On the heels of three straight losses, some Golden Eagles flew into Tuscaloosa on Homecoming last week. When night fell, however, the Tide had grounded the Eagles by using the 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust rushing attack almost exclusively.
But no sooner had USM flown back to Hattiesburg, when another group of Mississippi athletes starting calling--and one of these Magnolia State boys has a cannon attached to his shoulder. Last season the Tide won handily in Tusclaoosa, but this time Bama must travel to the Rebel battlefield.
Without a doubt, Ole Miss goes as Eli Manning (6-5, 218, Sr) goes. Manning, a candidate for the Heisman Trophy and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, ranks 8th All-Time in the SEC in total yardage (8,135 yards), 9th in touchdown passes (66), and 8th in pass completions (692). This year, he leads the SEC in passing yards (316.2), passing touchdowns (14), completions (138), pass efficiency (150.0), and total yards (317.2).
Of course any coach will tell you that the most important stat is wins, and Eli has a few of those also. He has led the Rebels to a 4-2 record to start the year. More importantly, he has Ole Miss sitting at 2-0 in conference play. If Manning can pull out a win against the Tide, it will be the first 3-0 conference start for Mississippi since Eli's famous father, Archie, was the Rebels' quarterback in 1970.
Aside from Manning, the Rebels have two other players that are still in the running for national awards: special team aces Jonathan Nichols (6-0, 180, Jr) and Cody Ridgeway (6-1, 190, Jr). Nichols, a placekicker up for the Lou Groza Award, is an impressive 16-of-17 on field goals this season, and he has also knocked home all 25 extra points attempted. Ridgeway, a punter in the running for the Ray Guy award and also the son of former Tide kicker Danny Ridgeway (‘73-'75), is averaging 42 yards a punt and has dropped five of his 21 punts inside the 20 yard line.
Rebel Head Coach David Cutcliffe is no stranger to Alabama. In fact, he graduated from the Capstone in 1976, though he was not on scholarship and never actually played for the Tide. Cutcliffe did put his football time at The Capstone to good use, serving as one of the student managers for the squad.
Now in his fifth season at Ole Miss (his first head coaching job), Cutcliffe has a 34-21 career record as a head coach. Prior to taking the Rebel job, Cutcliffe spent 17 years as an assistant under Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee (‘82-'98). The Volunteers went to 16 bowl games during his 17 years on staff. He has coached NFL quarterbacks Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, Tee Martin and now almost-certain NFL'er Eli Manning.
Unfortunately for Rebel fans, Cutcliffe hasn't had much success against his alma mater, going 1-3 in contests with the Tide. He did, however, become the first Ole Miss coach to win seven games in each of his first four seasons in Oxford. Coach Cutcliffe's one win against Alabama came at home in Oxford two years ago. In a driving rainstorm, Alabama squandered a first-half domination, letting the Rebels back into the game in the second half. Late in the fourth quarter Ole Miss engineered a come-from-behind 27-24 win over the Tide, a loss that still rankles many Bama fans.
As stated earlier, the Rebel offense revolves around Eli Manning. The fifth-year senior leads the SEC in Passing Yards per Game, Completions, Touchdown Passes, Completion Percentage, Total Offense per Game and Passing Efficiency. The group of receivers that haul in Eli's passes aren't flashy, but are very efficient.
Senior Chris Collins (6-2, 190) is a preseason All-SEC selection who has 38 grabs for 538 yards and 3 scores this season. He is flanked by sophomore Mike Espy (6-0, 187) and junior Pelham, Alabama native Bill Flowers (6-1, 193). The two have 39 catches between them.
Collins recorded his second 100-yard receiving game of the season with 146 yards against Arkansas State. Collins enters Saturday's game with a 28-game receiving streak on the line. He ranks second in the SEC in receptions per game and third in yardage. Collins is on track to become Ole Miss' all-time leader in receiving yardage. He already holds the mark for career receptions. Collins is the SEC's leader in terms of active receiving yards. Espy, the son of a U.S. Congressman, totaled 157 yards receiving against Texas Tech.
Perhaps surprisingly, Ole Miss ranks third in conference rushing the football. When the Rebels run the ball, they do so by committee. Starting tailback Tremaine Turner (5-10, 200, Sr) leads the team with 293 yards on the ground, but backups Ronald McClendon, Vashon Pearson, and Jamal Pittman have 233, 226, and 218 yards, respectively, as well. As a unit the Rebel backs average 5.3 yards per carry. Pearson is the team's leader in touchdowns with four.
