Photo: Seph Anderson
The No. 21 Ole Miss Rebels (3-0, 1-0 SEC) have the chance to mount a program-changing upset Saturday night at No. 1 Alabama (3-0, 1-0 SEC), when the two SEC West clubs collide both undefeated for the first time since 1982.
The game will feature a battle between a Crimson Tide team at the pinnacle of its sport the past few years and one of the hottest teams anywhere in the country in the Rebels. It's a golden opportunity for Hugh Freeze's Rebels to show the nation they're not "on the rise," but that "they've arrived."
Ole Miss will look to knock off a No.1-ranked team for the first time ever (0-9 all time), and claim its first victory over the Crimson Tide since 2003.
That being said, Ole Miss has struggled mightily against the Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium (1-16 all time), with the lone win coming against a No. 12-ranked Alabama club in 1988 (22-12).
Further, in the Rebels' 25 program trips to Tuscaloosa, only three times have they posted 20-plus points in a game. Beyond the 22-12 win in 1988, Ole Miss fell 23-26 in double overtime in 2006 and fell 20-24 in overtime in 2008.
Nevertheless, Saturday night's main event poses arguably the greatest offense in Ole Miss history against a 'Bama D that hasn't exactly been playing like the dominant unit we're all accustomed to seeing from the Crimson Tide.
In addition, what's been a rather pedestrian Alabama offense through the first three games, minus the Texas A&M game, should be challenged by a pretty solid Ole Miss defense.
Finally, let's not forget about two of college football's most dynamic playmakers: Ole Miss' Jeff Scott and Alabama's Christion Jones. Either one of them is capable of being the difference Saturday night.
Enough of the hype though. Let's get down to business.
Check out the video preview, along with the accompanying slideshow for all you need to know, as Freeze and the Rebels look to take down the top team in the land and advance to 4-0 for the first time since 1970.
When: Saturday, Sept. 28; 5:30 p.m. CT
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Satellite Radio: Sirius 112, XM 199
Series History: Alabama leads 46-9-2
In Tuscaloosa: Alabama leads 24-1
Spread: Alabama (-16.5), per VegasInsider.com Consensus
Check out video preview of the SEC West showdown, then continue through the slideshow.
Photo: Seph Anderson
Keep the Alabama Running Attack in Check
After Week 3 of the season, Alabama is averaging a meager 132 YPG rushing (No. 90).
Really? 89 other teams are rushing for more yards each week than the Crimson Tide?
As hard as that may be to believe, it's a fact.
On the other hand, the Ole Miss "Landshark" D is only allowing 114.3 YPG on the ground (No. 29).
Knowing what you now do, pay close attention to the Tide's total rushing output throughout the contest. Since 2008, Alabama is 52-0 when they've rushed for 140-plus yards in a game. That's a daunting figure.
The biggest thing for the Ole miss defense will be to not give up big plays on the ground. If they can keep running back T.J. Yeldon (91 YPG rushing) and Co. in check—specifically keeping them under 140 yards—the upset potential will increase dramatically.
Win the Second Quarter
As odd as it may sound, second-quarter scoring success will likely go a long way in determining the eventual winner.
On the season, Alabama has outscored its opponents by a combined 45-3 in the second quarter. Those two figures simply cannot be ignored. It shows just how well the Tide responds and makes adjustments after the first quarter (on both sides of the ball).
As for Ole Miss, the Rebels have "been" outscored by a combined score of 17-37 in second-quarter play this year. It's a very interesting statistic, and one worth paying attention to come halftime.
Ironically, as poor as Ole Miss has played in second quarters this year, they've crushed opponents by a combined 41-7 over the opening quarter of play in 2013. It suggests that while the Rebels have come on strong to start games, they've suffered significant letdowns in the following quarter this season.
If Rebel QB Bo Wallace and Co. plan to be in the mix late in the contest, it'll be paramount that Ole Miss plays an efficient second quarter from top to bottom. If not, Alabama could do a lot of damage there.
