Ole Miss vs. Alabama: Could the Rebels pull another upset today?
Chad Kelly and Ole Miss stunned the SEC and beyond in Week 3, courtesy of a thrilling 43-37 upset of No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
The Rebels’ path to the College Football Playoff didn’t quite map out as planned, however, dropping three games on the year and falling out of postseason contention by Week 10.
The Crimson Tide, conversely, have yet to lose since that fateful Sept. 19 contest and find themselves prepping for the national championship game Monday night against Clemson.
Despite the catastrophic losses, Ole Miss finished the season on a three-game winning streak, including a drubbing of Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl — leaving Oxford’s home team strongly resembling the same squad that knocked off Alabama.
With Ole Miss looking like world-beaters behind Kelly once again, could the Rebels pull a repeat and take down the Crimson Tide if the two programs squared off today?
The answer is probably no.
While the two programs appear similar to the ones that faced each another earlier in the year, there are subtle and obvious differences that give the Tide a distinctive edge.
Kelly is the X-factor. When he plays like he did previously against Alabama (341 yards, three TDs), Ole Miss can beat anyone. But it’s Kelly’s quarterback peer, Jake Coker of the Tide, who is the biggest difference between the former and latter version of these teams this season.
Coker has come of age since the Ole Miss loss, a game in which he completed his lowest percentage of passes (46.7) on the year in a reserve role. The senior has seen his accuracy steadily improve since, climbing to 83.3 percent in the CFP semifinals against Michigan State. The senior who threw two picks against Ole Miss has become one of the more accurate passers in the SEC since and his shed his “nothing but a game-manager” moniker in the process.
Coker has been picked just five times since Week 3, including just one multiple-interception game. Plus, he hasn’t been robbed since Mississippi State’s Brandon Bryant picked him off five games ago in Week 11.
The Ole Miss defense finished second to Alabama in team interceptions in the SEC, but its secondary has proven susceptible to the pass at times this year. The Rebels’ defensive backs are comparable to Michigan State’s, whom Coker beat with his arm in the semifinals with 286 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
It also should be noted that the Ole Miss game was the lone contest this year that Coker did not start, yielding opening duties to Cooper Bateman. Coker replaced Bateman (80 yards, INT) with 6:43 remaining in the second quarter on what proved to be Alabama’s final drive of the second half. He led the Tide 75 yards on 16 plays, topping it off with a 9-yard scoring toss to wide receiver Richard Mullaney to pull them within seven points at the half.
In the end, the difference was the three interceptions thrown by the Bama quarterbacks and the 24 points that Ole Miss scored off turnovers to the Tide’s none.
Shutting down Kelly and the Ole Miss running game is the key to beating Ole Miss. The quarterback finished second on the team in rushing with 500 yards and led the Rebs with 10 touchdowns on the ground. Kelly led the SEC in passing with 4,042 yards, but Ole Miss struggled when they couldn’t run — as demonstrated by the 69 and 40 total yards on the ground in losses to Florida and Memphis. The Alabama defense held Ole Miss to 92 total rushing yards and has only gotten stronger at stopping the run, leading the nation with a 70.8 YPG average.
Stopping the run is vital when playing Alabama, especially given Coker’s newfound ability to beat you with his arm and his smarts. Heisman winner and nation’s leading rusher Derrick Henry is a load to take down, and doing it without two of your top defensive linemen isn’t ideal.
Ole Miss closed out the season with All-SEC second-teamer Robert Nkemdiche (29 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss, 3 sacks), who was injured and suspended after going all “Reefer Madness” and leaping from a window to avoid a marijuana bust. Nkemdiche is the leader on the defense, even if teammates have better stat lines, and his presence is vital if the Rebels want any chance of beating Alabama a second time around.
An equally tough loss to the Ole Miss defense is the loss of Nkemdiche’s brother Denzel to an undisclosed ailment that has seen the defensive lineman hospitalized. Denzel led the Rebels with 10 tackles (6 solo), 1.5 tackles-for-loss, as well as 0.5 sacks and a broken up pass versus Alabama.
Henry ran for 127 yards and 2 touchdowns – an “off game” – against Ole Miss. Without the Nkemdiche brothers, you would expect those number to rise.
An Alabama-Ole Miss rematch is something we would all want to see. But changes for both squads shift the advantage in the Tide’s favor and limit the Rebels’ chances of pulling off another upset.
That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, especially with the wild-card Kelly conducting the Ole Miss offense, but Alabama has gotten substantially better than they were on that mid-September night in Tuscaloosa.