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Hope for the Best: Ole Miss edition

Ole Miss is a shell of its former self, but a wounded bear can be a dangerous thing

Southern Illinois v Mississippi
Can Jordan Ta’amu, a revitalized O line, and a loaded roster of receivers power the Rebels to a win?
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

When Alabama cruises into Saturday’s game against the Ole Miss Rebels in Oxford, it will do so riding the highest of tides after piling up 108 points in two games against able opponents this season.

The Ole Miss Rebels, on the other hand, find themselves squarely between waves – in the trough, if you will – as they wait for the smoke to clear from the raging dumpster fire that was the end of the Hugh Freeze era. While no one in Oxford would proclaim it, there’s no secret that current head coach Matt Luke is likely a place holder, a coach who like Mike Shula at Alabama, can keep heads up while treading water until the maelstrom in northern Mississippi calms and the Rebels can once again seek a big-name head coach with instant cred.

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 Jordan Ta’amu (6-2, 216 pounds), a signal caller whose proficiency through the air along with a battalion of NFL caliber receivers give the Rebels their teeth. As a result, the Rebels have built an air attack that is ranked third nationally, generating 61.5 points per game on average. They are also ranked first in yards per attempt (12.2) and fifth in touchdowns scored (16…one ahead of Alabama’s potent offense.)

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 middlin’ at best, and the defense is flat-out heinous. 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 Louisville, the Tide has built momentum with each passing week. Last week’s game against Arkansas State was a thing of beauty on the offensive side of the ball. Bama ran the ball at will but preferred to let starting QB Tua Tagovailoa light it up. Jalen Hurts was also efficient passing the ball, giving the Tide a true two-headed option if it so chooses. While the Bama defense has provided some cause for concern due to its depth issues and missed assignments among members of the linebacking corps, those foibles had to be expected for a unit that replaced almost all its starting talent from a championship defense in 2017. After two 50+ point wins in two weeks, 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. Unlike in past years, the strength of the Bama squad this year is not its defense. While that unit can right itself in time, the prospect of Ta’amu and all those big, fast, athletic wide receivers running free in a rebuilt secondary is not a savory one. In fact, it’s downright frightening. If the Tide backslides at all against a quick-strike 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 course of previous 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 (last season’s drubbing at the hands of the Tide notwithstanding.) Can they really pull it off? Or will Bama dish out another whuppin’ the likes of which they put on their first two opponents this season. Let’s take a closer look…

The Alabama offense versus the Ole Miss defense

The 2018 match-up between the Tide and the Rebels will represent a new chapter in the tone of the contest, as one would be hard pressed to remember a time when the two teams both had a similar level of offensive explosiveness at their behest. Usually, it’s all O and no D for the Rebels, while the Tide wins with a ferocious defense and adequate, conservative offense.

That’s not the case this year, however. Alabama’s offense can fly just as high as their opponents in Oxford. The problem for Ole Miss is that they don’t have the defense to shoot down what the Tide plans to do through the air and on the ground.

Unlike in past years, where the Rebel defense was susceptible to the run but tough to beat through the air, this season’s squad doesn’t really do anything well defensively. Though it’s true that statistics aren’t particularly salient this early in the season due to small sample size, anyone who has put a set of eyeballs on the Rebel defense can see that they’re in trouble. Coordinator Wesley McGriff is already grasping at straws early in the season, swapping personnel more often than a fashionista changes shoes. There are two dozen Rebel defenders who have already registered more than five tackles this season through two games, which indicates one of two things: either McGriff is playing with personnel combinations to get his best 11 on the field, or he’s just throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.

Either way, Alabama is not a team that will suffer defensive experimentation, so McGriff better have things figured out by Saturday. That is an unlikely prospect, as the Rebels’ two opponents to date – a hamstrung, ground-based Texas Tech offense and an FCS Southern Illinois team – took their defenses to task. While Tech scored less than 30, they did that with a supposedly one-dimensional offense. And Ole Miss allowed the Salukis to put up more than 40 on the scoreboard. Yikes.

So, what are the problems confronting the Ole Miss defense? In a nutshell, they’re just not that good. They don’t do anything well. They have added bulk up front to better defend against the run in theory, but that just hasn’t materialized yet. Josiah Coatney (6-4, 316 pounds) and Benito Jones (6-2, 315 pounds) are big humans who should be space eaters that free up the athletic linebackers and safeties to play the run. But too often, they get shoved around and stalemated. In past years, the Rebels could at least rush the passer, but this year they’re in a 10-way tie for 115th in team sacks (they only have one.) They rank 107th in scoring defense (34 points allowed per game), 107th in rushing defense (202 yards per game allowed), 125th in total defense (allowing 557.5 yards per game), and 126th in pass defense (355 yards per game).

Those are some shockingly bad statistics, and they won’t get any better this week against an incredibly dynamic Alabama offense. With the quarterback “controversy” under wraps and Tagovailoa established as the starter, defenses like Ole Miss can only cower in fear. The Tide looks unstoppable, and so far in 2018, they’ve been just that. The Rebels appear totally outmatched, and the results could be embarrassing.

