Alabama will play Mississippi in Oxford on Saturday. Kickoff will be at 11:30 a.m. CDT with regional television coverage by Jefferson-Pilot. Alabama is 3-4 overall and 1-2 in SEC play. Mississippi is 4-2, including a 2-0 record in SEC games.
In his regular Tuesday press briefing, Shula acknowledged the difficulty of the task. He said, "We're back in SEC play with Ole Miss on the road, so it's going to be another tough game." But, the coach said, "We're looking forward to getting back on the road and going to get a win on the road."
Alabama's coach knows it will take an excellent game from Alabama, now 3-4, to defeat Ole Miss. "We've got to do a good job in all three phases," Shula said. "Offensively, moving the ball, running it or throwing it, trying to keep their offense off the field. Defensively, we've got to know exactly where we're going to be at all times, doing a good job covering, a good job against the run. Special teams, if we play like we played last week where we felt like we made some plays and essentially put points on the board for us. Those are the things we have to do against a good, well-coached Ole Miss team."
There is no week when Mississippi plays when quarterback play is not topic number one. That's because the Rebels feature Heisman Trophy hopeful Eli Manning. Shula called Manning "the strength of their offense and the strength of their team."
Shula said Manning "gets better with experience. He has an accurate arm and a strong arm and a lightning-fast release. He doesn't take a lot of hits because of that. He does a good job of getting rid of the ball versus pressure. The ball always seems like it's accurate and on time. You watch on tape and the receivers still haven't turned to look back for the ball and the ball's in the air. He's playing with a lot of confidence. You can't say enough good things about him."
There's also talk of quarterbacks when the subject is Alabama. That's because starter Brodie Croyle has missed all but a couple of plays of the last two games because of a shoulder injury. His back-up, Spencer Pennington, is out for several more weeks, also with a shoulder injury. Last week Brandon Avalos, a redshirt freshman with no experience prior to the Georgia game, went the distance for Alabama.
Shula indicated he expected to get Croyle back this week, but also said he did not expect it to be a decision that would be made early in the week. "It's going to be day-to-day," Shula said. He said Croyle's return would be based on when he is able to get suitable practice time, and said that Avalos–who got most of the repetitions in practice last week–would also get most of the practice time in the early work this week.
The Tide coach said, "We've got a plan ready if Brodie is going to be in there and we have a plan if Brandon is going to be in there. And the plans are not as far apart as people might think."
Shula is hopeful that other Alabama players will return this week. Certain to be back is defensive end Nautyn McKay-Loescher, who missed last week's game because he was subpoenaed as a witness in a trial in Canada. Defensive tackle Dominic Lee missed work last week, but is now over his slight injury, and another defensive tackle, Kyle Tatum, could return after having missed with an ankle injury. Linebacker Derrick Pope (ankle) was also held out last week, while fullback LéRon McClain (toe) and halfback Kenneth Darby (ribs) have missed several games on offense. "We hope to get some more back," Shula said.
The Tide coach said, "The best thing about from Saturday to now is that our team feels good about what they accomplished over the weekend, the way we won the football game where all three phases contributed. I think that's what we've got to continue to build on. There are a lot of positives with that and we take that with a little momentum going into this game."
He said one thing he has learned about momentum is that while it can be helpful, "You still have to play well or you won't win."
Shula said he has discovered in less than half a season that the SEC is a difficult place to win because every team has good coaches and players. But he said "It's exciting to play a difficult schedule, to see how you measure up against the best teams. If we had made a play or two, we would have had a chance to beat some of the best teams. But we didn't make those plays." He noted that "at least three SEC teams went on the road and had big wins last weekend."
Shula has not been disappointed in Alabama's work ethic. "One thing we have done is practice well," he said. "Last week one of our players said he thought we had had good practices. I said we had had good practices for the last few weeks, but that we had to turn that into a win. And we did. Hopefully we can go about this week the way we did the last few weeks, and when we have opportunities on Saturday we'll take advantage of them."
Much has been made about Mississippi having a new-found running game to go with Manning. And Shula acknowledged that the Rebels have been effective running the football and that it makes Manning even more dangerous. "You can't just put nine or 10 guys up there to stop the run and plan to play man on their receivers," Shula said. "They have good speed and quickness and do a nice job up front."
But he is also pleased with Alabama's running game, particularly against Southern Miss when the Tide ran 50 plays for 243 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. "The nice thing about last week is that we had not run the ball well against Georgia and we were going to run it against a team that knew we were going to run it, and we were able to do it. I think that gave our offensive line a lot of confidence."