Ole Miss shook up the pigskin world in 2014-15, when it beat Alabama two times in a row for the first time in school history.
Needless to say, a lot has happened since Katy Perry took over the College GameDay set on what was arguably the greatest day on record for Magnolia State football. There hasn’t been much good news in Oxford, that’s for sure.
Last season, the Rebels imploded to 5-7 — they were supposed to compete for the West and maybe even make a run at the College Football Playoff — and were one of only two teams in the SEC to not go to a bowl game. Quarterback Chad Kelly didn’t live up to expectations before getting hurt, plus the defense simply couldn’t stop anybody.
And then shortly before this year started, we had the drama associated with former coach Hugh Freeze and his embarrassing exit.
Interim coach Matt Luke had Mississippi off to a respectable start with victories over South Alabama and UT-Martin at home, but they were followed by a frustrating loss to Cal on the road. The Rebs now enter conference play fresh off a bye.
Luke and Co. couldn’t have a tougher assignment to do so, as they travel to Tuscaloosa for another battle with the Crimson Tide. After a 59-0 vandalizing of Vanderbilt in Nashville this past Saturday — the poor Commodores thought they’d turned a corner and were ready for the next step — ‘Bama looks to be as big and bad as ever.
However, if the Tide have an Achilles heel, it might be in the secondary. That’s music to the ears of any Ole Miss fan.
Through three games, Rebels QB Shea Patterson is completing 70.5 percent of his passes with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11-to-4, not to mention the fact that the sophomore is averaging 427 yards per game through the air.
As you’d expect, Mississippi has the No. 1 passing offense in the SEC. Not only is Patterson living up to his 5-star billing, but he has probably the deepest and most dangerous receiving corps in America. Wideouts A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, DaMarkus Lodge and Van Jefferson are all ranked in the Top 10 for receptions in the conference.
Unfortunately, the Rebs remain hopelessly out of balance. They have the worst rushing offense in the league by a wide margin.
As a result, the weight of the world is on Patterson’s shoulders if Ole Miss hopes to stay competitive at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Unless his arm is razor sharp and his legs are extra elusive, Alabama will eventually squeeze him into submission.
That being said, the Crimson Tide only feature a middle-of-the-pack pass defense in the SEC at this point and could be vulnerable on the back end. While they do lead the conference with 6 INTs, keep in mind that opponents tend to be way behind on the scoreboard in the second half and are forced to take to the air out of pure desperation.
‘Bama is yet to face an aerial attack as potent as the one employed by the Rebels. Patterson is adept at avoiding the pass rush, too.
That’s another area where the Tide haven’t really been the Tide thus far in 2017. Believe it or not, but coach Nick Saban’s defense only has 5 sacks in four games. That’s tied for 12th in the conference, ahead of only, well, Mississippi.
It’s assumed that Saban’s depth chart on the defensive side of the ball reloads with 4- and 5-star kids on an annual basis. But Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson aren’t so easily replaced in the trenches. Neither are Tim Williams, Reuben Foster and Ryan Anderson at linebacker. Those were five of Alabama’s top six sackers a year ago.
Not a single Crimson Tide defender has more than one sack this season. Supposed superstars Da’Ron Payne and Da’Shawn Hand have zero.
‘Bama has surrendered 29 passing plays of 10-plus yards, 8 of 20-plus and 3 of 30-plus. All of those totals are average by league standards. To be fair, the Tide are one of five programs in the SEC yet to allow a completion of 40-plus.
Obviously, the Rebs are atop the conference in passing plays of 10-plus yards (47). They’re also first in completions of 30-plus (10), 40-plus (9), 50-plus (6) and 60-plus (4). With Patterson’s ability to extend the action in and out of the pocket — coupled with those monster targets downfield — Ole Miss is all about chunk plays.
Whether the Rebels deliver a shocking upset or get blown out, it’s easy to envision Patterson having another 400-yard day.
Of course, the scales tip greatly in the Tide’s favor in seemingly every other aspect of this matchup, most notably on the ground. They have the best rushing offense in the league (303.3 yards per game) and the best rushing defense (70.3), as well.
For Patterson’s sake, he better hope that Brown is healthy enough to play. He caught a total of 16 passes for 389 yards and 4 scores in Weeks 1 and 2, but he missed Week 3 with a knee injury. According to Luke, his primary option is a game-time decision. Brown plays much bigger than his 6-foot-1, 225-pound frame and can win any 50-50 ball.
Lodge, Metcalf and Jefferson are all 6-2, by the way. They tower over Alabama cornerbacks Anthony Averett, Tony Brown and Levi Wallace.
While the Crimson Tide might be lacking to some degree at corner, keep in mind that they have perhaps the premier safety combination in the country behind them in Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison. Both are difference makers.
There’s every reason to believe that ‘Bama will steamroll Mississippi running the ball and dominate time of possession from start to finish. That quartet of weapons can’t do any damage if they’re stuck on the sideline. Naturally, it goes without saying that the Rebs will struggle to run it themselves — the Tide do that to everybody.
But Bo Wallace had a career day and defeated Alabama. So did Kelly. At the very least, Patterson gives Ole Miss a chance.