Alabama, 1-0, will host Ole Miss, 0-1, at 8 p.m. CDT Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. It is the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams. Alabama has won 12 consecutive SEC openers, dating back to a 35-0 loss to Florida in Gainesville in 1991, while Ole Miss will be trying to win its season-opening conference game for the third straight year and attempting to avoid an 0-2 start for the first time since 1987.
While Alabama is coming off an easy victory, the Rebels will be trying to rebound from a disappointing loss. Mississippi was beaten by Memphis, 20-13, in Oxford last Saturday.
Dave Rader is willing to look back at that scenario. "Last year Mississippi lost to Memphis and then beat us," he said. "We can't have that again."
It is true that in 2003 Mississippi was upset by Memphis, 44-34, but that loss came in the second game of the year. The Rebels' victory over Alabama didn't come until mid-October, when Bama was reeling from three losses in its four previous games and just getting quarterback Brodie Croyle back from injury. Still, Mississippi thoroughly dominated Alabama, jumping out to a 24-0 first quarter lead and winning much easier than the final score of 43-28 would suggest.
Mississippi has never defeated Alabama in back-to-back seasons. The Crimson Tide has a 40-9-2 advantage in the series, and that includes one victory for the Rebels via he NCAA forfeit route.
Utah State did not give Alabama a good "look" for Mississippi. The Aggies were primarily in a 3-4 defense (three down linemen, four linebackers, four defensive backs), whereas Ole Miss uses the unusual 4-2-5 (four down linemen, two linebackers, five defensive backs). And, Rader pointed out, on "late downs," meaning passing situations, Utah State would move to a four-man front, while Mississppi drops a defensive lineman and adds a linebacker, going to a three-man front.
While most experts have expected Mississippi to be down from last year's 10-win, Cotton Bowl championship team, Rader said, "I think we're looking at a better defense than we saw last year. They seem to be more aggressive in their secondary play. And they are still good up front. The scheme allows the secondary to be aggressive because they are going to put heat on the quarterback."
He added, "They like to blitz. The scheme allows them to hide their blitzes. It's a good scheme, they are well-coached, and they have good players."
The only starters returning from last year to the Mississippi defense are three of the five defensive backs–free safety Eric Oliver, strong safety Kelvin Robinson, and left cornerback Travis Johnson. Nevertheless, the four-man front includes three juniors who have won two letters each and a senior who has won three letters, the linebackers are both seniors with three letters, and the other two defensive backs are sophomore letter-winners.
Rader said that Alabama will attempt to involve the tight end more in Bama's offense, and particularly the use of two tight ends with David Cavan and Clint Johnston playing together. "We want to use the tight end as much as possible," he said. "Last year Clint (Johnston) went down and David (Cavan) had a bad wrist early and then went out with a knee injury. And Donald Clarke (since graduated) had a bad ankle. Now David is coming back healthy enough for us to use two tight ends. We like to get the ball to the tight end."
Alabama's first touchdown last week was a 19-yard pass from quarterback Brodie Croyle to Johnston.
Although many think of a two tight end offense as something just for short yardage situations, Rader said, "We don't think of it that way. We think of it as an every down offense with the exception of third and long. There are a lot of things you can do with two tight ends."
The offensive coordinator shared thoughts on other aspects of Alabama's unit:
On the young receivers, he said, "They did a lot of good things in the first game. They have to be very focused in preparation. They realize they are going to be a factor."
On the rotation of running backs, he said, "We do that in practice. It keeps them fresh. Coach Woods (Sparky Woods) does a good job of rotating them."
On some new faces in the offensive line, he said, "No one has worked harder than (back-up tackle) Von Ewing. We wanted to get him in as soon as we could last week. He has earned that."
And on starting right tackle Kyle Tatum, who switched from defensive tackle last spring, Rader said, "Kyle has progressed well and is progressing. He has himproved his pass-blocking and understands the schemes better."