It’s early, but Week 3 of the 2015 college football season already has its most intriguing showdown: Ole Miss at Alabama.
The Rebels’ visit to Tuscaloosa is fascinating for many reasons, including the revenge factor connected with Ole Miss’ 23-17 upset of then-No. 1 Alabama last fall in Oxford. But the most interesting aspect might be the matchup of an irresistible force (the Rebels’ offense) meeting an immovable object (Alabama’s defense).
Alabama got an unexpected benefit from its 37-10 demolition of overmatched Middle Tennessee on Saturday. The Blue Raiders surprised the Tide with its offensive pace, which could pay huge dividends next week against the Rebels’ hurry-up scheme.
Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland told AL.com’s Michael Casagrande that it was an eight on a scale of one to 10.
However, senior cornerback Cyrus Jones said the Tide adjusted quickly, per Casagrande.
“They came out trying to go as fast as possible," he said. "So it was just about us settling down and making our calls and adjustments. But we got used to it pretty quick, and we held them to three points pretty much for the whole game."
That, he said, will help the Tide get ready for the Rebels’ quick pace as well.
“We know what kind of offense they have, and we know what kind of playmakers they have," Jones said. "I don't think we will get too overwhelmed by them or how many points they score. We just know we have to come out and be on our A-game. Like I said, it's not about them. It's about us."
Following Saturday’s 73-21 rout of Fresno State, the No. 17 Rebels have the highest scoring two-game stretch in program history and will carry a 74.5-point per game scoring average into next week’s showdown at No. 2 Alabama—sure to be the top scoring offense in the FBS two weeks into the season.
The Rebel scheme is fast, fun and talented, but it’s fair to say that UT-Martin and Fresno State didn’t offer anywhere near the challenge that Alabama’s front will in a game that will shape the early scope of the SEC West race.
With Clemson transfer Chad Kelly in charge, head coach Hugh Freeze’s scheme appears to have picked up its pace from a year ago, when experienced but mercurial Bo Wallace threw 22 touchdowns but added 14 interceptions.
Kelly has cemented himself as the Rebels’ No. 1 quarterback. He threw for 346 yards with three touchdowns Saturday.
"The sky's the limit (for the offense)," Kelly told the Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "We just have to make sure we're on the same page the whole game. Don't turn it over. If we keep playing the way we're doing, it's going to be a special season."
Keeping up that pace against Alabama won’t be easy.
The Crimson Tide has a deep, talented defensive line led by returning starters Jonathan Allen, A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, and senior Ragland has emerged as a force in the linebacker corps. The secondary is young but talented, with the likes of Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick gaining experience alongside veterans like Jones.
Alabama had trouble with Ohio State’s fast pace in this past Sugar Bowl, giving up multiple big plays in a 42-35 defeat.
Ole Miss’ offense will offer problems, too.
Kelly threw all three of his touchdowns Saturday to wideout Quincy Adeboyejo, but a healthy Laquon Treadwell will be an equally large challenge for the Tide’s secondary. Freeze’s system has wrinkles, too. Defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche has scored in each of the first two games, reaching the end zone on receiving and rushing touchdowns.
The absence of All-America left tackle Laremy Tunsil (who sat out for a second game Saturday while Ole Miss investigates his connections to a sports agent) could be a huge factor as well.
Regardless, we’ll know a lot more about the Rebels’ offense by late Saturday night than we do now, given Alabama’s deep and talented defensive front.
What we find out will play a huge role in how the SEC West race unfolds.