There was nothing in the record of the series of games between the Ole Miss Rebels and the Alabama Crimson Tide that would suggest that Mississippi would win this game. Nick Saban is an acknowledged master of the revenge game, and the Rebels beat Alabama, 23-17, in Oxford last year. Never before, in more than a century of playing and a series that included 59 games, had Ole Miss ever won two in a row. Only one of the Rebels' 10 wins against Alabama had ever come in Tuscaloosa.
And tonight, all that is gone. After a bizarre game that featured Ole Miss setting up seemingly insurmountable leads that Alabama continued to threaten, the Rebels emerged with a 43-37 victory that upended the race for the SEC West and could push the Magnolia State back to the center of the college football world. There was luck involved in Ole Miss' win, and perhaps an illegal play as well, but the games count even when there are questions.
It was an uneven and gloriously messy game, at least if you didn't have a dog in the fight. Alabama decided to go with Cooper Bateman to start the game instead of Jake Coker, a move that might very well have backfired, even though Coker wasn't exactly lights out when he finally got into the game. Combined, the two quarterbacks were 32-of-59 for 288 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. Derrick Henry had 127 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries, part of a decent night for the running game, but it wasn't enough.
It wasn't enough in part because of five turnovers by the Tide, which actually outgained the Rebels (503-433), had almost twice as many first downs (29-16), and even finished the night with fewer penalties. But bad things happen when you can't hold onto the ball, and also when the opponent does things like this:
Obligatory wild play video pic.twitter.com/DHGCeXDURX— Brandon Larrabee (@TeamSpeedKills) September 20, 2015
Which is not to say that the Rebels didn't contribute to their own victory. Chad Kelly was 18-of-33 for 341 yards and three touchdowns, though that includes a pop-pass touchdown that was probably illegal. (It was initially called back because the officials mistakenly thought Kelly had cross the line of scrimmage; that was overturned on review, but officials missed the fact that a lineman appeared to be about five yards downfield.) The Rebels' rushing attack, meanwhile, was held almost entirely in check; Ole Miss ran the ball 32 times for 92 yards.
It all culminated in a 33-point fourth quarter that saw Alabama repeatedly chip away at Ole Miss' lead, only to watch the Rebels slip a little bit farther away. After a two-minute scoring drive near the beginning of the quarter -- closely following a similar drive at the end of the third -- the Tide closed the Ole Miss lead to 30-24. The Rebels quickly added on a couple of touchdowns, pushing their margin to 43-24 with about 10 minutes left in the game, and it seemed like Alabama might be dead again.
Not so fast. The Tide responded with another touchdown drive, an on-sides kick and another touchdown, closing things to 43-37. But that was as close as they could get; Coker would go 0-of-5 passing with one interception over the last two Alabama drives of the game.
What does it mean for the SEC West? Maybe chaos. While Ole Miss is certainly on top tonight, the game showcased almost as many vulnerabilities as strengths for the Rebels. And while LSU looked good in annihilating Auburn, it's still fair to ask just how much stock we should put in either that win or the victory at Mississippi State. Even Alabama could work their way back into the picture with relatively little trouble.
But with Alabama going down against Ole Miss and Auburn exploding on the runway of their season, there is not clear-cut front-runner for the division. Wild West, indeed.