What was Hugh Freeze able to do the previous two seasons that no one else in the SEC could?
Obviously, it was beat Alabama. That part we know. Since the beginning of 2014, the Crimson Tide has gone 29-3 with two conference championships and a national title. Two of those three losses in that very timespan? To Hugh Freeze's spellbinding Ole Miss Rebels.
So, the real answer to the question, beyond just beating Alabama, of what Hugh Freeze has been able to do the previous two seasons that no other team in the SEC has, is he has confused the hell out of Nick Saban. More than Gus Malzahn, more than Kevin Sumlin, more than maybe even Steve Spurrier, Freeze's teams over the last three seasons, including Saturday's game, forced Saban to hope.
Hope what, exactly?
Hope that one play was made.
Since 2014, Saban has hoped that just one play would be made that could put Alabama in contention to win. Think about that for a second. Alabama has needed to rely upon explosive plays to keep them from losing a football game. In 2014, Saban hoped that Blake Sims pass to O.J. Howard in the end zone at the end of the game was not intercepted by Senquez Golson.
In 2015, Saban had to hope that Chad Kelly's errant pass to Laquon Treadwell would be picked off by one of his two very talented cornerbacks (it wasn't). During Saturday's game, Saban was hoping beyond hope that just one player on his team would make a play to break a 24-3 deficit late in the first half.
It turns out he got several, including two touchdowns from defensive linemen (LINEMEN), a punt return TD from a first-time punt returner and a screwy jet sweep that started the furious comeback. These were not miraculous plays, mind you, but they were ones that not many teams could make in a single game. Including Alabama. And that is the true essence of the effect Hugh Freeze has on Nick Saban.
Spencer Hall made mention of something very observant on a Shutdown Fullcast episode a few weeks back, when he, Jason Kirk and Ryan Nanni were previewing all the FBS teams. In discussing the Tide, he described their defensive unit as a "pattern reading" group, meaning they are coached to effectively suss out any number of formations coming from the offense. At all three levels, Saban's personnel on the field can read where an offense is going before they do it.
This has been the recipe to the great 'Bama defenses of yore under Saban. In this same podcast, Kirk said that teams need the "anti-blueprint" to beat Alabama: A way to knock the corners and linebackers on their heels to achieve success against this "pattern-read" bunch.
Malzahn began to crack the code in 2010 with Cam Newton and again in 2013 with Nick Marshall and Tre Mason. Kevin Sumlin brought Johnny Manziel to Tuscaloosa in 2012 and exited the first quarter with a 20-0 lead and an eventual win. Spurrier did to a certain extent earlier in 2010, when Stephen Garcia had literally the best game of his life in Columbia, South Carolina and the Gamecocks stomped the Tide by two touchdowns.
With the exception of Spurrier (the two coaches never played each other again), Saban has figured out how to at least stifle these offenses to varying degrees. Part of that has been through Lane Kiffin's addition to the Alabama staff, which is able to, at the very least, match the prolific offenses they're facing, although Doug Nussmeier deserves credit for 'Bama's 49-42 shootout in College Station in 2013.
In 2014, Malzahn's offense was even more deadly against Bama's defense, this time through the air. Kiffin had to match that playcalling with his own, resulting in a 55-44 'Bama win, the highest-scoring Iron Bowl ever. Earlier that season, the Tide put on both an offensive and defensive clinic against Texas A&M with a 59-0 whomping.
Yet, before both of those games, Ole Miss (with Bo Wallace, no less) beat Alabama for the first time since 2003, using the same offensive "anti-blueprint" and a more ferocious defense. Kiffin's offense mustered only 10 points in that game, with the other touchdown coming from the defense.
Dave Wommack's defense was the secret to keeping Kiffin's adventurous playcalling at bay in 2014 and 2015. He was aggressive with his defensive line and his secondary made all the big plays. They picked the ball off four times those two years and each interception was pivotal to the outcome of the game.
On Saturday, Wommack wasn't quite as successful as he was the last two years, but his defense did hold the Tide to three points with four minutes left to go in the first half. Then, of course, all hell broke loose. For both teams. Thus the witchcraft of Hugh Freeze.
When Jonathan Allen returned a Piesman-worthy interception for a touchdown, all seemed lost for the Rebels. The score was 48-30 and even with this offense's ability to score quickly, it certainly didn't look good. Then, they scored twice in the span of eight seconds. That's right. They scored a touchdown, quickly got the ball back with a successful onside kick attempt and scored another touchdown on the very next play.
Even prior to this chain of events, Freeze and his co-coordinators were able to continuously confuse Alabama's secondary. Ronnie Harrison was playing pretty deep at safety when he bit on a fake pitch from Chad Kelly, leaving a wide open Evan Engram to haul in a 63-yard bomb from his quarterback.
Kelly had a brilliant day, passing for 421 yards and three touchdowns. A lot of this yardage came in large chunks. He was on the money with his long balls and his giant receivers caught damn near anything that was thrown to them.
It needs to be said that Marlon Humphrey did a perfectly fine job in one-on-one for Alabama. Whether he was guarding A.J. Brown or Damore'ea Stringfellow, he was stride-for-stride. It's just the receivers were terrific all day and he had little help from his teammates.
These are the things that Alabama has come to expect when playing Ole Miss. It's as if Freeze has truly figured out the formula in competing with the Tide. You can beat Nick Saban once, sure. It's happened 18 times at Alabama. You can even beat him twice. Les Miles has done it three times. Malzahn's done it once as a coordinator and once as a head coach. Urban Meyer and Saban's battles are legendary, with he and Saban split at two apiece.
What Freeze was after, though, on Saturday was unprecedented. He was trying to become the first head coach to ever beat Nick Saban three times in a row in the SEC. And he was one recovered fumble away from probably doing it, too. "How?" you might ask.
Along with Meyer, Saban is the most dominant coach in college football. He's one of the greatest ever. You can say, "Bryant, Rockne, Leahy, Hayes and Saban," and it makes sense. He could retire tomorrow and he would be one of those guys.
So, how has Ole Miss, a program who hasn't won a national title since the coach for whom their stadium is named or even been to an SEC title game since its inception, managed to confound this all-time great?
Well, if I had the answer for you, it probably wouldn't be Hugh Freeze's Ole Miss Rebels.