For three years running, Alabama vs. Ole Miss has been a weird series with the Rebels giving the Tide considerable trouble. They've also given themselves considerable trouble at times, and the 2016 edition was no exception. And it wouldn't have meant as much that Hugh Freeze's bunch was sabotaging themselves at times if Alabama didn't give them so much to work with. Let me explain.
This review is based on Bill Connelly's Five Factors of winning, sacks are counted as pass plays, and it doesn't include the last drives of each half where the team with the ball was just running out the clock.
|Team||Runs 10+||Pct.||Passes 20+||Pct.||Explosive Pct.|
The biggest question heading into the contest was whether Alabama would be able to gain explosive plays while stopping explosive plays. The answer was half a yes to the former and a full yes to the latter. The explosive run rates for the Tide are significantly higher than what it did against USC and what Ole Miss allowed to FSU, but the explosive passes were down. The explosive rates for the Rebels are below what the team did against FSU.
The main measure here is success rate. Watch this short video if you need to brush up on it.
|Team||Run SR||Pass SR||Overall SR||Red Zone SR|
The reason why explosive plays were such an issue is because Alabama had not been able to get many extended drives in its first two games. The explosiveness was there, but the efficiency was not. In particular, Alabama's running efficiency was well below expected norms.
Well, the efficiency was half there on Saturday, and a lot of that had to do with how the Rebels were defending the Tide. Gary Danielson pointed out on the first Alabama offensive drive of the game that Ole Miss was keeping its safeties back rather than have them up to stop the run. That strategy is consistent with trying to stop big plays and not worrying so much about the Tide's rushing game.
The upshot was that the big passing plays that Alabama has thrived on dried up. Only one of the three explosive pass plays Alabama had was a deep pass completion; the other two were approximately 15-yard throws where the receivers slipped defenders for extra yards after the catch.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, still has a poor run game, and the Alabama defense basically ate it up except for Akeem Judd's 23-yard touchdown run on the game's opening drive.
|Team||1Q SR||2Q SR||3Q SR||4Q SR|
The Tide heated up on offense in the second half, and I think I know why. Chad Kelly's strip-sack touchdown came on the Rebels' first drive of the half, making the 24-3 lead officially blown and tying the game up at 24. The Rebels then went three-and-out on the ensuing drive.
I think the Rebels decided at that point that they needed to put pressure on the freshman Hurts to try to get a big play to reverse momentum. That explanation makes the most sense to me, anyway, as it was at this point that the defense noticeably changed its strategy. Gone was dropping a lot of guys back and instead was keeping an extra guy or two in the box or near the line of scrimmage, even though the defense to that point had allowed just ten offensive points.
The change backfired, as Bama went Field Goal-Touchdown-Punt-Touchdown against that scheme. I'm not sure why Dave Wommack adjusted away from what was working, but he did, and it helped to doom the Rebels.
Ole Miss got three offensive drives in a row in the second half of the fourth quarter. It went pick-six followed by touchdown followed by an onside kick and touchdown. Alabama was up at least 11 points during each of those drives, and the Rebels' success rate during them was 63%. The Tide defense played a somewhat soft prevent—particularly on the middle drive when it was up by 18—which accounts for most of the Rebels' excellent success rate in the final frame.
Efficiency by Player
|Player||Comp. Pct.||Pass Eff.||Yards/Att||Sacks||Pass SR|
Bill C. noted on Sunday's Podcast Ain't Played Nobody that Kelly was amazing on standard downs (first and ten yards to go or fewer, second down and seven or fewer, and third or fourth down and four or fewer). Kelly went 15/18 (83%) for 297 yards (14.2 yards per attempt). On passing downs (anything longer than the aforementioned downs-and-distances), he was 4/12 (33%) for 58 yards (4.8 YPA) and an interception. When there was any chance at all that the Rebels might run the ball, Kelly absolutely shredded the defense. When Bama knew he needed to pass, the defense destroyed him.
