What if I told you in August that the biggest game in the SEC in the 2nd week of November would be Alabama-Ole Miss, and that 1 team would have a Playoff path?

You probably would’ve said, “duh, Connor. It’s Alabama. Of course, the Tide will have a Playoff path.”

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Plot twist — it’s not the Tide who boast a Playoff path. At least not without the top 10 going full 2007-mode and then some.

The Playoff path belongs to the home team. That’s right. One-loss Ole Miss has a Playoff shot, even if it doesn’t have a direct path. Lord knows it would still need to beat Alabama for the first time since 2015, and then it would have to hope that LSU lost to either Arkansas or A&M. Oh, and then Ole Miss would have to beat Georgia in the SEC Championship.

But a path is a path. And oddly, Lane Kiffin’s path is filled with far fewer potholes than Alabama, which would need to win out and have LSU lose both SEC games just to get to Atlanta for a potential showdown with Georgia.

Weird? Weird.

More likely is that Saturday’s game in Oxford could decide a New Year’s 6 bowl. So let’s dig into some of those thoughts:

1. This is a unique spot for Alabama

It’s the first time Alabama has 2 pre-Iron Bowl losses since 2010. That means you could argue that every regular-season game in the 9 years of the Playoff era has some sort of Playoff implications for the Tide. This one doesn’t. How does Nick Saban handle that? And can his team get up for a road showdown against a capable Ole Miss squad in Oxford?

We’ll play the results with this one. If Alabama comes out and blows the doors off Ole Miss, we’ll say “see, this is why you don’t want to make the Tide angry.” If Alabama comes out flat and loses consecutive regular-season games for the first time in 15 years, we’ll say “see, Alabama totally lacked motivation.”

In reality, this could be somewhere in the middle. We could see the Tide play looser than ever now that there’s no “title or bust” mentality, or maybe that’ll make an atypically undisciplined Alabama team even more sloppy. We don’t know. Not even Saban knows.

What we do know is that this game sets up differently than any game in years past, and if Alabama doesn’t show up ready to roll, Ole Miss has the formula to expose that (more on that in a bit).

2. It’s also a unique spot for Ole Miss

Think about this, too. When was the last time that Ole Miss played a November game with 1 loss? That was 2014, when we got a classic battle against Auburn on the first day of November … which Ole Miss lost.

This is the program’s best 9-game start since 1962. Even though Ole Miss doesn’t control its path in the West and it needs an LSU loss, that’s still about as good as anyone could’ve asked for after all the production lost from last year’s squad, which recorded the best regular season win total in program history. Oh, and Ole Miss also had both coordinators leave while Kiffin tried to make 30 new faces gel.

That’s darn impressive to be at this spot. That is, hosting an afternoon game on CBS wherein it has a legitimate path to victory against Alabama to keep its Playoff hopes alive.

What’s that path to victory, you ask? Well …

3. Quinshon Judkins, against the in-state team that didn’t offer him, will be ___________.

“Motivated.”

Very. How could he not be? He helped Pike Road win a 5A Alabama High School State Championship, yet who was up in the bleachers on a cold night in Birmingham to witness it? It wasn’t Saban. It was Kiffin. Now, it’s Kiffin who made Judkins the lead back of the nation’s top non-service academy rushing attack in America.

Judkins ranks No. 1 in the SEC with 13 rushing touchdowns and he’s 2nd in the conference with 1,034 rushing yards. With 4 games left, he has a legitimate shot to beat the SEC record 17 rushing touchdowns by a true freshman. He can hit that in an afternoon if a defense doesn’t want to tackle him.

We saw Judkins get a career-high 34 carries for 205 yards against A&M. He’s always been a high-volume guy, so that’s not necessarily new to him. The question is how much Kiffin will want to feed Judkins coming off the bye against an Alabama defense that ranks No. 7 in America in yards/carry allowed (3.01). Ole Miss still has the versatile, dynamic Zach Evans, as well. But it’s Judkins who has shown he can take over a game.

Only 3 teams have hit 80 rushing yards in a game against Alabama, but all 3 of those games were true road games:

  • at Arkansas: 51 carries, 187 yards, 2 TDs
  • at Tennessee: 39 rushes, 182 yards, 2 TDs
  • at LSU: 34 carries, 185 yards, 2 TDs

All 3 of those teams complemented their lead backs with mobile quarterbacks, which Ole Miss has in Jaxson Dart. While you can’t necessarily be 1-dimensional against Alabama, I’d still expect a run-heavy approach from Kiffin and Charlie Weis Jr.

4. What would a high-volume Alabama rushing attack even look like with Bryce Young?

I added the caveat “with Bryce Young” because we saw what a high-volume Alabama rushing attack looked like when he was out. The Tide ran the ball 42 times when Young got hurt in the 1st half against Arkansas and with Jalen Milroe starting against A&M, Alabama ran the ball a season-high 51 times. That was actually the most rushing attempts by an Alabama offense since 2017 against Tennessee. The only other instance in the past 5 seasons in which Alabama ran the ball 50 times in a game was, ironically enough, against Ole Miss last season.

