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Hope For the Best: Ole Miss edition

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The Rebel defense is a vapor of its former incarnation, but the offense is as potent as it ever was. Buckle up…

Wofford v Mississippi
Chad Kelly is a formidable foe for the Alabama defense.
Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Team A has won four of the last seven national championships, Team B hasn’t won one in eons. Team A has won eight of the last 10 meetings of the two teams. In more than 60 previous meetings historically, Team B has won the contest an average of only once per decade. Team A is led by probably the greatest coach of his generation, Team B is marshaled by a man not far removed from a career as a high school head coach.

Given those metrics, what is there for Team A to fear? Maybe, as the maxim goes, the only thing to fear is fear itself. Or, plot twist, maybe the only thing to fear is a third consecutive Alabama loss to the second-cousin across the state line.

Whether entrenched in logic or not, the last two seasons have given rise to a strange dynamic between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Ole Miss Rebels. Once the perennial whipping boy of the SEC West, Alabama’s annual doormat, a cellar-dweller that guaranteed a win season-in and season-out (aside from the intermittent dynamism of one Manning or another), Ole Miss has evolved into something else entirely under Hugh Freeze. Whereas they once were tied to the whipping post, for the last two seasons, they’ve flipped the script, lashing the Crimson Tide for their only regular season losses of the last two campaigns. They’ve become the Boogey Man beneath Alabama’s bed, the David to the Tide’s Goliath.

While some may not go so far as to call the uneasy feeling fans of the Crimson Tide feel this week “fear,” the pit in the stomach felt collectively across Tide Nation is evidence of the fact that Ole Miss has made its mark in the last two seasons. With giant-slayer and swag-magnet Chad Kelly once again helming one of the nation’s most potent iterations of the hated HUNH offense (which Nick Saban absolutely loathes), the Rebels are a legitimate threat to become the first team to beat a Saban-coached squad in three consecutive seasons since the coach’s days at Michigan State.

Add into that the fact that the Rebels will catch the Tide this year in Oxford in front of a rowdy crowd thirsty for another round of crimson blood, and the stage is set for yet another upset in the making.

Five years ago, Ole Miss was a blip on the Bama radar screen, an also-ran, an afterthought. Today, ask any Gump worth his salt which team the Tide absolutely MUST beat this season, and that answer will resoundingly be the Ole Miss Rebels.

Just like their namesakes of Star Wars fame, these Rebels have found a way to upturn the order of the football galaxy. They’ve defeated Darth Saban and his mighty crimson Empire, though their prospects for doing so against such an overwhelming, vastly superior force appeared meager at the outset. Though their odds have not been great in either of the last two meetings, they’ve seemingly had some supernatural patron, the Force if you will, on their side.

Take for example Exhibit A: the careening, pinball-style proton torpedo of a touchdown pass that ultimately sunk true into the exhaust port of the Tide’s Death Star in the 2016 game. That harried Hail-Mary from Kelly bounced off a helmet and hung in the air as if buoyed by an aberration of physics, a momentary lapse of gravity. That throw shouldn’t have resulted in a completed pass, let alone a touchdown that was the difference in the game in Alabama’s only loss of the 2015 campaign.

Once again this year, there’s no question Alabama has the better team. Alabama is deeper, stronger, more athletic everywhere it matters. Alabama’s defense is on a historic track, and the offense is constructing a new Death Star, albeit with a few kinks left to be straightened out.

But regardless of how the teams look on paper, it’s how they look on the grass-covered gridiron that is the only thing that matters in the long run. Alabama appears as ready as a team can be in the third week of the season, and Ole Miss has in its immediate past a total collapse against FSU after jumping to a big lead in the season opener.

All of that is known. But if Alabama has learned one thing in the last two seasons, it’s that the Rebels cannot be underestimated. They can win, and if Alabama drops its hands and leaves Ole Miss an opening, they have the ability to land an uppercut to the chin with knock-down power.

What’s different this season that could spell success for the Tide? Is Kelly in the heads of the Alabama defense, a boring weevil in the Bama psyche, too deeply embedded to be removed? Or, will the Tide defense rise to the task and finally break Kelly and the Rebels’ HUNH cypher? Will Jalen Hurts be the difference for the Crimson Tide offense in this game? Can Ole Miss’s ravaged secondary rise to the task of stopping the nation’s most potent receiving corps?

Questions abound. Let’s take a closer look…

Alabama offense versus the Ole Miss defense

Alabama’s offense is definitely a work in progress, but the early returns are promising.

