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Jumbo Package: How will Alabama football respond in Oxford?

Your latest Crimson Tide news and notes.

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Mississippi State v Alabama Photo by Brandon Sumrall/Getty Images

Happy Friday, everyone. As you know, Alabama will face off against Ole Miss tomorrow. Your previews:

Alabama is in uncharted waters after losing a second game before the Iron Bowl for the first time since 2007, Nick Saban’s first season on campus. The bottom seems ready to fall out on the Crimson Tide’s season after a pair of excruciating defeats. Now, enter Lane Kiffin.

Analytically, Alabama is off the charts — with one exception. The Tide rank No. 63 in rushing success rate allowed. Ole Miss, coincidentally, ranks No. 14 in rushing success rate and boasts the most productive rushing offense outside of the academies. If Alabama is even a little bit off its game after the emotional LSU loss, Ole Miss might run all over them in The Grove. Pick: Ole Miss (+335)

And so should the Crimson Tide’s quarterback: the reigning Heisman Trophy winner has proved he can turn a game on a single play with a combination of mobility, accuracy, and creativity on the fly. Jaxson Dart is a gifted dual threat, but he doesn’t have the moxie or the athletic prowess of Bryce Young, whose skill set is both proven and unpredictable enough to tilt things in the Tide’s favor.

College Football HQ Prediction: Alabama 36, Ole Miss 30

Alabama’s chance of victory: The computer projects Alabama has the comfortable 75.3 percent chance to defeat Ole Miss on Saturday and avoid a third loss on the year.

Ole Miss’ chance of victory: That leaves the Rebels with the 24.7 percent shot to defend home turf and stay in the SEC West title chase.

Further complicating matters is the question of motivation for Alabama, which has two losses before the Iron Bowl for the first time since 2010.

Unless LSU implodes and loses both of its remaining SEC games — unranked matchups on the road at Arkansas and Texas A&M — the Tide won’t reach the SEC championship game.

“I know people have kind of written us off to some degree,” Saban said, “but at the same time, I think we have a lot of pride as an organization. I think we need to get focused on what it takes to win games.” — Alex Scarborough

Alabama (7-2, 4-2) at Ole Miss (8-1, 4-1), 2:30 p.m. CST on CBS. Alabama -12, o-u 64 ½. Ole Miss has good reason to be confident with an excellent season, albeit with a poor performance in its toughest game, and Bama may have some self-doubts with another road game. Not as easy as might have been expected after Lane Kiffin lost QB Matt Corral. A good Tide running game seems to be key in what feels like a must win. Alabama 41, Ole Miss 27.

It is unthinkable to believe that the Crimson Tide could lose three conference games in one season. Right? This Tide team is not the king of the hill it has been the last 15 seasons. Don’t know if Saban is slowing down — and I can write that since I’m older than him — or this is as close to a rebuilding year he will have. This is not an Ole Miss team we expect from Lane Kiffin. The Rebels are running the ball with success and playing tough defense. Alabama 31-28

Dan Wolken picked against the Tide, and that’s always good news.

Honestly, I’m not even going to hazard a guess. Saban has stated on several occasions that he has had a hard time predicting how the team would play on Saturday. By every metric imaginable, they are substantially better than this Ole Miss team. If they come out focused and inspired, they can win going away, but come out feeling sorry for themselves because they are no longer in the hunt and they can very easily lose. There is absolutely no way to know how this group is going to react with little on the line.

If you’d like to give a score prediction, go ahead in the comments.

As far as how the season has gone thus far, Saban continues to take full responsibility for missing the team goals while expressing confidence in his staff.

Some Alabama fans have pointed fingers at offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and defensive coordinator Pete Golding as part of the problem, but Saban insists he’s happy with the work they’ve done.

The Crimson Tide rank second in the SEC in both scoring offense (41.8 points) and scoring defense (18.3).

“I’m not blaming anybody else in the organization,” said Saban, whose teams have won six national championships and played for three others since 2009. “It’s my responsibility. I know what plays they call; I’m involved in how they prepare for the week. I watch practice film with them. But I think people look for somebody to hate when things don’t go right. But most of the stuff comes down to a lack of execution. It’s not really what you’re doing, it’s how did you do it?”

Execution is definitely the key and Nick constantly maintains that he is all up in the game plan on both sides of the ball, but he also set Alabama fans ablaze on social media with this quote on his radio show.

“I think that we changed philosophies totally, and that was one of the reasons that I wanted to hire Lane,” Saban recalled. “He had never really done this stuff prior to coming here, but when I met with him about coming here, I said, ‘We’ve gotta change, we’ve gotta study and we’ve gotta figure out all these RPOs and all this spread offense and these motions and all these things that we do.’ And Lane is a really smart guy, so he was a good guy to sort of dive into this, and we gradually changed and grew in this offense, studied other people and that was the evolution of where we are.

“Now, I think last year and this year, we’ve kind of gone more even to the drop-back passing, and that’s because of Bryce. But I think in the future, we’ll get back to more of the conventional spread, run the ball, have more balance, RPOs, that type of things. So what we’ve done now is to sort of fit what Bryce does best.”

Emphasis mine. Some folks read that piece about changing things up in the future as an indictment on the coordinator, and perhaps it was. It seems more likely, however, that the comment can be taken at face value and the scheme we see is one that has been crafted to suit the QB.

Remember this play from back in week two that was held up as an example of Steve Sarkisian’s high level scheming?