Find Offensive Balance and Take Some Shots
Hugh Freeze has his team running an extremely balanced offense entering the Alabama game, as the Rebels are averaging 250 YPG rushing (No. 21) and 240 YPG passing (No. 55). Together, Ole Miss is averaging 490 YPG on offense each weekend (No. 25).
The bottom line: The Crimson Tide D isn't playing their best right now.
To be able to keep Alabama honest on defense, the Rebels must be able to develop a balanced attack from the opening kick. If they can find a solid balance on offense, QB Bo Wallace should be able to take some shots to try to connect with playmakers like wide receivers Donte Moncrief, Evan Engram, Laquon Treadwell and others.
Create Turnovers, Win Turnover Battle
Since 2008, Alabama is 42-0 when winning the turnover battle. However, they're just 13-5 over the same stretch when losing the turnover battle. Again, it's a figure that shows just how fundamentally sound a Nick Saban-coached team typically is and how well they protect the football.
If you turn the ball over to a team like the Tide, you're going to pay dearly for your mistakes.
QB Bo Wallace must continue to make smart decisions under pressure, and the Ole Miss defense must do its best to create a turnover or two against QB A.J. McCarron and the 'Bama offense.
Run, Forrest, Run
Since 2008, Alabama is 52-0 when rushing for 140-plus yards in a game.
Further, under Nick Saban, the team YPC rushing average has increased from 4.0 (2007) to 4.6 (2008) to 5.0 (2009) to 5.1 (2010) to 5.5 (2011) and finally to 5.6 last season.
That suggests not only how progressively efficient the run game has been under Saban, but also that more long runs are being produced. This season, running back T.J. Yeldon is rushing for 91 YPG and 5.6 YPC. Behind Yeldon are talented backs such as Kenyan Drake (26.5 YPG rushing and 5.3 YPC) and Jalston Fowler (16.0 YPG and 4.0 YPC), just to mention a few.
This weekend, the No. 90-ranked 'Bama run game, averaging 132 YPG, will face an Ole Miss run defense only allowing 114.3 YPG (No. 29). As reliable as QB A.J. McCarron is for Alabama with his arm, the Crimson Tide must be able to provide opportunities for playmakers like WRs Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones.
If Yeldon, Drake, Fowler and others can find success on the ground, it could be a long night in T-Town for Ole Miss.
Slow Down the Rebel Offense
He may not have the greatest show on turf just yet, but the offensive-minded coach of the Rebels has his team firing on all offensive cylinders.
Currently averaging 490 YPG on offense (No. 25), there are numerous playmakers on the field each Saturday at Wallace's disposal. Added to that this weekend will be athletic WR Vince Sanders, making his debut this fall after being sidelined with a shoulder injury for the first three games.
Through Week 3, Ole Miss is averaging 79 offensive plays per game. In comparison, Alabama is only allowing its opponents to get off an average of 65 offensive plays per game. That's a 14-play difference on offense per game.
The Rebels are at their best when players like RB Jeff Scott are able to pick up solid yardage on first downs. When that happens, Ole Miss works to get the next snap off as quickly as possible to try to catch the defense out of position.
To remain undefeated and in the hunt for a third consecutive national title, 'Bama must be able to slow the the uptempo, fast-break style of offense the Rebels like to run.
Play Real Alabama Defense
Despite being 3-0 and having escaped from Kyle Field with a win over the Aggies, the Tide defense really hasn't played up to its potential so far this year. Let's be honest.
Specifically, the secondary has been rather inefficient, giving up 250.3 YPG passing (No. 81).
Yes, Vinnie Sunseri has been a ball hawk, having already produced two pick-sixes in 2013. However, allowing opponents to amass 250 YPG through the air will hurt even the best of teams.
Not only will the Crimson Tide D have to contain the dynamic RB Jeff Scott on the ground and the uber-talented Rebel wide receiving corps, but they'll also have to contain QB Bo Wallace on his feet (40 YPG rushing) and Wild Rebel specialist reserve QB Barry Brunetti (39 YPG rushing).