With Jalen Hurts developing into a potent offensive threat for the Crimson Tide, Lane Kiffin is a fully-stoked speed-demon sitting on a garage full of muscle cars. He has a quarterback seemingly made for his offense: Hurts has the arm of Jake Coker, the elusiveness of Blake Sims. Pair Hurts’ inherent ability with the stable of thoroughbreds in the receiving corps and three emerging tailbacks who are a hair from breaking out this season, and it’s obvious that Alabama has an offense that can keep pace with the one the Rebels put on the field.

That effect will only be magnified by the fact that the Ole Miss defense is caught in the backwash of an ebbing veteran tide. After two years with senior- and junior-laden defensive rosters, the Rebels are quite green this year, especially in the all-critical secondary. Given the chosen scheme run by Ole Miss defensive coordinator David Wommack, defensive backs are key to execution at a high level. This season, after several years of top-level talent, the Rebels have fallen well below the DB high-water mark. Early injuries have not helped matters, as the Ole Miss secondary is so much of a mess that Freeze, purveyor of offensive firepower, is considering moving some of his prized receivers to the secondary just to fill out the two-deep.

With only the steady (but apparently still recovering) Tony Conner returning at the Husky position, there simply isn’t a lot of veteran depth in the Rebel back field. In many cases, their second stringers are true freshmen. Not four- and five-star true freshmen such as the ones working their way into playing time in Tuscaloosa, but rather just plain old, regular, run-of-the-mill freshmen.

Keep in mind, it’s not that the Rebels are absolutely devoid of talent among their five starting defensive backs (the Rebels run a 4-2-5 base system), it’s just that they haven’t coalesced as a unit at this point. They did, after all, cede over 400 yards passing to a redshirt freshman starter in the opener with FSU, as Deondre Francois saw his first legitimate playing time as a college athlete. There is a talent discrepancy between the 2015 and 2016 defensive units, but not one that would project the kind of difficulties the Rebels have experienced this early season.

The strength of the Ole Miss defense has to be the front six, and in particular, the defensive linemen. They are veterans, with tremendous run-stopping size in the middle and speed to burn on the edges at end. They rush the passer effectively, and are disciplined against the running game (FSU Heisman candidate Dalvin Cook was held to a mere four yards per carry, though he had success in the short passing game).

Alabama’s offense has been quite productive, even without its trademark brutalizing between-the-tackles running game. With big play ability at nearly every offensive skill position, there’s no doubt that a depleted Ole Miss secondary is going to struggle with Alabama’s offense. In the past, Wommack has had the luxury of four or five stellar defensive backs who were ideally suited to meet the needs of his unique system. Wommack asks defensive backs to be excellent in coverage (obviously), but they are equally as involved in run support, and at times, even the pass rush. This, however, was highly dependent on the presence of talented corners who could be counted on to lock down their receivers in man coverage while other defensive backs were committed to the box or pass rush.

Flash forward to 2016: the defense is breaking in a lot of new defensive backs, and those defensive backs are not nearly as talented as their predecessors. They are not just green: in many cases, against FSU, they looked fundamentally unsound. Such is the recipe for an Alabama air show on Saturday night, as Alabama’s passing game performed at a high level against much better corners (namely, USC’s Adoree Jackson and Iman Marshall), and there’s no reason to think that the passing game won’t once again prosper against Ole Miss.

The Alabama wide receivers not only present a talent problem for the Rebel secondary. They present a size differential that will be hard to overcome. Alabama’s receivers all top six feet in height (Cam Sims is 6-5), while three of the first-string defensive backs are under six feet. Field corner Carlos Davis measures in at a mere 5’8”, and it’s difficult to imagine Kiffin not finding a way to exploit the size mismatch numerous wide receivers will have over the diminutive corner. Alabama will profit, not just on broken coverages, but when there are contested catches that tip the advantage to the Tide’s length at receiver.

As rough as the Rebel secondary appears, the starting front six (four down linemen and two linebackers) are just plain ferocious. The interior of the defensive line is gigantic, with sophomore Breeland Speaks (6-3, 310 pounds) and senior D. J. Jones (6-0, 321 pounds) offering a middle-plugging obstacle to the Tide running game. This will be particularly formidable for a Tide offensive line that is at its weakest in the center, as Alabama’s backs have found little room to date between the tackles. The O line personnel is still in flux, according to Saban, which can’t be reassuring to anyone who follows the Tide.

