Top-ranked Alabama begins SEC play Saturday at Ole Miss, a game that will be featured nationally on ESPN.
Almost everyone assumes that the Tide will roll (pardon the pun), but that doesn’t seem to have diminished the level of excitement to see the Alabama defense against the Ole Miss offense.
After all, the Alabama secondary, after losing their top 6 DBs in the offseason, was the big question mark heading into the season. They replaced the lost production with very talented former 4- and 5-star prospects, but they were inexperienced and didn’t have much time to mesh together. Through 2 games, they’ve looked pretty good. They’re still coming together, no doubt, but it’s hard to argue with the results, giving up just 21 total points and allowing 235 yards passing per game.
Having said that, they really haven’t been tested yet. No offense (I’ve got to stop with the puns) to Louisville and Arkansas State, but they’re not exactly offensive juggernauts.
This week, the Alabama defense, particularly its secondary, will have their first big test. The Rebels have a good QB, a good RB, an elite receiving corps and a very good offensive line. It’s an offense that features both talent and experience.
There’s a reason this team has averaged just under 600 yards of offense and 61.5 points per game so far this year. Say what you will about who they’ve played (because they haven’t exactly faced any world-beaters, either), but the execution on offense has been fantastic. It’s a very well coached and assignment sound unit that is balanced and explosive.
The Alabama offense has also been sensational, no one can deny that. QB Tua Tagovailoa looks like a legitimate Heisman favorite. Against an Ole Miss defense that has looked historically awful, the Tide shouldn’t have any problems racking up both yards and points.
However, does Alabama really want to get into a shootout with Ole Miss? I don’t think so.
Not because I don’t think Alabama could win a shootout, because it can. The Tide have been able to score practically at will this year, and the Rebels’ defense gave up 629 yards and 41 points at home last week to an FCS team. So yeah, Alabama shouldn’t have any problems lighting up the scoreboard.
But is that the best strategy? Is the best way to beat Ole Miss to get into a shooting match? No, not really.
Remember 2015? The Tide won the national title but lost for the second consecutive year to Ole Miss. There were some flukey plays, and the scoreboard impacted play-calling, but the Tide threw 59 passes in that 43-37 loss.
In 2016, with Jalen Hurts, the Tide attempted a more reasonable 31 passes and won 48-43. Last season, again with Hurts, the Tide threw just 24 passes and ran for 365 yards en route to a 66-3 blowout.
The best strategy to defeating Ole Miss is to beat them up with the run game. Their defensive line has been bad. Their linebackers have been unbelievably bad. They’re giving up just under 200 yards rushing per game and 4.7 yards per carry, and guess what? Texas Tech and Southern Illinois don’t exactly have backs like Damien and Najee Harris, nor do they possess an elite offensive line like Alabama’s.
Alabama shouldn’t try and score as quickly as possible. If it chases that strategy, the Tide might score (scratch that, they more than likely will score), but then they’re also taking the Ole Miss defense (the obvious weakness of the team) off the field and putting the Rebels’ offense (the obvious strength of the team) back onto the field. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the more often the Rebels have the ball, the more they’ll score and keep themselves in the game.
Alabama should want to absolutely maul them into the ground. Ten-, 12- or 15-play drives that tire the Rebels out early on. If anyone has followed Ole Miss recruiting the past few years, you’ll know they don’t have much depth on defense. You could argue, on defense, they don’t have elite starters, much less quality backups. Longer drives will wear them down and still result in points on the board, and in the process, keep Jordan Ta’amu, A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and Co. off the field.
Nick Saban is no dummy. He’s the greatest coach in the history of college football (and it’s not even close) for a reason. It probably took him 5 minutes of film study to identify the Rebels’ greatest weakness not only on defense, but as a team.
He’ll want to exploit that weakness.
The way to do that is a steady dose of carries for the Harrises. Set up the play-action. Lord knows if you watched Ole Miss last week, you know their LBs will bite on any and every play-fake. Force the LBs to play in space.
Through 2 games, Alabama has thrown for 618 yards and rushed for 500. That’s notable. If the Tide were to continue that pace, they’d finish the regular season with 3,708 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards.
If that sounds out of character, it should. Last season, the Tide ran for 801 more yards than they passed. In 2016, the rushing game accounted for 521 more yards.
Those offenses, obviously, were led by the dual-threat Hurts. This year’s offense, obviously, is led by pass-happy Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa has been nearly flawless and prolific. The Tide have scored 8 of their 12 offensive touchdowns through the air. The temptation is to let Tagovailoa drop back and throw it 40 times. But the wise move would be to revert to more of a ground-and-pound attack.
Alabama still probably scores on most drives, they wear down the Rebels’ defense and they keep the potent Rebels’ offense on the sidelines.
So, no. I don’t think Alabama wants to get into a shooting match with Ole Miss – at least not in the sense of Tagovailoa airing it out deep 35 times. They’ll still probably win one way or another, but really, that’s the best way of keeping the Rebels in the game.