Game Time: Saturday, September 15th, 7 p.m. ET/6 p.m. CT
Watch Online: WatchESPN
Odds: Alabama (-21), -1200 (Alabama Moneyline), +950 (Ole Miss Moneyline), 71 (O/U)
This one may be a scoreboard-lighter-upper, folks.
If you don’t think Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban didn’t have this game circled on his calendar while thinking about his primarily young defense, you probably don’t know Nick Saban. The man wants us to believe that he approaches each season as “one play at a time,” but he knows what Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke and OC Phil Longo’s offense can do to the inexperienced.
A lot was coming at the Rebels last season, especially in the beginning when then-interim head coach Luke was still figuring much of his job out on the fly. Unfortunately for he and his team, they had a Week 5 trip to Tuscaloosa which resulted in a 66-3 drubbing leaving many thinking he was in over his head.
What ended up being a solid second half of the 2017 season led to him being named the official man in charge which in turn gives him much more confidence going into a 2018 home game with the Tide this Saturday.
Here are 3 keys to the game.
New Tide Secondary vs. Very-Much-Not-New Rebel Receiving Corps
This is the matchup that most analysts are going to look at when determining how much damage the Rebel offense does to the Tide defense.
The Alabama secondary had two very good tuneups to what should be the most high-octane offense they face all year and in preparing for such, Saban was doing some tinkering with his secondary this week.
It appears that former five-star true freshman Patrick Surtain Jr. will be playing corner opposite Saivion Smith when the Tide goes to its nickel formation (5 DBs) with cornerback Trevon Diggs moving in to cover the slot. This places do-all DB Shyheim Carter at safety in the 5-6 DB sets. Saban wants as much size on the field as possible and he gets it by having the aforementioned players on top of Deionte Thompson and Xavier McKinney on the field.
Still, they’ll be going up against the most experienced and talented receiving corps in the conference in receivers A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, Braylon Sanders and DeMarkus Lodge. These four have combined for 714 of the Rebels’ 815 total passing yards and 40 of its 46 completions thus far. The squad is led by junior Brown who has 15 receptions, 251 yards and 3 TDs.
The idea of Surtain, Jr. having to go up against a guy as large and speedy as Brown seems a bit unfair, but “trial by fire” is Saban’s style, especially when it comes to corners. Nothing gets the butterflies out quicker than getting beat on your first contested play as a starter.
Currently, Ole Miss sits at 2nd in the FBS in passing yards per game while the Tide D is 84th in passing yards allowed.
This could be an ugly matchup for the Tide for the first few series, but even against the most prolific passing games, Saban and his staff adjust very well. What makes this one so much fun is the sheer talent on the field going after it each play.
Can the Tide O-Line Assert Itself?
Despite the fine offensive numbers through two games, the Tide’s offensive line has taken some heat, mostly due to the pressure opposing defensive lines are getting.
Bama QBs Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts have, both, been chased out of the pocket on numerous occasions and while the offensive line has allowed only two sacks thus far, much of that can be attributed to its quarterbacks having above-average improvisational skills outside the pocket.
The Tide return three out of its five offensive lineman from last year’s team, although only one of the three is playing the same position. The new kids on the block are sophomores Jedrick Wills at right tackle and Alex Leatherwood at right guard. From a pure talent standpoint, this is probably the best-looking offensive line Alabama’s had under Nick Saban, with nary a three-star among them.
Still, history has shown that after a couple of games, the unit gels. It’s going to need to with an ornery Ole Miss defensive line who’s only tallied one sack up to this point. Wesley McGriff’s squad will be carrying a major chip on their shoulder going into Saturday so be on the look out for early blitzing.
If Alabama’s line can handle that, then it may be a long evening for the Rebels.
Which Running Game Has More Success?
This never used to be a concern for an opposing defense when preparing for the Rebels.
Hugh Freeze had so many weapons at receiver, like Luke and Longo do now, and his scheme was so bonkers that a running game or, I should say, a workhouse running back seldom factored into the equation.
That all looks to be changing with the emergence of JUCO transfer Scottie Phillips at running back. Dude is really good.
Thus far, he has 311 yards off 31 carries averaging right at 10 yards per carry. Only Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill is getting that many yards per carry in the SEC. What’s equally impressive is the fact that the Rebel offense is still so tailored to the passing game and Phillips is racking up these numbers.
What could be potentially difficult, though, against a Tide defense that loves stuffing the run is there doesn’t seem to be a second guy who can spell Phillips. The carry drop-off is significant with the second leading rusher on the team only getting 11.
The Tide RB corps, however, might be the strongest in the league and the most communal with the top three running backs splitting 51 of the squad’s 86 carries so far. Senior Damien Harris, sophomore Najee Harris and junior Josh Jacobs are an ideal trio with varying skillsets that are pliable within each offensive play.
It’s very difficult to keep all three at bay and with Ole Miss’ defense allowing 241 rushing yards last weekend, it could get ugly.
While the passing game of both teams will be on full display, its the rushing that will ultimately determine which offense has more success.
So Who Wins?
Ole Miss’ offense is currently averaging a respectable 596 yards and 61 points per game while Alabama’s is averaging a just okay 559 and 54 points per game.
The offenses will be fine.
The question, here, is which defense do you trust more?
The answer, here, is Alabama’s. Always Alabama’s.
Prediction: Alabama 49 Ole Miss 28