At the end positions, Ole Miss has easily the most dynamic pass rusher the Tide has faced to date in junior Marquis Haynes (6-3, 222 pounds). Haynes, the Rebels’ leading returning sack artist, is speedy and difficult to contain. He can outcorner lumbering tackles around the end with his speed, or he can slip the inside shoulder with his burst off the ball, solid technique and quick feet. Whichever tackle faces Haynes, whether it’s Cam Robinson or Jonah Williams, will have his hands full all night long.

At the other end position, the Rebels rotate senior John Youngblood (6-3, 255 pounds) with senior Fadol Brown (6-4, 273 pounds). They will be charged with setting the edge and forcing Alabama’s running game back into the girth in the middle, and they will have a challenge in keeping Hurts in check when he pulls the ball down on zone read keeps.

The Ole Miss linebackers are not household names, but they are decent. The Stinger, in this case senior Terry Caldwell (6-1, 216 pounds) will be charged with pass rush responsibilities on some blitz calls as well as the unenviable task of hemming up receivers and tight ends in coverage out in the flats. The Mike, junior DeMarquis Gates (6-2,211 pounds) will feature in the run defense, and on many occasions, he will be charged with maintaining contain on Hurts and the running backs when they bounce outside.

Quite honestly, though the pass rush for the Rebels is pretty solid, they may have a hard time holding ground against Alabama’s offense. The match-up will be a tough one, as the Tide offensive line has excelled at pass blocking this season, even when they’ve struggled with clearing paths for the running backs. Add into that equation an explosive, dual-threat quarterback like Hurts, and as good as the Ole Miss pass rush is, it may be negated by what the Tide brings to the table.

Expect Alabama to move the pocket a little in an effort to run the legs off of all that girth in the middle of the defensive front. Hurts is adept while throwing from a moving pocket, and Alabama can use that to spread the already-weakened Ole Miss defense out and create space for its athletes. If Alabama can use movement and scheme to get the wide receivers matched up in one-on-one situations against the lacking Rebel defensive backs, then there will be lots of success in the passing game via quick strikes and YAC.

It can’t be stated enough how much the secondary issues with Ole Miss will factor into their inability to regularly stop Alabama. With the presence of a true dual-threat QB running the Tide offense, the Tide can create myriad problems for the back end of the Ole Miss defense, and that will spill over outside of that unit. For example, run defense will suffer, because Wommack won’t be able to count on corners in man, meaning he won’t be able to send defensive backs up in run support. Sell out and bring defensive backs up to stuff the run, and Alabama can slash Ole Miss in the passing game or run to the edges with the zone option. Drop the defensive backs to bolster the struggling corners, and Alabama’s running game will magically appear and subsequently control the ball. If Alabama can account for the front six defenders, then there may be gaps, especially if Kiffin uses some spread formations to create space and help the line with the task of run blocking.

Not to mention, the Tide has become an offense that loves the RPOs, and Hurts has the weapons to take advantage of them. It’s rather amazing that Hurts has had the wherewithall as a true freshman to seamlessly execute such a tactic, but he’s done a fairly nice job of recognizing coverages and making the right calls. There have been some mistakes to be sure, but all in all, the coaching staff appears comfortable allowing Hurts to make his reads and transition accordingly.

This will be of great importance against Ole Miss, as the element of surprise Alabama will enjoy at the line of scrimmage will leverage that weakened secondary for maximum effect. Just as he’s done in previous games, when Hurts sees a blown coverage, or a defensive back who has cheated the wrong way, he will take advantage. While Alabama many struggle a little to run in the early going, the Tide offense must be patient and set up the RPO second-guessing that will open running lanes in the second half as well as result in big plays in the vertical passing game.

The Alabama defense versus the Ole Miss offense

As good as the Alabama offense may be, it’s almost certain that the Tide’s true strength is the defense. Loaded with veterans and five-star talent, Alabama’s defense has been ridiculous in the first two games, allowing only 16 points scored with three interceptions and seven sacks. The Tide defense may not be as deep as in past years up front, but the overall package is something to behold, the pinnacle of Saban’s pivot to a lighter, more dynamic anti-HUNH unit.

That defense held up well under the pressure of combat with Western Kentucky’s high-flying offense in the previous game. Western Kentucky had a top-25 offense in 2015 en route to a 12-2 record, and offered a glimpse of what the Rebels will attempt to do against the Tide with tempo and the passing game. For what it’s worth, Alabama shut them down almost altogether. The Tops finally managed to get on the board late after a Tide fumble deep in Alabama territory, but had it not been for that, the dynamic WKU offense would not have sniffed the end zone.

It appears Alabama is ready for the tempest the Rebel offense will throw at them this week. But are they?

