What now appears right and wrong about our preseason look at a critical game.
What's at Stake: The lead in the SEC West. Whoever wins this game will be the best bet to play in Atlanta. Only a loss to LSU could possibly derail the winner, since the head-to-head win will allow for a mistake against Arkansas or Auburn. (Alabama will have already played the Hogs at this point.) No game in October is an elimination game for anything -- but the victor will probably control its own fate.
Strike that last sentence; this could very well be an elimination game for Ole Miss. Two conference losses with only the game at LSU left would leave the Rebels three behind the Tide in the SEC standings, and it's next to impossible to envision Alabama losing three SEC games the rest of the year, especially if Ole Miss isn't one of them. Sure, the Tide could lose to South Carolina or Tennessee, then LSU and Auburn, but that kind of lightning strike isn't a good plan on which to rest your championship hopes. Of course, then you need LSU and Auburn to both lose to Ole Miss and one other SEC foe. So there are no easy answers if the Rebels lose this one.
Where It Falls on Ole Miss's Schedule: After a stretch that could easily see the Rebels go 4-0, with games at Memphis, against Southeastern Louisiana, at South Carolina and at Vanderbilt. The only question is whether the possible land mines in Columbia and Nashville will leave Ole Miss banged up enough to lose to the Tide, or even with a disappointing loss that could deflate the season's promise.
So much for the "easily see the Rebels go 4-0" part. The game in Memphis wasn't as simple as it should have been (deceptive score notwithstanding), and the game against the Gamecocks ... well, Ole Miss kind of lost that one.
What Will Decide the Game This Year: Maybe a single, game-swinging play. These two teams are, at least in the mind of your humble correspondent, thisclose to one another. A turnover, long TD or special-teams disaster could be difference.
They're not thisclose anymore. Alabama has played the best football in the SEC so far this year and Ole Miss pretty clearly has not.
Alabama Will Probably Win If ... The Tide defense can shut down the Ole Miss offense. The Rebels won only two of the six games in which they scored fewer than 30 points last year, and while the defense is good, Ole Miss' chances will still come down to Snead, McCluster and the rest of the offense.
This is looking like a much better chance to happen after South Carolina and Vanderbilt both held the Rebels under 30. Unless Jevan Snead finds his late-2008 form, Saturday looks to be a long day for the Ole Miss offense.
Ole Miss Will Probably Win If ... The offensive line can hold back the Tide. Give Jevan Snead time and Cordera Eason some room, and it will be far easier to score enough points to come out of Tuscaloosa in control of the West.
Eason has not carried the ball for more than 29 yards so far this season, and we've already alluded to Snead's problems (54-of-105, 728 yards, 9 TDs, 5 INTs). Sure, if the offensive line gives Snead some time to work with, he might be able to get back on track. But with him having taken seven sacks in the first four games, two of them against awful competition, the signs are not encouraging.
Conclusion: I'm one of those who really likes Ole Miss this year, and I go back and forth on this game. But I have to stay with my initial pick: A narrow win for Alabama. Their defense is good enough to minimize the damage by the Ole Miss offense and should allow the Tide to score just enough to come out ahead.
Certainly no reason to change this, except possibly to the upside for Alabama. They're now the clear favorites to come out of this game having eliminated one opponent from the race for the West.