September 22, 2012; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron (10) point out the defense prior to the snap against the Florida Atlantic Owls during the first quarter at Bryant Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-US PRESSWIRE
The focus of Saturday’s matchup between Ole Miss (3-1) and #1 Alabama (4-0) will be Hugh Freeze’s offense vs. Nick Saban’s defense, the other sides of the ball could prove to be even more crucial. Alabama is not traditionally known as a top tier offensive team. That stereotype may be a bit misleading as the Crimson Tide are second in the SEC in scoring offense at 42 points per game.
On the other hand, Ole Miss, had been a team with a good defensive reputation this decade. NFL starters such as Patrick Willis, Greg Hardy, Kendrick Lewis, Jamarca Sanford, and Peria Jerry have all donned the red and blue. The tides have turned for Ole Miss as the Rebels rank 62nd in the country in total defense.
For Alabama, it all starts with arguably the best offensive line in the country. Three different Alabama linemen are likely to go in the first two rounds of this April’s draft in left guard Chance Warmack, center Barrett Jones, and right tackle DJ Fluker. The experience by those three is only rivaled by the talent.
While the trio of draft prospects may sound familiar to an SEC fan, the other two should be no strangers to Rebel fans. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio was the number four recruit in the country per Rivals. Kouandjio is probably best remembered for having New Mexico in his final three, along with Alabama and Auburn. The sophomore will likely be a top prospect in the 2014 or 2015 draft. Anthony Steen, the right guard, is out of Lambert, Miss. The junior who attended Lee Academy, started nine games for Alabama last year.
All five of the linemen are over 300 pounds and play together as a solid unit. Despite the size, talent, and experience, the Tide have allowed 11 sacks, compared to the 10 sacks the Alabama defense has registered. The line has not played up to their potential, believe it or not, but they will undeniably get better as the season progresses.
Quarterback AJ McCarron initially showed interest in Ole Miss before choosing in-state Alabama. Originally seen as another gam manager for Alabama, McCarron has blossomed into a playmaker. The Offsenive MVP of the National Championship game is 51-81 for 819 yards this season. More impressive than his 63 percent completions, is his ten touchdowns to go along with zero interceptions. McCarron goes through his progressions well and is a good decision maker. He typically has a lot of time in the pocket and has playmakers on the outside to go to.
CJ Johnson and Uriah Grant will need to have their best games to date against the Alabama line to force McCarron out of the pocket. Ole Miss is not deep on the line, but they will have to use a lot of men against this offense. The Tide are capable of long drives and they have a 44 percent third down rate. If Ole Miss cannot rotate in lots of defensive linemen, the starters will get very tired, very quickly.
McCarron spreads the ball around very well, with five different receivers over 90 yards this season. Cyrus Jones and Kevin Norwood are the two big play threats for Alabama and will be a lot to handle if you are Charles Sawyer and company. The secondary will need to protect against intermediate posts and comebacks. That means that the safeties will have to play in zone over the top most of the game with the spur coming in against the run.
While containing the pass is important for Ole Miss, the run is where the focus will be. Saban likes to pound the ball to wear the defense down, before going to the pass. Long drives have been the dagger to the chest of opposing defenses this year. Ole Miss knows that all too well after allowing 389 yards on the ground to Alabama last season.
Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon are big, powerful backs who will run you over, not go around you. Sure tackling is the key to limiting these backs, which is easier said than done. Mike Marry is the most sure tackler the Rebels have at linebacker and he will need to shed blocks to get to the ball carrier if Ole Miss is to have a chance. Serderius Bryant and Joel Kight will have to flood the middle against the run, as the outside is not as important with Lacy and Yeldon. Look for Ole Miss to play big at spur because against Alabama, size beats speed.
The only things bigger than a life-sized “Big Al” are the offensive linemen and running backs for Alabama. Dave Wommack will have to take risks on first and second down to try and slow down the drives. Sitting back and trying to play even with the defense will leave you trailing in a hurry.
At the Ole Miss practice yesterday, “Sweet Home Alabama” and crowd noise from Bryant-Denny blared to the point where freshmen at the dorms were likely woken up off of their futons. The noise will be there, the crowd will be there, and Rebel nation can only hope that the team adheres to the confidence of Lynard Skynyrd when they sing, “Here I come, Alabama.”