The Rebels have reverted to their more familiar 4-2-5 nickel defense after McGriff initially installed a 4-3 in 2017. But to be honest, none of that matters. The Rebels could line up in a 4-2-9 and the Tide passing attack would likely still shred them to bits in a half of football.

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 defense faces in stopping any air attack, let alone a jet-powered juggernaut like the Alabama aerial assault, you can bet coordinator Mike Locksley will put the ball in the air as much as he can. Once the Rebel defense is under heel, he’ll unleash Damien Harris, Najee Harris, and Josh Jacobs to knock down any remaining walls with battering ram force. Alabama’s running game is multi-dimensional and can attack from many positions. Regardless of the means of dispatch Locksley selects, it’s hard to imagine that Alabama won’t move the ball at will against a defense ill-equipped to deal with such tactics.

Despite the prevalence of the passing game, Alabama may choose to use more rush in the game plan this week to mitigate the explosiveness of the Rebel offense. On the other side of the strategy coin is the fact 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 Ta’amu 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 offensively 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 two games, Bama has turned the ball over only twice on two fumbles, 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 629 yards of offense to FCS warm-up Southern Illinois last week. Bama had 519 yards of offense against Louisville, and 599 against Arkansas State. 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 this season.

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 yard averages well below 100 yards per game (they’re averaging 94.5 yards per game and 3.32 yards per carry through two 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 a mediocre rushing team through their initial two games (they rank 55th nationally with 188.5 yards per game on the ground). While recognized as a pass-first, Air Raid offense, their general 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.

Though there have been communication issues in the front seven for the Tide this season, there’s no doubt that as the season progresses, one can almost guarantee the Bama run defense will become more imposing. That said, because of the Rebels’ milquetoast running game and pass-first philosophy, Alabama’s always-stout run defense may not be as much of a weapon as it is against other SEC foes. Generally, the Tide likes to frustrate offenses on the ground, make them one-dimensional, then dissect them from there.

However, that is not the MO of the Ole Miss defense. Ole Miss abandons the run before the first whistle is blown to focus its attention on the pass. They harbor no illusions of establishing the ground game against the usually impenetrable wall of 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 quarterback Jordan Ta’amu’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 in the middle of the national pack in rushing offense, they are ranked eighth in total offense (596 yards per game). How? Because they have the second-ranked passing attack in the nation, which averages 407 yards per game. As piss-poor as the running game is, that passing attack is potent enough to make them a legitimate top-10 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 Ta’amu has had solid pass pro this year from a decent offensive line that’s only issue is that it 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 on the right side up front. Ta’amu’s mobility is critical, though his offensive line has performed much better this year than last, giving up 1.5 sacks per game on average to rank 51st in that metric.

Ta’amu 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 392 yards passing per game (and has seven TDs and no interceptions thus far), and as previously mentioned, he can run and make plays with his feet.

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 potential and talent but short on experience.

As good as Alabama’s secondary has been against two pass-oriented teams this season, there is still reason for concern regarding the ability of the Tide defense to keep the Rebel O in check. Alabama has already faced two solid wide receiving corps in Louisville and Arky State, with the Cardinal receivers providing a good tune up for what the Rebels will try to do. Well-timed routes and surgically-placed passes are nearly impossible to defend anyway, but it seems that a precise, quick-release QB throwing to multiple huge targets is the formula that has given Alabama problems in each of their rare losses of the Saban era. Ta’amu 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 is by no means weak. But a unit that has been a strength for Saban’s defense the last several years just hasn’t been as disruptive to date in 2018, though one can hope that changes.

The loss of Terrell Lewis weighs heavily after two weeks in which the outside linebackers failed to make much noise, as the big men up front can’t do it all (not because of a lack of talent, but because of the scheme). Anfernee Jennings was almost unstoppable at times last season, but this year he seems a step slower, possibly the result of the healing process from his injury in the playoffs. Other expected pass rush contributors like Christian Miller haven’t stepped up and taken the reins of the Tide pass rush just yet. Alabama needs to get elevated play from the likes of Miller and Jennings while adding to the attack with newcomers like Eyabi Anoma and Cameron Latu to create pressure on Ta’amu and force him into uncharacteristic errors.

While no one doubts the ability and raw physical talent of Alabama’s middle linebackers Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses, through two games the Tide has not gotten the focused, dominant performance from the duo that they had hoped to see. Both players have incredible talent and speed, but there has been hesitation at times. Hesitation is the enemy of speed, and for an unflinching speed demon of a defense, that can be problematic. Fortunately, given the lackadaisical nature of the Rebel running game, the two can focus more on coverage this week against a dynamic assemblage of receiving threats, as they have both struggled with passing game assignments at times this season (even when opposing offenses have failed to exploit them.)