The Rebel offensive line is nothing if not big. The smallest starter on the line is center Justin Sawyer who measures up at 6 feet, 3 inches and 310 pounds. Specializing in protecting the quarterback, as a unit they have allowed only seven sacks for a loss of 45 yards this season.
Cutcliffe deserves his reputation for coaching offensive football, but his defensive units have been much less impressive. So far this season the Rebels have actually been pretty good against the run, but stopping the pass has been a problem. Last week's shutout against "powerhouse" Arkansas State was Ole Miss' first since 1999. The Rebels limited the Indians to 235 yards of offense, marking the first time in 13 games that Ole Miss has held an opponent under the 300-yard mark.
The Rebel secondary especially has had some rough times this season. The group gave up 44 and 49 points (to Memphis and Texas Tech, respectively) in their two losses. However, they are coming off a shutout of Arkansas State and only yielded 17 points in a win over Florida in the Swamp two weeks ago.
So far, the Rebel secondary has allowed 345 yards a game through the air, a signal that could bode well for the Tide if starting quarterback Brodie Croyle is ready for action on Saturday.
Rebel free safety Eric Oliver (6-2, 210, Jr) leads the team in tackles with 46, which isn't necessarily a good sign. Oliver also has one pick this season. Senior cornerback Von Hutchins (5-11, 184, Sr) leads the team with two interceptions.
Up front, Jesse Mitchell (6-1, 277, Sr) is an experienced defensive tackle who is also a great tackler. Mitchell has 5 tackles for a loss and one sack so far in the 2003 campaign. Unfortunately for Ole Miss, Mitchell had arthroscopic surgery on his knee last week and is expected to miss the Alabama game. Charlie Anderson leads the team in sacks with three. The Rebels have recorded at least one sack in 22 straight games and in 39 of its last 40. Ole Miss does average 6.5 quarterback hurries per game. Josh Cooper has nine of those individually.
Justin Wade (6-3, 225, Sr) is the leading tackler of all Rebel linebackers, but only has 31 stops so far this year. By comparison, Alabama's Demeco Ryans has 85 tackles from his SAM linebacker position. Jamil Northcutt wears the coveted Chucky Mullins No. 38 jersey.
When both your punter and your placekicker are national award finalists, you can't help having a solid special teams unit. Nichols is just seven field goals away from tying the career school record. He already owns the mark for total points. Nichols is currently working on a streak of 74 straight successful PATs. Though he did not have a good game punting against Alabama last season, Ridgeway is normally a solid kicker.
When Ridgeway and Nichols aren't putting the boot to the ball, Mike Espy drops back to catch punts for the Rebels, averaging 6.2 yards a return. Ronald McClendon, the main kickoff return specialist, has a season long return of 41 yards. He ranks fifth in the SEC returning kickoffs.
Ole Miss has not had a punt blocked in 50 straight games, dating back to early 1999.
Predictably the two bordering states share plenty of athletes. Ole Miss has 10 players on its roster that call Alabama home: wide receiver Taye Biddle (Decatur), then known as "Ratavious" was actually offered a scholarship by the Tide; center Tony Bonds (Russellville); defensive lineman McKinley Boykin (Bessemer), was briefly recruited by the Tide though not ultimately offered; kicker Ben Brewer (Gadsden); receiver Bill Flowers (Pelham), whose father was a famous football/track athlete that ended up signing with Tennessee; lineman Mike Gibson (Gadsden); tight end Lawrence Lilly (Montevallo), was looked at by the Tide but not offered; kicker Patrick Means (Pelham); defensive back Eric Oliver (Jasper); and receiver Matt Pierce (Mobile).
Ole Miss comes into Saturday's game with some weaknesses on defense. Fortunately for the Rebels, the possible lack of a Bama passing game could negate any advantage that these weaknesses might have otherwise given the Tide. If Croyle can't go at quarterback, Brandon Avalos might have to put the ball in the air some more in his second career start if he hopes to lead the Tide to victory.
For the Rebels, putting the ball in the air isn't a question of "if," but rather a matter of "how much?" Manning has had success against Alabama before, and after a rough outing in Bryant-Denny Stadium last season, he is looking to go out a winner against the Crimson Tide.
The question to be asked in Oxford this weekend may simply be, "Who will win the battle--the infantry or the air force?" Hopefully, the Tide can make a charge to put down the Rebels on their home turf.