Brilliance. Magician. “What a freak,” he says. How can one even prepare for such offensive wizardry?

Anyhow, this was the Houston Texans back in 2019 if anyone is interested, running the same play out of the same formation against Bill Belichick’s Patriots.

The head coach for the Texans was calling the plays at the time. Seems like RPOs including the modern triple option are things with which that guy is familiar. The Shield won’t allow video embeds, even off of their Youtube channel, but this should start at 1:45 for you. If not, then start it there and you can hear resident pervert Deshaun Watson break down two consecutive RPOs in the Houston playbook for Brian Baldinger and Kurt Warner.

The play above is the second of them, inside zone packaged with a post/wheel combo. It requires lightning fast processing by the QB, first to read the end man on the line of scrimmage. If he stays wide to take away the flat, then Watson will give the ball to the back. If he takes even a step inside, as we see here, then the flat route is going to easily have him outflanked. The inside linebackers have to pause and respect the run option, so the flat is wide open, and since New England has gone cover zero in the red zone, there is nobody to keep Fells from waltzing untouched into the end zone.

With college rules allowing the offensive line to fire out a bit more, this becomes even more difficult to stop. Plays like the one above are the reason that we’ve seen defensive coordinators capitulate toward more conservative coverage concepts that allow the secondary to see everything that’s going on in front of them and rally to the ball after the catch. The teams that can best slow them are those who can be confident in stopping the run while keeping at least two safeties deep, as we have seen from some of the great Saban defenses from years past.

This piece is from SB Nation’s Texans site Battle Red Blog, from back in 2019.

With a legit offensive line for the first time in his NFL career, and with a slew of new weapons, Deshaun Watson is finally able to run the type of offense O’Brien always envisioned. In terms of play calling, we begin seeing more play-action and RPO concepts, but Watson also figures out how to read blitzes and how to get the ball out quickly when needed. As of right now, Watson ranks 4th in the NFL in passer rating (107.1), 4th in completion percentage (70.2%), 6th in total yards (2,432), and 3rd in touchdowns (18). He is, without question, an elite top-tier QB. As stated below, the Texans are also ranked 3rd in total offense and 5th in scoring. It’s working. Watson finally has full command of O’Brien’s offense, has the most talented supporting cast he’s ever had, and is completely healthy. We’re firing on all cylinders.

That was the last season that O’Brien called his own plays in Houston. After a disastrous offseason from a personnel standpoint, he turned those duties over to OC Tim Kelly. The whole thing went downhill quickly and everyone was canned, sending Bill to Tuscaloosa.

So, read into Saban’s commentary how you like. Seems to me that the coaching staff, as an aggregate, has attempted to put an offense together that suits Bryce’s strengths. He has always seemed to prefer holding onto the ball, extending plays and looking to push the ball down the field.

I personally don’t think O’Brien is going to be back next year because someone is likely going to hire him to oversee a rebuild, but it won’t be because he doesn’t know how to run the RPO based offense that Saban wants. It’s not like those have been completely missing from the scheme this season, but the team hasn’t executed them particularly well.

This is an interesting factoid.

Needless to say, being the 2nd worst since 2007 isn’t good, but it’s interesting that the 2015 national title team was even worse.

Matt Hayes spoke with some NFL scouts who concur with those quoted earlier in the week who suggested that Alabama lacks their typical caliber of player in some key areas.

“They just don’t have the guys on the outside who scare you, and more important, who make big catches,” another NFL scout told me. “All of those Alabama receivers over the years made so many Alabama quarterbacks look so good.”

The obvious question: Why has the talent dipped at offensive line and wide receiver?

Is it recruiting or development — or both?

It’s not like the high school talent isn’t there. Alabama has former 4- and 5-star recruits sitting on the bench. They’re either recruiting misses, or they haven’t been developed and put in position to be ready to play.

Either way, that’s on the coaching staff. It’s on first-year offensive line coach Eric Wolford, and Doug Marrone before him and Kyle Flood before Marrone.

Those are 3 highly-respected offensive line coaches in college football and the NFL not getting the most out of elite recruits.

As he also notes, Alabama has gotten little from receivers Jermaine Burton and Tyler Harrell, both of whom were supposed to come out of the portal to play key roles.

Last, Ben Flanagan has compiled some of Lane Kiffin’s funniest moments. If not for the way the season has gone thus far, we’d probably be having some fun with the popcorn thing this week.

Prior to Alabama’s highly anticipated showdown with Ole Miss in Bryant-Denny Stadium early in the 2021 season, Kiffin went viral again after his pregame interview when CBS reporter Jamie Erdahl asked about notes from during the previous meeting with all the things that bothered Saban from a scheme standpoint. What’s on his paper for this game? “Let’s hope we didn’t run out of pages,” Kiffin said. “Here we go. Get your popcorn ready.” He then took off the headset and launched them back at the camera as Erdahl was trying to ask him for clarification in the form of a follow-up question. Alabama opened up a 35-0 lead before the Rebels finally scored in the third quarter, promptly ending any hopes of an upset. Before the game even ended, Big Al wore a popcorn costume in the end zone to troll the visiting head coach, and Kiffin later expressed regret for the moment. “That was not premeditated,” he said. “Sometimes you get caught up in emotions. I just heard someone yelling in the locker room, someone saying that. I don’t even know why it came out. I actually said to (offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby) on the headset, ‘I just said something really stupid. You better score a lot of points.’”

That’s about it for today. Have a great weekend.

Roll Tide.