Speaking of the Ole Miss receivers, they are big and talented, giving the Rebels a deep threat every time they possess the ball. Those future NFL-caliber receivers match favorably with Alabama’s secondary in terms of physicality. Senior DeMarkus Lodge (6-2, 204 pounds), junior D.K. Metcalf (6-4, 230 pounds), junior A.J. Brown (6-1, 230 pounds), senior Trey Bledsoe (6-1, 216 pounds), and sophomore Braylon Sanders (6-0, 194 pounds) are all over six feet in height, and most go over 200 pounds…ideal size for an SEC receiver playing in an Air Raid offense. Brown, the leading receiver for Ole Miss who is averaging 125.5 yards per game receiving with three touchdowns, is a weapon who will provide a true test to the Tide’s rebuilt secondary. The other starters (Lodge and Metcalf) are likewise dynamic, as Lodge is averaging 16 yards per catch and Metcalf is averaging 87 yards per game with two TDs to his credit already.

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 19th-ranked scoring defense, giving up only 10.5 points per game on average.) It’s a good thing that the forecast for Alabama’s offense against the Ole Miss defense is positive, because there’s a good chance that Ole Miss will be able to move the ball and put up some solid numbers against a Tide defense that is yet to establish dominance and find an identity.

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 many, and totally prevent the Rebels from gaining anything on the ground. Will that be enough to let the Tide offense gain an edge? Time will tell.

Special Teams

The Tide’s kicking, quite honestly, was horrible in last week’s game against Arkansas State, and it was a good thing those PATs weren’t needed. As a result, Saban announced this week that the starting place kicker for the Tide this weekend would be Joseph Bulovas. Saban mentioned Bulovas’ good week of practice and young kicker’s confidence in his remarks about the change, and one can only hope that Bulovas will rise to the occasion and seize the kicking opportunity for the Crimson Tide. Someone, after all, must.

Skyler DeJong continues to make progress, but his skill set can not yet match that of departed Tide punter J.K. Scott. It’s probably not fair to compare the two, as Scott was like Superman…there’s only one of them. DeJong has shown solid accuracy in pinning opponents in the short end of the field, and his leg strength will likely improve in time under the weight room tutelage of Scott Cochran. No need to worry about the punting game at this point…we were just spoiled by J.K.

The Tide’s return game has the potential to be explosive, though Arkansas State did everything they could to keep the ball away from Jaylen Waddle. He only had a chance to return a couple of balls, but he will get a chance to break one at some point. Teams can’t kick away from him and Josh Jacobs forever.

Ole Miss is also breaking in a new placekicker this season after the departure of Gary Wunderlich. New placekicker Luke Logan has been a solid replacement, as he’s missed a single PAT and hit all four of his field goals. His accuracy outside of 40 yards has yet to be proven, but he seems a workable replacement to the steady Wunderlich. Sophomore Mac Brown handles the punting duties for the Rebels, and he has been less impressive, averaging only 33.9 yards per punt.

With all the skill talent the Rebels have on the offensive side of the ball, one can assume they have impressive return game weapons to deploy. Freshman receiver Elijah Moore and freshman back Tylan Knight have gotten the call so far. Moore is the go-to guy on punt returns, though he’s only returned two this year for a mere three yards. Knight has been more active, returning three kicks for 50 yards. Corner Jaylon Jones is the Rebel’s equivalent of Waddle, as the sophomore DB has returned two kicks this year for 110 total yards, one of which he housed for a touchdown. The Tide would do well to kick away from that man.

Three of the last four editions of the Alabama-Ole Miss series have been barn burners, though last year’s 66-3 Tide victory was more akin to the clubbing of a blind baby seal than a gunfight. In the last four meetings, the teams have scored a combined 280 points. Despite all the perceived lack one can find in the Ole Miss squad this year, the Rebels are an offensive force with which the Tide must reckon. One could point to the struggles that Ole Miss has faced against lesser quality opponents 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 Cardinals and Red Wolves. But the Ole Miss offense is a lethal equalizer that can strike right at the heart of Alabama’s only weakness this season, the only weak spot in the Tide’s otherwise lustrous armor. That offense, with Ta’amu’s arm, a vastly improved offensive line, and a slew of future NFL receivers, will give the Bama defense absolute fits early on. Unlike previous years, when Saban could roll in wave after wave of fresh defenders, the defensive depth is nil at this point. The Air Raid will wear a team down and wear them out. For once in recent memory, Alabama is not equipped to handle that kind of stress.

Will Alabama be able to generate a pass rush that to date hasn’t been disruptive? Can the middle linebackers gain a foothold and begin to function as the quarterbacks of the defense against one of the most diverse offensive attacks in the SEC? Will Ta’amu and his receivers cast new doubt on the seemingly adequate Tide secondary?

We will soon see. The Rebels still have a mobile, explosive quarterback and a ton of excellent receivers. They still run an Air Raid scheme that stresses defenses like the one the Tide runs. Ole Miss’s strength is an offense that will throw the ball up and down the field with abandon until it creates stress fractures in the façade of once-solid defenses.

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 impressive, full-spectrum domination of a decent Arkansas State 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 against a terrible Ole Miss defense? Will Ta’amu and his cohorts embarrass a Tide secondary brimming with potential but still short on experience? 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.