Much has been made of the matchup between Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss offense and an Alabama defense that will undoubtedly make adjustments from last season’s shootout, but it may well be that the game will be decided on the other side of the ball. Alabama’s offense is still quite potent, but with eight new starters has taken an understandable and expected step back from the historically great units of the past two seasons. Meanwhile, the Ole Miss defense returned ten starters and has shown improvement from last year’s horrendous showing.
The key question is how much of that is actual improvement, and not merely a product of a forgiving early schedule.
Three games don’t provide enough data to draw any real conclusions about any team. Against Louisville in the opener, the Rebels allowed 155 rushing yards on 39 carries for a 4.0 average. The Cardinals have managed 4.1 per carry on the season, and Florida State limited them to only 3.2 per carry last weekend. The Rebels did a fantastic job limiting explosive passing plays, however, holding the Cardinals roughly 30% under their season average at only 5.26 yards per attempt.
Returns weren’t quite as good against Tulane, the only other FBS level opponent Ole Miss has faced this season. Mediocre defensive play in the first half allowed the Green Wave to hang around far more than they should have. Tulane’s first seven possessions netted touchdown drives of 33, 66 and 74 yards plus another 58 yard drive that resulted in a missed field goal. Their top two running backs combined for 87 yards on 18 totes, and while the Green Wave didn’t pass often, they managed a robust 9.2 yards per attempt when they did.
The Rebels have managed a decent pass rush thus far with nine sacks in three games, though five of those came against FCS foe Austin Peay, including two by senior DE Sam Williams who leads the team with four on the season. Williams has good size at 6’4”, 265 lb. and will be a challenge for an Alabama offensive line that has had some issues at times this season.
The Rebels have some beef up front, with a four man rotation at tackle featuring four guys who all go 290 lbs. and above, led by nose tackle Quentin Bivens. At the end opposite Williams is former three-star Cedric Johnson, a 255 lb. sophomore who drew some hype in the preseason but hasn’t shown up much on the stat sheet early on. At linebacker, Ole Miss suffered its greatest offseason loss when leading tackler Jacquez Jones transferred to Kentucky. Still, the Rebels return experience in MoMo Sanogo and Lakia Henry, both listed at 230 lb. With so many returnees, co-coordinators Chris Partridge and D.J. Durkin should have limitless stunts and blitzes to throw at the Tide, though they have seemingly preferred something of a bend-don’t-break strategy thus far.
This is particularly true in the secondary. where every effort has been made to cut down on the explosive plays that plagued the Rebels in 2020. While Alabama’s receiving corps is nowhere near the same squad without DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, it’s hard to believe that Ole Miss will trust a rather nondescript group of cornerbacks in press coverage against John Metchie and Jameson Williams. Perhaps the greatest strength this defense has shown so far is keeping everything underneath and making sure tackles after the catch. Senior 215 lb. nickel back Otis Reese has been a leader in this area, along with safeties Jake Springer and A.J. Finley. They haven’t been great ball hawks, however, as the whole team has managed only one interception on the season.
While nothing will be surprising given head coach Lane Kiffin’s unspoken desire to be the first former Nick Saban assistant to beat him, don’t expect Ole Miss to get too exotic between the 20s. The Rebels will try to continue their early season strategy of forcing the offense to stay patient and execute long drives, hoping to bow up in the red zone. Alabama was able to do this against Florida with scoring drives of 6, 7, 8, 13, and 14 plays.
With the Rebels looking to play fastball on offense, keeping the ball away from Matt Corral and company may be just what the doctor ordered. Alabama RB Brian Robinson has shown himself adept at moving piles and QB Bryce Young has moved the chains early in the season. Finishing in the red zone will be paramount in this scenario, and thus far that has been a strength for the Tide as well.
We will know much more about both of these teams on Saturday evening. It’s going to be a fun one.