Rebels Are Better

Mike Shula's Alabama football team was somewhat fortunate to get out of Oxford with a 13-10 victory over Ole Miss last year. Shula is glad the Crimson Tide will be home for the game this year, but he said this season the Rebels are improved.

Alabama will host Ole Miss at 2:30 p.m. CDT Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium with television coverage by CBS. Both teams are 1-2 in Southeastern Conference play. Bama is 4-2 overall, while Mississippi is 2-4.

"Ole Miss is pretty good," Shula said in his weekly briefing with the media Tuesday. "Every team in the SEC is good regardless of record. Ole Miss is improved from last year.

"They are better on defense. They've got a solid defense that's playing better now than they did earlier in the year. They are quick and they blitz a lot. They've got a great linebacker, Patrick Willis, who is one of the best in the SEC.

"They do a good job against the running game. They bring a lot of secondary blitzes that are run blitzes. We've got to take a good look from that tape last year and compare it to this year. We need to try to do better offensively.

"They are more comfortable in their offense. They are trying to have a physical offense. They have a huge, young offensive line. Last year they had a speed back, this year they have a power back (BenJarvus Green-Ellis) who fits into their scheme. They take their shots, they use misdirection. They got Vanderbilt off balance and got the ball in the end zone."

Shula said Bama's defense must anticipate that Ole Miss is going to try to run in the middle. "First of all, we have to get everyone in the right gap," he said. "But we have to be careful about not putting everybody up inside. We have to be conscious of the quarterback."

That Ole Miss quarterback is Brent Schaeffer, in from junior college but formerly of Tennessee. Shula said, "They've got a young quarterback they are bringing along, which I think is smart."

Shula said that Alabama has had to battle against athletic quarterbacks like Schaeffer. "He's pretty athletic," the Tide coach said. "The scary thing about him is he becomes another running back with the ball in his hand and he can make people miss in space. If you've got things covered in the secondary he can still get a lot of yards. He'll present another problem for our defense."

"Special teams is another reason they've played well. They're very aggressive. They've blocked a punt and their special teams help them with field position."

Shula said, "We know we have to play better."

Almost everyone has noticed that Alabama has moved from a team known for its rushing strength to a team that has been more effective in the passing game. Shula was amused at a question regarding that situation. "We've tried to emphasize being balanced," he said. "Usually the questions we've had address whether we are going to throw the ball more. We strive for balance. We want to keep the defense off balance. We feel like we've got to run the football to win games in the SEC. If you can run and you also get wide receivers who can make plays and a quarterback, that makes you more dangerous.

"We try not to be one-sided. But if you are having success passing the ball or you think you have to pass the ball to win, then you will pass more. And if you have the lead late and you are making first downs running the ball, then you will run more.

"But we strive for balance."

Shula is also striving for efficiency in practice as the Crimson Tide is halfway through a 12-game season that includes no open dates. "We don't have anyone nicked up too bad," he said. "We need to be out on the practice field as short a time as possible. The players need to understand that, too, and use the practice time efficiently."

Shula declined to give his team a "mid-term" grade as Bama reached the halfway point of the season with its win over Duke Saturday. "I don't grade our team publicly," he said. "Our grade is the scoreboard. We've got four wins in six tries. We'd like to have had six out of six. We'd like to be better in the second half of the season than we were in the first half."

One area where the Tide deserves an "A" is in turnover margin. Bama is tied for first (with Kentucky) in the SEC and sixth in the nation at plus eight. Shula agreed that the area is "one of the biggest indicators of winning and losing."

He said Bama stresses ball security, and noted that it's not just the backs and receivers. "We also make sure our offensive linemen know they are a part of that, too," Shula said. "They can't turn people loose.

"Defensively, they seem to come in streaks. You like to say you know why but sometimes you don't. Having guys thinking positively and having talent to get guys to the football. The obvious thing, too, is to get guys to the quarterback. Speed helps. I've seen good defenses that didn't have a lot [of take-aways]."

Shula said that last week's tough win over Duke was due in part because Duke is "better than their record. They are well-coached and a good defensive team." He added, "Regardless of what happened last week I think our guys are focused in and know that we've got to have a good week of practice. Last year we had an experienced team that didn't always play well. This team knows it has to play better and play more consistent."


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