Hurts was not great through the air. Alabama didn't have him throw down the field often, which was good because Ole Miss kept dropping people back, but it also meant that he had a poor yards per pass and success rate. In the first half, Hurts had completed 70% of his passes (69.6%, but let's round it up for the nice number). Sounds good, right? Except it was for 3.9 yards per attempt with a success rate of 29.2%.
Hurts threw fewer passes as the game went along. Including the one sack he took as a pass play, he had 13 pass plays in the first quarter, ten in the second, five in the third, and just three in the fourth. As a passer, this was his game to look like a true freshman. He overthrew several receivers, including a wide open Hale Hentges in the end zone on the team's first drive. The one deep ball to Calvin Ridley he connected on was spectacular, especially because he read the play properly and threw it specifically to Ridley's outside shoulder with the defender right on Ridley's inside, but that was the exception and not the rule.
The receiving corps had a better game than it did against WKU, as it didn't have a bunch of drops. That said, they didn't have a chance to make a bunch of big plays. Hurts was mostly throwing short, and, for a while anyway, Ole Miss was dropping more players than it kept forward on most plays.
Engram is a future top NFL Draft pick, and he was impossible to stop for stretches in the game. Aside from him, though, the freshman Jefferson stood out the most to me while watching the game. That guy has a very bright future.
Ole Miss's receiver group should be the envy of everyone in college football. They're so tall, and so fast, and so sure handed. Kelly got the ball to them well, but they also made plenty of plays. These guys are great.
Despite his ineffectiveness through the air, Hurts was great carrying the ball. Some of that was due to the fact that Ole Miss simply did not account for him running the ball on defense a lot of the time. The only instances when the Rebels stopped him short was either when a defensive lineman beat his blocker one-on-one or when it was a shorter yardage situation when a quarterback draw was an obvious potential play call.
The Rebels basically dared Lane Kiffin to run his quarterback disproportionately versus the other ball carriers—like Dan Mullen has been known to do with his quarterbacks, in other words—and Kiffin declined. It didn't bite him because Harris was special running the ball too. He broke through tackles, found extra yards, and hit creases with impressive acceleration. It will be fascinating to see if other teams follow Ole Miss's ploy to more or less allow Hurts to do whatever he wants on the ground in order to focus on stopping everything else. Again, that strategy only allowed ten points in just over two quarters of play, and many teams would take that against a team as talented as the Tide is.
Believe it or not, Ole Miss's 14.1% success rate with the run is almost double the 7.7% rate that USC had.
Alabama was strangely keyed on stopping the rush for a team that is one of the best run stopping units going up against a team that hasn't been able to move it on the ground in over half a decade. For instance, safety Ronnie Harrison bit hard on a fake toss play when there was not one, but two linebackers directly ahead of him (only one of them close to being blocked) when Engram sailed past him on the Rebels' second TD of the game.
Being too attentive to the run opened things up a ton for Kelly and the passing game on standard downs.
|Team||Avg. Starting Position||Plays in Opp. Territory||Pct. Of Total|
|Ole Miss||Own 25||27||39.1%|
There wasn't a ton of difference in starting field position. Ole Miss's ability to hit lots of big plays while Alabama had fewer of them is one of the bigger reasons why the Tide spent more time in enemy territory.
A trip inside the 40 is a drive where the team has a first down at the opponent's 40 or closer or where it scores from further out than that. A red zone trip is a drive with a first down at the opponent's 20 or closer.
|Team||Drives||Trips Inside 40||Points||Red Zone Trips||Points|
Again, the disparity of big plays shows up with Bama getting all of its offensive points off of red zone trips while Ole Miss had a couple of touchdowns that didn't require snapping the ball within the 20.
Ole Miss's horrid run game was a key factor here. Look at the red zone trips. Two of the team's three trips ended in field goals, including one where the ball was snapped from the 1-yard-line on the attempt. We can talk about all of the reviews on that episode, but I'd rather talk about how, even for this particular offense going up against the Bama defense, it's better to go for it rather than kick there. I know about just wanting to get points to stop Bama's 20-to-0 run, but c'mon. You gotta go for it from the one. Even if you miss, the other team has it at the one.