It'll be interesting to how Kirby Smart runs the defense against another offense similar to Texas A&M.
To send Ole Miss home with a loss, the Alabama defense will have to play like an Alabama defense.
Don't Allow QB Bo Wallace to Get Comfortable
In 2012, as much as QB Bo Wallace did for his club, the then-sophomore tossed 17 interceptions.
After three games in 2013, the junior has yet to toss a pick. He's clearly playing smarter football.
However, he's going to throw a few sometime this year. With the assistance of more than 100,000 screaming fans Saturday night, the 'Bama D must be able to rattle Wallace early in the contest. If you let him move around too much without a lot of pressure, he can also hurt you with his legs.
The single worst thing the Alabama defense could see happen against Ole Miss would be for Wallace to find success early and get into a nice rhythm on offense.
Linebacker and leading 'Bama tackler C.J. Mosley will need to be disruptive early and often.
Photo: Seph Anderson
Beyond the usual suspects that figure to play prominent roles in the final outcome Saturday night (e.g. QB Bo Wallace, RB Jeff Scott, etc.), reserve QB Barry Brunetti, S Cody Prewitt and WR Jordan Holder are all capable of making big-time plays when the lights are bright.
QB Barry Brunetti
Having struggled to really find his identity in the Rebels offense over the years, Brunetti has finally found where he fits well into the offense. While he likely won't attempt more than two or three passes at most against the Crimson Tide (if any), the Wild Rebel goal-line specialist could be the difference in whether or not the Rebels can pull off the monster upset.
This season, he's rushed 21 times for 117 yards and three touchdowns.
When QB Bo Wallace is in the middle of running his uptempo and is suddenly replaced with Brunetti, defenses can really be caught off guard (whether in the middle of the field or on the one-yard line.
If he can protect the ball when his number is called, the senior could cause a lot of trouble.
S Cody Prewitt
Having recorded 18 tackles and two interceptions through the first three weeks, S Cody Prewitt has been a big part of the Rebels' early success.
In fact, he's tied for sixth in the nation on passes defended per game at two per contest.
One of the hardest-hitting players in the SEC, Prewitt is an intimidating force in the secondary.
This weekend, he'll have to help cover a host of impressive Tide receivers such as Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, O.J Howard and Kevin Norwood.
WR Jordan Holder
Unless you really follow the Rebels, there's a good chance you've never heard of Holder.
A 5'11'', 179-pound, Wes Welker-esque player, Holder is proudly making the best of the opportunities he's been given to make plays in the Rebels offense this fall. He's paid his dues the past few years, having seen no real playing time, and he's an excellent fit in the dynamic Rebels offense.
Mixed amid WRs like Donte Moncrief, Evan Engram, Laquon Treadwell and others, the senior has quietly picked up 71 yards on seven catches this season.
Don't be surprised to see him come up with several big balls Saturday night. To pull off the upset, an unsung hero or two must be born in Tuscaloosa, and it could very well be Holder.
On a team loaded with future NFL talent, these three men stand out as guys who could have a definite hand in deciding whether or not Alabama keeps rolling this weekend.
ATH Christion Jones
In the season opener against Virginia Tech, Jones scored on a punt return, a kickoff return and a pass from QB A.J. McCarron. Without question the player of the week in Week 1, Jones hasn't shown any signs of slowing down heading into the Ole Miss game.
Beyond being a punt- and kick-return weapon for Alabama, the junior has also caught 12 balls for 149 yards in 2013. He's just another one of the Crimson Tide receiving forces at the disposal of McCarron.
In all, he's averaging 172.7 all-purpose yards per game.
It'll be absolutely paramount that the Rebels not allow Jones to have a big night on special teams.
As close as I expect this one to be, a Jones special-teams score could crush Ole Miss' morale.
WR DeAndrew White
While Jones, running back T.J. Yeldon and wide receiver Amari Cooper often garner the most talk on offense, White is a true playmaker for Alabama. After only three games this year, he's already surpassed his season-high career receiving mark of 151 yards in 2011.
Further, he's averaging 53.7 YPG receiving and has already accounted for two scores.