The Rebels are still led by Kelly, a quarterback who has the rare combination of a rifle-arm, race-car speed, and Hoodini-like elusiveness. Kelly was a difference-maker in the previous game with the Tide, not unfazed by the Alabama’s defensive reputation, never flustered from his game plan. And his game plan is one that breeds success for quarterbacks with his skill set. Freeze has given Kelly simple reads, a few base formations, and the ability to run the Rebels’ own RPO attack with the savvy of a multi-year starter.

The weak spot on the Rebel offense is the line, as Ole Miss had the unenviable task of restocking a unit that was loaded with NFL-caliber talent in 2015. The starters are huge (averaging 310 pounds with right guard Jordan Simms weighing in at 334 pounds), but so far, that size has not translated into domination of opposing defenses. For example, FSU’s defense held the Rebel running game to nearly nil, while victimizing the Rebel offensive front for six sacks. Kelly was harassed for most of the second half, and as a result of the Florida State pressure, he was responsible for three interceptions.

On the upside for Ole Miss, through two games, Kelly has gone 41-for-66 for 532 yards and seven touchdowns despite the line problems up front. One thing that the Rebels can count on out of Kelly is production. Unfortunately, on the other side of that coin is his reliability in throwing interceptions (he threw 13 in 2015).

But make no mistake, Alabama will once again have its hands full in dealing with the Rebel offense, as much ground as the Tide may have made up in battling HUNH teams. Laquon Treadwell is gone, but the Rebels still have senior Quincy Adeboyejo (6-3, 195 pounds) and junior Damore’ea Stringfellow (6-2, 211 pounds) on the edges, and newcomer Van Jefferson (6-2, 187 pounds) holding down the slot. Behind them, they have receivers galore, and they often use them in four- and five-wide sets. The skill position talent in the passing game is simply staggering, and as good as Alabama’s secondary appears to be in the first string, the Rebels’ depth at WR will test them.

The running game has been almost non-existent to open the season for the Rebels, as leading back Akeem Judd has a mere 19 carries in two games. Like Alabama, Ole Miss is working to develop the cohesiveness among members of the offensive line to execute the running game. However, unlike Alabama, which leans on the ground and pound, the running game is almost an afterthought for the Rebels, and is only useful insomuch as it sets up defensive guesswork for the prolific RPO usage employed by Ole Miss.

Alabama loves RPOs, but there are few teams nationally that execute RPOs as efficiently as Ole Miss with Kelly at the helm. Because he is a legitimate running threat, and because the Rebels have excellent skill position talent, they are able to keep defenses off-balance by steadily running an array of different looks out of the same basic sets. It’s not unusual to see Ole Miss hurry to the line and set up the same formation five plays in a row…with five different outcomes. It allows them to move at break-neck speed without adjustments, while preventing defenses from adjusting in the meantime.

That kind of thing is maddening for even an elite defense, as it negates talent advantages, introduces an explosive element of surprise, and prevents defenses from cheating towards offensive tendencies. Basically every running play is tagged with multiple pass routes. The linemen just block, often not even knowing if the play is a run or pass until it is well underway. Every route is live, meaning Kelly legitimately has the option to keep, handoff, or hit any of three or four (or five) receiving targets on a given play. How does a defense deal with that?

Add into that equation the HUNH tactics and the stress tempo inherently creates, and what you have is the recipe for a nightmare for any defense that has to figure out how to stop the Rebels. So many targets, so many options on any given play. A defense can’t read the offensive formation, can’t anticipate with any accuracy which way to even lean on a given formation.

As complicated as such a system sounds, it actually simplified things for Kelly, and it has bred success for him at Ole Miss. He is fantastic at reading the defense and executing the call.

Another key to the Rebel offense is their desire (and ability) to create high-low pressure on a defense, effectively making the defensive back field account for the entire length of the field. Defenses can’t cheat down and pinch routes, because Kelly can make them pay with his arm on intermediate or vertical routes.

High-low pressure works like this: two receivers run two routes on the same side of the formation, one vertical, one intermediate. If the defense goes deep zone, or the corner pins back his ears and takes the deep route, then the intermediate receiver (running something like smash curl) will be the easy choice. If the defense goes to Cover-1, or if the inside receiver blows up the defender and streaks by him, then Kelly will hit the deep receiver running a skinny post against likely man coverage.

That tactic is difficult for a defense because it stresses them on two levels: intermediately, and vertically. No matter what a defense does, there’s going to be a nice play available, just waiting to be executed. Of course, execution can break down, the passer can be effected by the rush before the routes develop, etc. But if the offense gets what it wants, the tactic is nearly impossible to defend consistently, and it wears on a defense physically AND mentally.

