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Hope For the Best: Ole Miss Edition

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Once the David to Bama’s gridiron Goliath, the Rebels have seemingly fallen on hard times after the tempestuous off-season. But often, it’s the wounded bear that’s most dangerous…

Tennessee Martin v Mississippi
Can Shea Patterson cement his place in Ole Miss history by upsetting Alabama?
Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

When Alabama cruises into Saturday’s game against the Ole Miss Rebels in Tuscaloosa, it will do so riding the highest of tides following a 59-0 shellacking of a game Vanderbilt team.

The Ole Miss Rebels, on the other hand, find themselves squarely between waves – in the trough, if you will – following a disastrous off-season that saw head coach Hugh Freeze ousted unceremoniously on the heels of scandal. That turmoil occurred so close to the start of the season that the Rebels had to hang the interim tag on former co-offensive coordinator Matt Luke, as it was too late (and too toxic a climate in Oxford) to conduct a legitimate coaching search. The Rebels also face a self-imposed post-season ban while awaiting the fall of Damocles’ sword: specifically, word from the NCAA regarding a number potentially program-decimating infractions.

The programs are operating from distinctly different places this year. One is a perennial contender that will likely once again be in the hunt for another national championship at season’s end. The other, a ghosted program walking ever closer to a jagged cliff of unknown height…a rudderless ship that can at best hold anchor, or at worst, break apart into complete chaos.

Despite the obvious morale and program issues the Rebels are facing, they are not a viper wholly without venom. They have an offense built around gun-slinger quarterback Shea Patterson (who could potentially be the best Rebel at the position since Eli Manning), a signal caller whose proficiency through the air is unmatched by any other quarterback in the SEC right now. As a result, the Rebels have built an air attack that is ranked fourth nationally, generating 427 yards per game on average.

As potent as the passing game has been for the Rebels, the other components of a championship football team simply aren’t there. Their running game is among the nation’s worst, and the run defense isn’t much better. Without those tools, they’ll have a hard time waging war against Alabama: the metaphor would be something akin to showing up to a gun fight armed only with a toaster.

Can Ole Miss really cause the crimson juggernaut to stump its toe this weekend? After opening the season with a dominant victory over Florida State, the Tide has built momentum with each passing week. Last week’s game against Vandy was a thing of beauty in every facet. Bama ran the ball at will (accumulating nearly 500 yards on the ground). Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa had efficient, if not spectacular, days at passing the ball. The Bama defense returned to its monstrous ways with an infusion of returning starters freshly recovered from early season injuries. After the 59-0 win over the Commodores, Alabama looks every bit the part of a powerhouse with a title in its future.

But as was the case in previous seasons, when Alabama was equally as mighty heading into the game against Ole Miss, things can change on the flip of a coin (or, more appropriately, a bounce off a helmet). The Rebels may not be good at all things, but they may be good enough in the passing game to take a legitimate shot at Alabama, at least early on. If the Tide backslides at all against a potent offense like the one Ole Miss wields, it could result in just the kind of upset that nearly derailed the Tide’s championship aspirations in seasons past.

Such an outcome would be shocking on many levels, not the least of which would be the sheer improbability of it. Alabama looks dominant, while Ole Miss has looked decent in spurts only to wither down the stretch. But as Tide fans have learned over the previous trio of meetings, the Rebel offense can’t be underestimated, and their defense has a habit of rising to the occasion when facing the men in crimson. Can they really pull it off? Or will Bama dish out another whuppin’ the likes of which they put on Vanderbilt last weekend. Let’s take a closer look…

The Alabama offense versus the Ole Miss defense

While the Alabama defense saw a return to its usually dominating form last weekend, it is the offense that really had a coming out party on Saturday. Alabama did something it hadn’t done to date: it offensively dominated the opponent from start to finish, and seemingly executed its full game plan with impunity. The Tide ran. The Tide passed. They did what they wanted to do, and there was nothing Vanderbilt could do to stop it.

Buoyed by last week’s 496 yards rushing, Alabama is now ranked fifth nationally in rushing yards per game, averaging 303 on the ground per game. It’s a good thing, because the Tide’s passing game is ranked 103rd. Then again, the always risk-averse Nick Saban likely prefers to win games on the ground if he has his druthers, with little concern for statistical rankings when his team is winning 59-0.

It’s interesting that Alabama, heading into the Ole Miss game, has shown that once again, it’s running game is its biggest muscle, the mace and mallet with which it will bludgeon opponents into submission. It’s interesting because if one had to pick a weakness in Ole Miss’s rebuilt, reschemed 4-3 defense this year, it would be the run defense. This battle will match Alabama’s greatest strength against the Rebels’ greatest weakness, and that constitutes a recipe for absolute devastation.

