Another chip off the Manning block

Rarely do players genuinely live up to their billing, but Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning's final season of college football is so far shaping up to be superlative.

Whether or not Archie's third son will win the Heisman Trophy that has so far eluded his famous family is frankly beside the point. Clearly Eli has turned out to be every bit as good as advertised.

Manning already holds 39 individual records at Ole Miss, and the senior will finish his career ranked in the Top 10 all-time for the SEC in no less than seven categories. Barring injury, the latest Manning signal caller will etch his name on the league record books, along with men like Eric Zeier, Tim Couch, Danny Wuerffel and fittingly, Peyton Manning.

"He's fun to watch; if you didn't have to play him, it would be a good week," said Tide Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines with a forced laugh.

Though the family has insisted that the campaign be low-key, Ole Miss is touting Eli Manning as a Heisman Trophy candidate. (Getty Images)

"When you watch him on film you see a really great player having a good time throwing the ball, completing passes and doing things that a quarterback is supposed to do."

At 6-5, Manning has prototype size for the NFL. If he had gone out early last season, the latest Manning prodigy would have probably been a first-round pick. But like his orange-tinted brother, Peyton, Eli decided to return for his senior year.

Having spent 16 years in "The League" working with and developing quarterbacks, Tide Head Coach Mike Shula knows a good pro prospect when he sees one. "Eli's accurate, has a strong arm and a lightning-fast release," Shula said in assessing the Ole Miss quarterback. "He's playing with a lot of confidence and you can't say enough good things about him. Myself, just from watching him on TV the past few years, it's amazing how he's progressed."

A quick glance at the SEC statistics proves how good Manning is. He leads the league in passing, averaging 316.2 yards per game. Manning is also listed first in Total Offense and Passing Efficiency.

"With his ability to see the field and his knowledge of the game, he doesn't get in a bad situation," Kines said. "Manning reads coverages extremely well. He's tall enough to see over his linemen. With a smaller quarterback you can get in the throwing lanes so he can't see the receiver. But Eli's 6-5.

"He's got a classic throwing motion. He obviously comes from a great line of quarterbacks. He's got the whole package."

In last season's game the Tide sacked Manning four times on its way to a 42-7 victory. But Kines said that was very much an aberration.

Eli Manning has played Bama twice as a starter, leading his team to a fourth-quarter comeback victory in 2001 but losing badly last season. Father Archie Manning was 2-1 versus the Tide.

Kines explained, "If you look at the tape, you'll see that he's been sacked very few times this year. Teams load up and try to get to him every game, but nobody has really had any success. In the first games Ole Miss has played, there hasn't been anyone that put him on the ground very much."

"Because of his quick release Manning doesn't take a lot of hits," Shula added. "He does a good job of getting rid of the ball versus pressure."

With a good but not great offensive line protecting Manning, Ole Miss has only allowed seven sacks for the year. "Eli doesn't shake," Kines said. "Being a fifth-year senior, he's seen about everything. You're not going to rattle him with anything. People blitz him, but he's been sacked very few times.

"He's got the ball, and he's going to do with it what he wants. He's not going down with it. You can talk about sacks all you want, but he does a great job of getting rid of the ball when he needs to. Very few people have sacked him."

Rifle-armed quarterbacks are nice, but Shula knows that accuracy is what wins football games. "With Eli, the ball always seems like it's accurate and on time," Shula pointed out. "You watch on tape and the Ole Miss receivers still haven't turned to look back for the football when the ball's in the air."

As good as he is, Manning can't carry the Rebels by himself. Last season the Tide defensive linemen paid little attention to the Ole Miss running game, pinned their ears back and harried Manning all game on their way to the convincing win. But Kines says this season is different.

He explained, "Eli has got four good wide receivers, but the thing that makes the Ole Miss offense successful is they've got three good running backs this year. They line up in a two-back, three wide receiver offense and say ‘Okay, it's simple math. Are you going to put enough players in here to stop the run, or are you going to put the players back there to stop the pass?' Whichever you choose to do, they choose to do the other. ‘Y'all decide what you're going to do, because we know what we're going to do.'"

Last season the Tide defense had Manning scratching his head in frustration, but things may not be that easy Saturday. (AP photo)

Again, Kines knows what he's talking about. With six games under its belt, Ole Miss leads the Southeastern Conference in Scoring Offense (39.5 ppg), Passing Offense, Passing Efficiency and both Third- and Fourth-Down Conversion Percentage.

Remarkably (for Ole Miss at least), the Rebels also sport the league's third-best rushing attack, cinching their lead in Total Offense as well. "They've got a good system," Kines said. "They present a lot of problems for your defense trying to cover the field."

Ole Miss has good athletes on offense, no question. But clearly Eli Manning is the bell cow of the Rebel attack. His job is to throw touchdown passes, and he does it quite well. Out of 30 career starts, Manning has thrown at least one TD pass 26 times. In nineteen games his passes have reached the endzone two times or more.

This season Manning's 14 touchdown passes (to date) lead the SEC.

"He's really having a great year throwing the football," Kines said.

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