I ask that because it feels like this Alabama team needs to run the ball more. It ranks No. 3 in FBS in yards per carry (5.91), but just No. 88 in rushing attempts per game.

Cue the “fire Bill O’Brien” comments.

I get it. When you have someone like Young, it’s difficult to take the ball out of his hands. But when you have receivers who have struggled like Alabama’s, it’s fair to rethink that approach, especially against an Ole Miss defense that ranks No. 78 against the run. Jahmyr Gibbs should be heavily featured, and not just as Young’s check-down to hopefully get bailed out on 3rd-and-8.

This feels like a perfect time to shift to a more ground-heavy approach with Gibbs and Jase McClellan to perhaps try and open up some of those throwing windows for Young and the struggling Alabama receivers.

5. The number that’s working against Ole Miss

Kiffin ranks No. 4 among Saban disciples in terms of “time led against the G.O.A.T.” Only Kirby Smart (obviously), Jimbo Fisher and Will Muschamp (not so obviously) are ahead of Kiffin. The bad news? In 120 minutes of football against his former boss, Kiffin has only led for 13 minutes and 32 seconds. Those all came in the first half of that wild 2020 game.

Oh, actually that’s not the number I was searching for. Consider that a nice little bonus stat.

Since the start of 2008, Alabama coming off a regular season loss the following week has been … dominant:

  • 2022: W 30-6, vs. MSU
  • 2021: W 49-9, at MSU
  • 2019: W 38-7, at MSU
  • 2015: W 34-0, vs. Louisiana-Monroe
  • 2014: W 14-13, at Arkansas
  • 2012: W 49-0, vs. Western Carolina
  • 2011: W 24-7, at MSU
  • 2010: W 23-10, at Ole Miss
    • W 30-10 at No. 17 MSU

That’s 9-0 with 7 of those wins coming by at least 3 scores. Granted, those aforementioned atypical circumstances with this being a game without Playoff implications for Alabama could be more noteworthy.

6. The road number that’s working against Alabama

In 14 SEC games since the start of 2021, Alabama has been in a 1-score game in the 4th quarter in 10 of them. The good news for the Tide? It went 7-3 in those games. The bad news? That’s a whole lot of playing with fire.

Oh! Once again, that’s actually not the number I was searching for. Consider that a double bonus.

Alabama has been in a 1-score game in the 4th quarter in 7 of 8 true road games since the start of 2021, including each of the last 5 dating back to the 2021 Iron Bowl.

Let’s take it a step further. In true road games against teams in the top 15 of the AP Poll since the start of 2017, Alabama is 2-3. Four of those 5 games were 1-score games in the 4th quarter.

Call it “playing down to the competition” or just call it what it is. The Tide have been a disappointing team in hostile environments since the start of 2021.

LSU was actually Alabama’s least-penalized true road game of the season with 9 flags for 92 yards. Seven of 8 times in true road games since the start of 2021, Alabama was either flagged at least 10 times or hit for at least 82 penalty yards. The lone instance in which that was avoided? That was 2021 MSU, which was that lone aforementioned road game since the start of 2021 that wasn’t a 1-score game in the 4th quarter.

Coincidence? I think not.

And a prediction … Alabama 31, Ole Miss 21

Nope. I don’t see 2 Alabama losses in a row.

There are similarities between Ole Miss and Tennessee from a schematic standpoint. Both run that Baylor-inspired, up-tempo spread with a high-volume rushing attack that ideally likes to stretch the field vertically. There’s a chance that Kiffin tries to execute the Tennessee game plan, which had Alabama totally on its heels against Jalin Hyatt out of the slot. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Kiffin try to operate similarly with Jonathan Mingo.

Alternatively, we could see Kiffin use Dart much like LSU did when it gashed Alabama in the running game with Jayden Daniels. Chasing him around all night proved to be too much.

But the difference between Dart and those guys is that he’s still not at that level as a decision-maker. To beat Alabama, you have to avoid those costly mistakes and at least present the threat of a downfield passing attack, which we know LSU and Tennessee both have with those receivers. Ole Miss isn’t on that level. Hence, the overwhelming reliance on the ground game.

I fully expect that “1-score game in the 4th quarter stat” to continue, but I don’t know that Ole Miss is built to stop Alabama’s ground game, nor do I think Dart thrives in obvious throwing situations, especially against a potentially angry Will Anderson and Dallas Turner.

I’ll lean on the side that Alabama plays looser than it did amidst these incredibly slow starts in true road games. Kiffin waits another year to join the 2-person “Saban disciples who beat the G.O.A.T.” club.