After three games (they are coming off a bye last weekend), Ole Miss is ranked 95th in rush defense, allowing an average of 184.5 yards per game on the ground. That shortcoming is magnified by the way they’ve achieved that dubious ranking. The Rebels opened the season by ceding 176 yards to South Alabama before allowing UT-Martin to post 219 yards on the ground. Against Cal, a team that skews towards the pass, Ole Miss gave up 163 rushing yards.

It doesn’t take a quantum physicist to figure out how this battle is likely to go down on Saturday. It will get ugly, and it will ugly quickly. Ole Miss is in the midst of a transition from former coordinator Dave Wommack’s unconventional 4-2-5 defense to a more standard 4-3 under new coordinator Wesley McGriff. The transition has been a painful one indeed, as evidenced by the continued problems with the run defense. A large part of the problem is not scheme, but rather the personnel being asked to perform within its confines. One can’t expect a 285-pound Breeland Speaks at the nose to hold his ground against a pair of 300+ pound linemen regularly. The linebackers are big, but if the front can’t hold its gaps, they lose the hard-charging attacking nature that makes them effective in a 4-3 run defense. And the edges of the Ole Miss run defense are extremely light, with Marquis Haynes coming in at 230, and Victor Evans weighing 245. In the pass rush, the lighter, quicker man may gain an advantage against a lumbering 6-5, 315-pound tackle. But in the running game, that same end will get paved over like a dead armadillo on an Alabama backroad.

That’s why it’s easy to forecast the Alabama game plan for this Saturday, as it serves two masters that, not coincidentally, are keys to victory. First, given the challenges the Ole Miss defenses faces in stopping any run, let alone a jet-powered juggernaut like the Alabama ground assault, you can bet Brian Daboll will keep the ball on the ground as much as he can. Alabama’s running game is multi-dimensional, and can attack from many positions. If one also factors in the safe, quick wide receiver screens and running back passes that function as proxy running plays, it’s hard to imagine that Alabama won’t move the ball at will against a defense ill-equipped to deal with such tactics.

The other side of the coin is that a ground-centric game plan will favor Alabama’s defense by keeping the Rebels’ greatest weapon, its passing game, on the sideline. Long, grinding drives that heavily feature the running game also burn clock. With an elite passer and a cadre of big, physical, skilled receivers manning the Ole Miss roster, Alabama’s offense can help the defense by eating time and keeping Shae Patterson and his targets on the sideline. After all, it’s hard to execute explosive plays when a team isn’t even on the field.

Ole Miss’s best chance of survival has more to do with Alabama than the Rebels. Alabama will need to make critical, significant mistakes if the Rebels are to see the door to victory open even a crack, and the Rebels must be opportunistic enough to jump on them when they’re available. Through four games, Bama still hasn’t turned the ball over at all, which dims the Ole Miss chances of getting big plays on turnovers. But if Alabama does stumble, Ole Miss will need to take advantage every time to keep the game even somewhat close.

All in all, in the battle between the Alabama offense and the Ole Miss defense, the outlook appears bleak for the Rebels. Unless Alabama has a significant and unexplainable backslide from last week, there simply won’t be much that Ole Miss can do to stop what Alabama does best. After all, this is a defense that ceded 219 yards on the ground to UT-Martin. Bama had 496 against Vandy. You do the math.

The Alabama defense versus the Ole Miss offense

As lop-sided as the battle between Alabama’s offense and the Ole Miss defense appears, when it comes to the flip-side of that conflict, Ole Miss is far better prepared to attack what many perceive as the Tide’s underbelly.

Alabama always fields one of the nation’s top run defenses. It’s integral to the Tide’s team DNA…if a team attempts to run against Alabama, they will feel the wrath of the Crimson Tide defense and more times than not, fail miserably. Alabama consistently appears among the nation’s leaders in run defense, posting rushing yards per game averages well below 100 yards per game (they’re averaging 70.3 yards per game through four games this season). That is outlandish, especially when one considers the consistency with which those numbers are posted.

Not that it will matter too terribly much against Ole Miss, however, as the Rebels are statistically one of the worst rushing teams in the nation through their initial three games. While recognized as a pass-first, HUNH offense, their complete and total disregard of the running game is shocking for a team that, as nouveau riche as they want to be, still plays in the Southeastern Conference, Official Home of Big-Boy Football.

How bad is the Ole Miss running game? Patterson (6-2, 203 pounds), the quarterback, is second on the team in rushing, with only 30 fewer yards gained (not net) to his ledger than lead back Jordan Wilkins. Don’t be fooled, though: Patterson is no Jalen Hurts, as he only has gained 76 yards (before subtracting sack yardage). Also note, Wilkins only averages roughly 30 yards per game on the ground. Out of 129 teams ranked, Ole Miss is ranked 128th in rushing yards, only accounting for 62.8 yards per game.