There was a span of 4:34 on the clock in the fourth quarter when the Crimson Tide had more offensive points than the Rebels did. That was it for the whole game. It was a complete team effort for Alabama to win this one.
All three turnovers in the game were returned for points.
Ole Miss's John Youngblood returned a Hurts fumble for a score when Bama inexplicably thought it was a good idea to have right guard Alphonse Taylor pull around the right end of the line to pick up the speeding Marquis Haynes. Haynes plastered Hurts, and the ball popped loose. The score should've been called back due to a post-fumble, pre-touchdown personal foul penalty on the Rebels that the refs mishandled, but hey, SEC refs.
On the other side, Kelly held onto the ball way, way too long when Ryan Anderson was bearing down on him at Kelly's goal line, and Da'Ron Payne scooped up the ball after Anderson got it free from Kelly for a score. Jonathan Allen rumbled 75 yards for the game-deciding touchdown when Tim Williams hit Kelly's arm during a pass attempt in the fourth quarter. The ball came out of Kelly's hand oddly and went right into Allen's hands after it caromed off of Christian Miller.
Alabama's Eddie Jackson had a punt return touchdown, while Ole Miss recovered an onside kick late. Those aren't turnovers, but they basically work like them, and I don't have a special teams Factor to single those important plays out.
Alabama gifted Ole Miss some points in the first half with overpursuing defensive play and blown coverages. You can include Hurts's awful overthrow of Hentges here too, as it reduced Bama's points from seven to three on that first drive.
The Rebels returned the favor with Montrell Custis dropping a second quarter pass at the Bama 20-yard-line that Hurts threw directly to him, Kelly's stunning lack of awareness on his strip-sack-score, and Wommack's unnecessary change of defensive game plan.
If Alabama had executed on defense early, this could've been a blowout. If Ole Miss was merely subpar and not incompetent at running the ball, the Rebels could've won by a couple of scores. If Bama had a more experienced quarterback that could've beat out Hurts for the job, the Tide likely would've had better passing success and won by more. If Ole Miss could've kept Bama from getting any of its three non-offensive touchdowns, they easily could've come out on top. If, if, if.
Steve Spurrier often got the better of Tennessee while at Florida and of Georgia while at South Carolina simply because he got to play those opponents early in the season. Phil Fulmer's Vols teams and many of Mark Richt's Georgia teams got better throughout the year, while Spurrier's squads usually were pretty good right out of the gate.
That dynamic seems to have been in play the past two years with this series. Last year, Alabama started Cooper Bateman in Week 3 against the Rebels. Derrick Henry had a mere (mere!) 23 carries, and Ridley was a very distant third in targets. Meanwhile, Ole Miss has known each of the last two years from the get-go that it would be relying on Kelly's arm to win them games.
So far this year, Alabama is still very much a work in progress. That's to be expected when starting a true freshman at quarterback, having basically no experienced running backs coming into the year, replacing several offensive linemen, and breaking in some young players here and there on the defense. We've not yet seen the best football that the 2016 Crimson Tide will play.
Meanwhile, it feels like Ole Miss has hit its ceiling under present management. It's a pretty high ceiling, considering the team beat Bama the past two years and nearly pulled it off again last weekend. It came within a wild lateral against Arkansas of winning the West and most likely the conference in 2015. But with Kelly likely to be in the NFL next year and recruiting lagging in the wake of the NCAA investigations, this could be as good as it gets for the Rebels for a while. Yes, thank you, I know who Shea Patterson is. He's not yet played a snap of live college football, and the recruiting dip (if it sticks) means the average quality of his teammates won't be as high as it is now.
I've appreciated the wild character of the Alabama-Ole Miss series the past two years, and I only hope that it'll continue.