Alabama football. The prestige of the name alone deserves a voiceover from Zeus himself. Thinking back on Alabama football, I think of Brent Musberger’s booming declaration of “Touchdown Alabama”. I think of the funeral procession of Bear Bryant cascading down I-59 to Birmingham. I think of the multitude of championship banners draped through Bryant-Denny stadium and the statues of coaching legends guarding the entrance from University Boulevard. The Evergreen cemetery holds the souls of hundreds of Alabama faithful who had the everlasting wish to never miss an Alabama home game, even in the afterlife.
Ole Miss will be invading the hollowed grounds of Tuscaloosa with a new sense of swagger. A swagger that was not present last year in what can only be dubbed as the “Rebel Massacre of 2011″. Hugh Freeze has not guaranteed a victory, he has not even hinted at this being a close game. What he has said is that his team will be the most prepared and focused football team that has taken the field in some time for the red and blue.
Competition aside, the Rebels have put together one of the best rushing offenses in the country. Ole Miss is first in the SEC and ninth nationally in rushing yards with 1039. They are averaging 259.75 YPG on the ground, good for 11th in the country. Seven different players have scored a rushing touchdown, 11 scores in total. A mix of misdirection, draws, and “elephants on parade” blocking has given the offense a lot of room to utilize their speed. An up-tempo offense like Freeze’s makes it hard on defenses to substitute in the right players and call the right plays, which can leave them vulnerable to being out of position.
While the inability to make the correct defensive substitutions can work to Freeze’s advantage, Alabama’s defense is rarely out of position. There is very little vacant space in defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s defense as the Crimson Tide are large, athletic, and well-coached. The Rebels can not bank on the big play by taking fun-and-gun style shots down the field, because that will lead to a lot of three-and-outs. They can not try for long ten play drives either. Freeze and offensive coordinator Dan Werner will need to pick their spots carefully and use what deception they can.
Two-back sets with Jeff Scott and Randall Mackey or Jaylen Walton can off-balance even Alabama’s defense. Running pull-blocks with the guards and sweeping to the strong side can open up rooming room for the running back to pick up good yardage. With the graduation of Brandon Bolden, Ole Miss does not have a bruising back that they can go to up the middle. Utilizing the speed of Scott, Mackey, and Walton on jet sweeps and misdirections is what gives Ole Miss a running attack.
Expect Smart to flood the middle with linebackers Trey DePriest and CJ Mosley to prevent against the draws by Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti. Alabama is too fast laterally for the quarterbacks to go east and west on runs, so up the middle on passing downs is what Ole Miss will likely try to do. If Alabama can shut down this scheme, Freeze will have a tough time recovering from 2nd-and-14’s.
Alabama is sixth in the FBS in rushing defense, allowing under two yards per carry. With a deep linebacker core of DePriest, Mosley, and Nico Johnson, the gaps get filled real quickly. Look for Ole Miss to try to stretch the field by throwing the ball to set up the run game.
Alabama on the other hand, will look to key in on the run from the get-go to force injured Wallace to throw the ball. Wallace, who has a bum shoulder, missed a couple of throws against Tulane and finished just 7-16 for 101 yards and a touchdown. Brunetti took snaps with the first-team offense on Tuesday, as the coaches are looking for Wallace to rest his arm early in the week. He will take snaps today and his workload will increase as the week comes to an end. Brunetti will need to be ready, because if Wallace gets hurt or struggles, he will be thrown into the fire.
Despite the losses of Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama has the second best passing defense. The Tide have allowed 122.75 YPG through the air, allowing just two touchdowns compared to six interceptions. Dee Milliner and Deion Belue have lock-down capabilities and each have an interception this year. Milliner has five break-ups and six passes-deflected this year and has been the anchor of the secondary. He will likely be on Donte Moncrief with Vinnie Sunseri’s help from the safety spot. Belue will be on either Vincent Sanders or Collins Moore due to the lingering injury of Korvic Neat.
Ole Miss will need to create space on the outside with Moncrief, because if he can gain separation from Milliner, he can burn him. The linebackers for Alabama can match the athleticism of Jamal Mosley in the passing game, so this likely will not be his resurgence. Moore or Sanders gaining 8-12 yard plays would be big for the offense. Matriculating the ball down the field with underneath plays will open up big plays over the top or screens to the running backs that could go for big yards. That is Ole Miss’s shot at staying competitive with this defense.
Plain and simple, Ed Stinson and Damion Square will eat the backfield up. The starting ends for Alabama have combined for 23 tackles, 6.5 for loss. Pressure up the middle frees the ends up to attack the inside of the line to get to the ballcarrier. Guards AJ Hawkins and Aaron Morris have each been named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week, and they will need to have stellar games for this offense to be successful. Loss of awareness at the guard positions is blood in the water for the Tide defense. Emmanuel McCray and Pierce Burton will have their hands full on the outside, but it all starts from within.
With any David that is looking to defeat a Goliath, the biggest key in the game is turnovers. That is what will ultimately decide how Ole Miss will fare in this game. The Rebels have lost the ball ten times, which ties them for 104th in the country, while Alabama has 12 takeaways, good for 4th. If Ole Miss gives Alabama short fields to work with on offense or squander red zone opportunities, it could turn out to be a long night. Keeping onto the ball will be paramount, because even if the Rebels punt the ball, it will greatly improve their odds as opposed to a turnover.
The Rebels have lost the last eight meetings with Alabama dating back to a 43-28 victory in 2003. While the Tide has dominated this rivalry, the Rebels have put forth an admirable fight. The Rebels lost a heartbreaker in 2005, losing 13-10. The next year saw an overtime thriller with the Rebels on the short end of a 26-23 score. It is hard to forget the missed call on Shay Hodge that likely would have won the game for Ole Miss in 2007. The Rebels lost that game by a score of 27-24. The Rebels were a Jevan Snead 4th-down conversion away from stealing one in Tuscaloosa in 2008, before falling 24-20. Four of the last seven times these two teams have played, it has been Alabama victories of four points or less. Ole Miss will need that kind of fight and a lot more this Saturday.
Tags: Alabama Defense Alabama Football Barry Brunetti Bo Wallace Cj Mosley Collins Moore Damion Square Dan Werner Dee Milliner Deion Belue Donte Moncrief Ed Stinson Hugh Freeze Jaylen Walton Jeff Scott Kirby Smart Korvic Neat Nic Johnson Nick Saban Ole Miss Football Ole Miss Offense Randall Mackey Trey Depriest Vincent Sanders