Those numbers are shocking to be sure, and they indicate that Alabama’s fantastic run defense may not be as much of a weapon as it is against other SEC foes. The Tide likes to frustrate offenses on the ground, make them one-dimensional, then dissect them apart from there.

However, that is not the MO of the Ole Miss defense. Ole Miss abandons the run before the first whistle is blown. They harbor no illusions of establishing the ground game against the impenetrable wall that is the Alabama defense. Rather, they will sling the ball around with surgical precision: short routes, middle seams, go routes down field…they have confidence in Patterson’s escapablity and his habit of delivering the ball in stride to an arsenal of receivers that some would argue rivals the one assembled in Tuscaloosa. This pass-happy, Air Raid-style offense is effective and efficient, to put it plainly. Exhibit A: though the Rebels are ranked 128th in rushing offense, they are ranked 19th in total offense. How? Because they have the fourth-ranked passing attack in the nation, which averages 427 yards per game. As piss-poor as the running game is, that passing attack is potent enough to make them a legitimate top-20 team in total offense.

How has Ole Miss accomplished such lofty passing credentials? By throwing the ball relentlessly, and distributing it all over the field. Passes go to receivers, to tight ends, to backs…and generally Patterson has decent pass pro from a decent offensive line that lacks consistency. When rushers do provide pressure, he has been Manzielian in his ability to avoid the rush and get the ball out quickly, which is something that has buoyed the passing game despite the weak spots up front. Patterson’s mobility is critical, since his offensive line has not performed up to standard in that regard, giving up 2.67 sacks per game on average to rank 101st in that metric.

Patterson is an electric signal-caller, however, and his play is what sparks the Rebels to light the offensive fireworks. He’s a 70 percent passer thus far this season, which is a testament to his accuracy. He averages 427 yards passing per game, and as previously mentioned, he can run and make plays with his feet. He has thrown four interceptions to his 11 touchdowns, which indicates that he makes mental errors that a defense like the one Alabama has can leverage into points going the other way. (Alabama is tied for 10th nationally with six interceptions, and it’s no secret the Tide secondary thrives on opponent errors.)

But does the Tide match up particularly well against the passing offense of Ole Miss? This will undoubtedly be the biggest test of the year for a secondary studded with NFL-caliber talent.

As good as Alabama’s secondary has been, the Achilles’ heel for the Tide, even if just in perception, has been the inability of the defensive backs to defend against a platoon of big, physical receivers and a quarterback playing at the top of his game. Well-timed routes and surgically-placed passes are nearly impossible to defend anyway, but it seems that is the formula that has given Alabama problems in each of their rare losses of the Saban era. Patterson and his receivers have enough talent to thoroughly test Alabama’s secondary, especially if the Bama pass rush can’t consistently pressure the quarterback and disrupt the timing.

The Ole Miss offense will pressure Alabama’s secondary to be sure, but it will also test Alabama’s ability to pressure and contain an elite quarterback who is elusive in the pocket and has a penchant for extending plays while his receivers work the scramble drill. Alabama’s pass rush was much improved last week against Vanderbilt with the return of Anfernee Jennings and Rashaan Evans. Vanderbilt’s pass pro was weak, and despite better players at a few key positions, the protection product Ole Miss has put on the field to date has not been stellar, either. Making matters worse for Ole Miss, it’s possible that junior center Sean Rawlings may not be available, as he was listed as injured and Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke labelled his status on Saturday as “a game-time decision.” One must believe that a reserve center against the likes of Da’Ron Payne is a recipe for an Ole Miss disaster, so it will be important to note at kickoff whether Rawlings is on the field.

Jeremy Pruitt has been aggressive with his blitz calls in the absence of players like Jon Allen and Tim Williams this season, but the pressure-with-a-million-faces tactic has worked well enough so far. Given the struggles of the Rebel offensive line in keeping Patterson’s jersey clean, it’s not hard to imagine that the quarterback will be running for his life most of the evening.

That said, Patterson is still dangerous outside of the pocket, and his receivers match favorably with Alabama’s secondary in terms of physicality. Junior DeMarcus Lodge (6-2, 199 pounds), sophomore D.K. Metcalf (6-4, 225 pounds), sophomore Van Jefferson (6-2, 195 pounds), sophomore A.J. Brown (6-1, 225 pounds), senior Trey Bledsoe (6-1, 216 pounds), freshman Tre Nixon (6-1, 172 pounds), and freshman Braylon Sanders (6-0, 188 pounds) are all over six feet in height, and most go over 200 pounds…ideal size for an SEC receiver playing in a HUNH offense. Brown, the leading receiver for Ole Miss who is averaging 129.7 yards per game receiving, is also listed as a game-time decision thanks to a knee injury that has temporarily taken him out of action. But if the Rebels could stand an injury anywhere, it’s likely at WR, where they have a bevy of talented players.