He's a guy who can quietly yet effectively help move the Tide down the field each weekend.
Keep an eye out for No. 2.
S Vinnie Sunseri
Not only has Sunseri made 13 tackles so far this year, but he's also made two pick-sixes.
In doing so, he became the first 'Bama player to do so in back-to-back games since 1992, when Antonio Langham accomplished the same feat.
Simply put: Sunseri is extremely dangerous and someone Rebel QB Bo Wallace should know the location of every single time he throws the ball. He made Johnny Football pay for his mistake a couple of weeks ago, and he'll make Wallace pay the same price if he's not extremely cautious.
During his weekly press conference, Hugh Freeze talked about what a win at Alabama would mean to his program.
It would mean that we’re definitely ahead of schedule in our program, to go there and win or beat them here. We won’t talk about Ole Miss winning just once there. That really doesn’t matter to these kids. They don’t care. Our coaches probably don’t even know that. I know it because I’ve followed this program. I don’t think that would motivate us one way or another. What should motivate us, and I think will, is an opportunity to go stand in front of the measuring stick right now and prove that you deserve to be there.
Talking about potentially having LB Denzel Nkemdiche back in the lineup at Alabama, Freeze said:
We’ve been thin at linebacker all year. That won’t change. Even if Denzel goes, we’re still thin. He says he’s going. Tomorrow he’s planning on practicing. We’ll evaluate him in practice tomorrow. I will not play him if I don’t feel like he’s ready. It’s a long season. We’re going to need all of the capable bodies to make it through. If he’s ready to go, certainly we’ll play him. It will probably be Friday before we know for sure.
Freeze on having WR Vince Sanders back in the mix on offense:
Vince will play. He went through a full practice yesterday. We’ll incorporate him in just like we would anybody. He’ll be ready to go. You’ll see him, Laquon (Treadwell), Ja-mes (Logan) and Donte (Moncrief) all out there at the same time. We’ll just rotate them and keep him fresh. We love having him back. It gives us another threat for sure.
A confident QB Bo Wallace told reporters after Freeze's weekly press conference:
Yeah, I think we can put points on them (Alabama). I think we can put points on anybody. We just have to show up and play. It's the same thing every week, let's stay on schedule, control the tempo and don't have any turnovers.
On Monday, Alabama play-by-play man Eli Gold told a crowd at the Gulf Coast Athletic Club:
The thing I'm concerned with is the fans who are saying, 'Whew, nothing to worry about until those LSU Tigers." That's wrong. This week's game against Ole Miss -- they are a very, very, very good football team. They have recruited well. Hugh Freeze is a wonderful coach. They've got outstanding talent, a lot of returnees off a football team that was pretty darned good last year.
When bowl season rolls around and we're all looking back at the best games of the regular season, the Alabama, Ole Miss game should end up among the very best of 2013.
It's not quite David vs. Goliath, but with Hugh Freeze turning the Ole Miss program around faster than anyone expected (even himself), Saturday night's tussle with the Crimson Tide provides the Rebels with a chance to make a statement heard 'round the world.
Is it a little early for these upstart Rebels to knock off the kings of college football in their own house?
Maybe. But if you don't think the Ole Miss players will take the field "expecting" to win in Tuscaloosa (not just play a good game), you're crazy.
Riding a five-game win steak dating back to a dominating win over rival Mississippi State in the 2012 Egg Bowl, the kids in red and blue have now been instilled with a winning attitude.
The biggest challenge for the Rebels on Saturday will be to not let the Tide beat them with non-offensive touchdowns (of which Alabama has scored five already in 2013) and to not turn the ball over.
If either or both of those things happen, it could be a tough night for Ole Miss.
However, as I first wrote back on February 17, I've just got a feeling about this one. In fact, I'm sticking with my exact same score prediction.
The Rebels have been "oh so close" against the Tide in past seasons, but this year it's different.
Those Ole Miss Rebels play their hearts out, shock the nation and leave T-Town a winner.
Ole Miss 27 - Alabama 24