Alabama is going to be tested by this, and fortunately, Tide players and coaches will know well the tricks posed by the Rebel offense and how to best account for them. Alabama’s secondary, in particular, will need to be aggressively cautious, as well as opportunistic. Kelly is going to throw the ball into traffic…that’s one of the negative side effects of “swag-itis.” Alabama must be ready to pounce, as turnovers have been the difference in this game for the last two years.

The Tide defensive line has made its presence known in the pass rush in the opening two games, routinely terrorizing opposing quarterbacks. Alabama has had seven sacks through two games (one of which was against a superior offensive line from USC), and there’s no reason to believe that the Rebels’ patch-work assemblage of offensive linemen is going to be up to the task of hemming up the likes of Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson.

However, Saban alluded to the fact that Alabama won’t be able to just savagely attack the offensive line in blind fashion against Ole Miss, as Kelly’s arm and elusiveness are weapons that cannot be underestimated. Saban said that Alabama would need to find a way to keep Kelly in the pocket, adding that it won’t just be a function of the pass rush but the pass coverage as well. This is true. Giving Kelly the ability to dump the ball on hot reads, quick outs and bubble screens will keep Alabama off balance, and keep Ole Miss on the field. And the longer that offense is on the field, the more damage they can do to Alabama’s game plan.

It will be imperative that the multi-cogged Alabama defensive machine works in harmony. The coverage will allow the pass rush to flourish. The pass rush will prevent the secondary from being asked to cover the Rebels’ explosive playmakers for inordinate amount of time. If Alabama can find a way to attack the passing game in synchronicity, then Ole Miss’s chances of thriving are slim.

Special Teams

Alabama’s special teams, particularly the kicking game, are known commodities. J.K. Scott is fabulous, and will continue to be fabulous against Ole Miss. His leg is game-changing, and in a close game, Scott is definitely a player one wants on the team. Adam Griffith has been his usual self this season thus far, hit or miss. There probably isn’t a Bama fan alive who wouldn’t admit to a case of the ‘itis whenever Griffith lines up to attempt a kick over 45 yards (or under 35, for that matter), but to quote Saban himself, at this point in the kicker’s career, “it is what it is.”

Fortunately for Alabama, the Rebels aren’t that gifted in the kicking game, either. Alabama gets a bump because of Scott, who is more of an asset than Ole Miss’s junior punter Will Gleeson, who averages a workable 40 yards per punt. At place kicker, the Rebels have issues of their own with Gary Wunderlich, a junior who only hit 19-of-25 kicks last season (76 percent) with a long of 48 yards.

The Tide is breaking in new return men this season, with Alabama trying Trevon Diggs and Calvin Ridley handling most of the return duties. Ole Miss has senior corner Carlos Davis returning punts and kicks this season. Davis averaged 5.8 yards per return last season on punts, with 13 yards average per return. Joining Davis on kick returns will be redshirt freshman receiver Van Jefferson. Needless to say, the return game is probably a push at this point in the season.

Epilogue

Make no mistake, Alabama will be out for a reckoning. Saban made a point of saying this game is not about revenge for Alabama, and that last season, the team was probably a little too hyped heading into what would have been a revenge game in 2015.

For all intents and purposes, that is coach-speak. Those are the words of a coach who wants his team to take a professional demeanor heading in what could be the most important game of the season. But young men will be young men, and all professionalism aside, Alabama would like nothing more than to right the wrongs of the last two seasons. After all, you don’t blow up someone’s Death Star (twice) without some feelings of anger and “get-back” boiling to the surface.

If nothing else, the dual losses have served as motivation, if not fodder for revenge. That sounds like a case of semantics, but expect the Tide to be ready for this game. Alabama is in a must win situation, not only because of the possible national title implications carried in this contest, because a loss could signal the ceding of Alabama’s defensive dominance to something Saban hates the way cats hate water: namely, the HUNH.

Alabama’s defense appears up to the challenge of corralling the Rebel offense, and on paper at least, Bama’s offense is a mismatch for the Ole Miss defense. There’s no reason to believe Alabama won’t win this game, and cover the roughly ten-point spread.

But then again, the same could have been said about the last two Tide teams that fell to Ole Miss before going on to win national titles. Ole Miss can, and has, upset the giant in the West. They’ve blown up Bama’s Death Star one too many times already. The question is, will Alabama allow that to happen again this year?

We’ll know soon enough…hope for the best.