It’s unreasonable to think that Alabama’s secondary – or any secondary, for that matter – will be able to prevent the Ole Miss skill players from flexing on a few big plays. They may even score four touchdowns, which no team has been able to do yet against Alabama’s defense this season (the Tide has the nation’s fourth-ranked scoring defense, giving up only 10 points per game on average.) But there is little doubt that the Tide will be able to keep pace with the Ole Miss offense, and far more lethargic defenses have been able to keep the Rebels in check this season (Cal, for example).

The long and the short of it is that Ole Miss will make some plays through the passing game given the volume of attempts they’ll hurl at Alabama. The Tide will let some through, stop most, and totally prevent the Rebels from gaining anything on the ground.

Special Teams

Ole Miss has solid special teams play in the punting and kicking games, with senior punter Will Gleason averaging 43.4 yards per punt, and senior place kicker Gary Wunderlich 4-for-6 on field goal attempts this season. However, Wunderlich’s long on the year is 29, and his two misses have come at distances greater than 30 yards, so field goals may be a bit of a wild ride for the Rebels at well. This game shouldn’t be the kind where field position nor field goals should factor heavily, for the record, as Alabama will move up and down the field with ease.

What will be interesting is the play of Alabama’s special teams in kick/ punt coverage. The Tide special teamers are consistently harrying opposing kickers, and that cannot be underestimated as a key in high-scoring games. With offenses matching score for score (as may happen in this game, though it’s more doubtful than in the previous three years), a blocked kick can be a difference maker that turns the tide. Alabama has an advantage there, as the special teams units are loaded with starters and play with absolute tenacity.

The return game continues to be lackluster for Alabama, though admittedly, it hasn’t caused problems through poorly judged fair catches or bobbled balls. Ole Miss has a couple of weapons as return men, with sophomore Jaylon Jones (5-11, 186 pounds) returning kicks (he has a 97-yard TD return on his resume). If Brown, the usual punt return man, is not available this Saturday, Jones will likely get the call there as well.

The last three editions of the Alabama-Ole Miss series have been barn burners, to be sure. In the last three meetings, the teams have scored a combined 211 points, though the combined margin of victory is a mere 17…fewer than three touchdowns. Despite all the perceived lack one can find in the Rebel squad this year (and frankly, the distractions caused by the off-field turmoil of the Freeze situation and the NCAA’s continuing investigation), the Rebels are an offensive force with which the Tide must reckon. One could point to the struggles that Ole Miss has faced against quality opponents (of which they’ve only faced one in Cal) and assume that against a monster like Bama, they’ll have little chance.

That may be the case. Alabama may trample them under foot like so many Noles, Bulldogs, Rams, and Commodores. Then again, Bama beat everyone in the regular season two of the last three years, too…everyone except the Rebels.

Did Freeze just have Saban’s number? Was it an extension of the popular narrative that Saban’s defenses inherently struggle with HUNH offenses? Was it an indictment of the Tide’s secondary talent and/ or philosophy? Was it just incredible luck that Ole Miss won two close games over the Tide, and rallied to nearly win a third last year?

We will soon see. The Rebels still have a mobile, explosive quarterback and a ton of excellent receivers. They still run a HUNH scheme that stresses defenses like the one the Tide runs. Freeze is gone, but his legacy remains in an offense that will throw the ball up and down the field with abandon.

If Alabama’s defense can stand the test and smother the Ole Miss passing attack, that will be a pretty good indicator of things to come. Alabama has always had, and will continue to have, a brutal, suffocating run defense. But pair that with an elite pass defense that can take down pro-style passing games and Air Raids alike, and you have the stuff of which championships are born.

Or, Ole Miss may once again push Alabama to, or potentially over, the brink…into the chasm of also-rans and off its current lofty perch over everyone else in college football. After all, following last week’s dominant, full-spectrum domination of a solid Vandy team, Alabama appears a front-runner to fill one of the four playoff spots at the end of the year…and the Tide is getting better with each passing week.

Sights are set for another championship, but first Alabama must beat back the Vandals at the gate once again. Can they neuter the Ole Miss passing attack and leave the Rebels impotent? Can Alabama continue to impose its will on the ground against a terrible Ole Miss run defense? Will Patterson and his cohorts embarrass a Tide secondary brimming with NFL Draft picks? The answers could speak to the forecast for the rest of the season, for both teams.

We’ll know more Saturday evening. Until then, hope for the best.