Ole Miss football: Sure, they can score on Alabama, but can the Rebels' D stop the Tide's 2-pronged attack?
Ole Miss and Alabama square off Saturday night in Oxford, in one of the more intriguing games of Week 3. “Intriguing” is a bit relative because early lines are putting Ole Miss as a 20-point underdog, despite playing in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Many believe this game could get ugly, much like it did last year, when the Tide destroyed the Rebels 66-3 in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama, after all, is ranked No. 1, and for good reason. The Tide absolutely mauled their first two opponents, Louisville and Arkansas State, by a combined score of 108-21. They hit 50 each time, the first time they started a season that explosively since 1925.
While neither game was even remotely close, if you watched them, particularly the Arkansas State game, you saw that the Alabama defense is still coming along. The scoring defense is fantastic (allowing 10.5 points per game and they’ve already returned two interceptions for touchdowns), but they gave up just under 400 yards of offense to the Red Wolves, including 173 on the ground. They gave up 5.6 yards per carry, after only giving up 2.8 last year.
Ole Miss, armed with one of the best offenses in the country, is expected to pounce on the Alabama defense. QB Jordan Ta’amu (784 yards, 69.2%, 7 TDs/0 INTs) has been playing very well, showing poise in the pocket, making good reads and delivering with good velocity and accuracy. His placement on deep balls has been fantastic. His receivers, considered the best nationally, have lived up to the billing, showing the ability to get separation and win one-on-one matchups. They’ve even found a rushing attack, led by JUCO transfer Scottie Phillips, who has rushed for 311 yards and 4 TDs, averaging 10 yards per carry.
It’s still early, but the Rebels have the SEC’s leader in passing yards, rushing yards, rushing TDs and receptions on offense. It’s a very good unit. Against an Alabama defense that has given up some yards and is still breaking in a young secondary, Ole Miss should be able to put some points up against the Tide.
Here’s the “but” …
But can they stop Alabama’s offense? To beat Alabama, Ole Miss will have to slow down a Tua Tagovailoa-led attack that has looked practically unstoppable.
Tagovailoa, the star of the national title game, has been a revelation for the Tide offense. Through 2 games, he has completed 25-of-35 passes (71.4%) for 455 yards for 6 TDs and no picks. He has shown excellent accuracy with the ability to squeeze balls into tight windows. His deep ball has been every bit as good as Ta’amu’s, taking advantage of a group of very fast and explosive receivers. They’re not as big or physical as the Rebels’ receivers, but they’re probably faster.
The passing game has been the greatest weakness for Alabama the past few years, but now it looks like the team’s greatest strength.
Oh, and they can still run the ball, too. I mean, c’mon, it’s Alabama — of course they can run the ball. Damien Harris (19 carries, 116 yards) and Najee Harris (21 carries, 165 yards, 2 TDs) have both looked fast and explosive with tremendous power. They’re brutally tough to bring down. The offensive line, which is probably the best in the SEC, has made the backs jobs even easier by manhandling opposing front seven’s.
This is an offense that can grind you down with a sustained drive or explode for chunk yards downfield and score in the blink of an eye. Already, 5 of their touchdown plays have covered at last 15 yards. Normally, teams could just load up the box to stop the run and dare the Alabama QB to beat them with their arms. Well, you can’t do that anymore. You have to play them honestly, because if you either load up to stop the run or drop everyone back to stop the pass, they can burn you either way.
The best defenses in the country would have a tough time stopping this offensive attack. So, how about the Ole Miss defense? The Rebels, well, they don’t exactly have one of the best defenses in the country. Make no mistake, despite the mascot, this isn’t like the Landshark defenses of 2014 and 2015.
The Rebels’ defense of 2018 has been utterly abysmal. Last week, they gave up a jaw-dropping 629 yards of offense and 41 points at home to an FCS school. That’s literally the most an SEC school has ever allowed to an FCS team. Granted, the defense looked a bit better in the second half, but let’s get real: That was a flat out embarrassing performance.
The defensive line, aside from Austrian Robinson, has struggled to put any pressure on the QB consistently. They haven’t been awful against the run, especially Josiah Coatney and Qaadir Sheppard, but the rushing attacks they’ve faced were sorry to begin with.
The linebackers, the clear weakness of the defense heading into 2018, have probably been even worse than expected. Freshman Jacquez Jones (a Tuscaloosa native) was one of the very few bright spots last week, but asking him to carry the unit against a team like Alabama is a tall order. Detric Bing-Dukes, Zikerrion Baker, Willie Hibbler and Mohamed Sanogo have been total liabilities so far. They’ve looked undisciplined and poorly coached, constantly biting on play fakes and misdirection, and haven’t been able to tackle at all. The linebackers struggle against the run or the pass, and I’m not sure how that’s going to change in the span of just a few days.
The secondary actually hasn’t been too bad this year, with Montrell Custis and Vernon Dasher showing a lot of promise, but they still gave up nearly 400 yards passing and 4 TDs to Southern Illinois. I tremble at the thought of what Tagovailoa could do.
The odds are overwhelmingly against the Rebels’ defense in this matchup, and for good reason. It doesn’t take a Vegas insider to know it’s very likely that Alabama scores 50 or more for a third consecutive game to open the season. They didn’t manage that in 1925.
Who knows, maybe the defense somehow pulls together and plays the game of the century, with flawless execution. They’ll need to generate multiple turnovers to have a chance. They’ll need the offense, particularly the rushing attack, to put together lengthy drives to help keep the defense fresh and Tagovailoa off the field.
It’s a long shot, but they have a chance in the game. A lot will have to go right for Ole Miss and a lot will have to go poorly for Alabama for the Rebels to win, but they weren’t favored in 2014 or 2015, either.
At least for the Rebels, they’re getting the toughest test of the season out of the way early. As crazy as it sounds in Week 3, but it’s all downhill after this.