about a weakness of Alabama's team?
Brent: When it comes to the Tide defense, I can't assuage your fears very much. This defense is likely better than the 2015 version, and when all is said and done, might well pass the 2011 squad.
The offense, however, is an entirely different matter. The receiving corps is probably the best ever assembled in Tuscaloosa, but the rest is still a by unsettled. There's a true freshman at QB. Two talented, yet unproven, sophomores at running back: Damien Harris with a shifty running style and Bo Scarbrough, a big bruiser.
But there is no identity. Neither running back has really taken hold yet, and the offense is morphing into something akin to what you run at Ole Miss, with read options, jet sweeps, and very little operating from under center. Yet, the traditional style influences are still there. The team doesn't know what players to feature yet, or how to do it.
To make matters worse, the interior offensive line has been in disarray. There's a new center and left guard, and two former starters are still battling for right guard. Maybe. We really don't know what's going to happen in those three spots from week to week.
The tackles, Cam Robinson and true freshman Jonah Williams, have been nothing short of outstanding, but the interior has been a baffling mystery. With a new quarterback and running back too, the entire core of the offense is still doing a lot of soul searching.
Will this team morph into an air raid attack to make use of the plethora of talented receivers? Will it attempt to re-establish a smash mouth presence in the run game? Or will it continue to be caught in the middle without confidence of what to turn to when things get tough?
We know that Ole Miss has an exceptional passing game, but what does the run game look like? Has it been totally eschewed in favor of a Chad Kelly-led attack?
RCR: Well, it actually hasn't been bad. In fact, the Rebels are averaged over 5 yards per carry against FSU when sacks were removed from the equation.
But they just don't run very much. Part of that is how one running back was deemed academically ineligble due to an academic advisor mishap. Another suffered a season-ending injury on his first carry of the season. So the Rebels are without two of their top three for the remainder of the year. They just don't have enough quality at the position right now I guess. I'm not sure that will change until next season though, unfortunately.
Also, the offensive line seems to shift wildly in their ability. Some plays they handle even great defenders. On other plays, it's as if they aren't even there. They're primary young and inexperienced, so I guess that's to be expected. Still, it was strange to watch them crush FSU in the first half and then struggle against Wofford at times.
Do you think Nick Saban is particularly frustrated with Hugh Freeze? Obviously, losing to Ole Miss two years in a row hasn't harmed Bama's seasons, but I know he hates to lose. Have you seen anything particularly abnormal from him regarding this game?
Brent: You know Nick Saban. He’s always pretty testy about most everything. While I have heard rumblings that there are pictures of Ole Miss players in the weight room this week for motivation, Nick Saban himself hasn’t been anything other than his usual slightly irritated self.
Despite what coach says, though, we all know this is a huge game, for our team and fanbase. We haven’t lost to a team three times in a row since Saban started his reign. How do you see this game going? What’s your final prediction?
RCR: Most of the commenters on our site have started to hate on me pretty hard for my negativity. That will continue today. I think there's a less than 10% chance Ole Miss wins this one. Alabama is just far too talented across the board. The Crimson Tide made Southern Cal look like an FCS team. Ole Miss didn't really even make Wofford, an FCS team, look like an FCS team.
The Ole Miss offense will likely be one-dimensional, Alabama will win the turnover battle, and the Crimson Tide will win going away. Alabama by 14.
Brent: I think you’re lowballing a little with the 10% chance, but the Alabama by 14 sounds about right. I expect to see Alabama jump out to an early lead, but the Tide offense stalls and Chad Kelly swags his way back into the game. But a key turnover in the 4th quarter sparks a couple of quick scores to put the game away. Alabama 31- Ole Miss 20.
Thanks for talking with me, and I look forward to the matchup on Saturday!