Bad Ole Miss Could Give Alabama Fits
Any way you slice it statistically, Ole Miss is a bad football team. Alabama will test the Rebels at 11:30 a.m. CDT Saturday in Oxford. Alabama is 4-2 overall and 2-1 in Southeastern Conference games, while Mississippi is 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the league.
The Rebels rank last in the SEC in five of the eight major team categories --- rushing offense (110 yards per game), scoring offense (21.67 points per game), total defense (446.33 ypg), rushing defense (208.17 ypg) and pass defense (238.17 ypg). They rank 11th (of 12) in scoring defense (27.5 ppg) and ninth in total offense (346.5).
They also rank last in the league turnover margin (minus-4), red zone offense (60.9 percent scoring), time of possession (27:28 per game), kickoff coverage (35.4 yards per return) and opponents' first down (155). The Rebels rank 11th in opponents' third-down conversions (43.8 percent).
Only a pretty good deep passing game that averages 246.5 yards per game (fourth in the league) keeps the Rebels from looking even worse, if that's possible. So all signs point to a blowout win for Alabama in Oxford this weekend, right?
Not so fast.
Alabama has had its problems with the Johnny Rebs the last two years, beating an Ole Miss team that was very nearly as bad as this one only 13-10 in Oxford two years ago. Only Jamie Christensen's last-second field goal kept that game from going to overtime. The Crimson Tide finished 10-2 that year, the Rebels 3-8.
Then last year, Alabama needed an extra period to beat an Ole Miss team that sported an identical 2-4 record to this one, 26-23 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. That was more or less the last hurrah for a Crimson Tide team that would go on to finish 6-7 (losing six of its last eight after that win); Ole Miss finished 4-8.
So why do the Rebs play the Tide so tough? It all comes down to intensity, a trait that trickles down from often-cartoonish Coach Ed Orgeron. The third-year Ole Miss head man is nothing if not fired up at all times, and his teams have played that way against Alabama the last two years.
Given that Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban has openly questioned his team's mental intensity the last few weeks, we could see a closely contested game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. With that in mind, here are five match-ups to pay attention to on Saturday:
Alabama RB Glen Coffee vs. Ole Miss OLB Ashlee Palmer
The Rebels are especially bad at stopping the run, giving up 200 or more yards three times this year, including a staggering 324 against Georgia two weeks ago. Alabama has run the ball with authority in most games this season, and will likely try to do so again today.
Coffee is the running back du jour for the Crimson Tide, having at least temporarily beaten out freshman speedster Terry Grant for the number one spot. Coffee set career highs for carries (30) and yards (121) last week against Houston and he's likely to do so again this weekend, particularly given Grant's recent fumbling problems.
Palmer has been a find for the Rebels, leading the team in tackles (59) in his first season after transferring from Compton (Calif.) Community College. He's no Patrick Willis or even Rory Johnson, but he's a quick and sure tackler that the Crimson Tide must get blocked.
Alabama LG Antoine Caldwell vs. Ole Miss DT Peria Jerry
Alabama's offensive line will feature its third different line-up in three weeks, with left guard Justin Britt expected to miss the game because his mother is still hospitalized in Birmingham after a severe fall last weekend in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide front five has not been overly dominant even with Britt in the line-up, and faces a big and physical Ole Miss D-line on Saturday.
Caldwell will be starting at his third different position in three weeks after playing the first five games at center, then stepping in for Marlon Davis at right guard last week. The three interior positions are more or less interchangeable in Alabama's line scheme, but the versatile and cerebral Caldwell could probably handle the switch with little difficulty even if they weren't.
Jerry is a mammoth (6-foot-2, 310 pounds) run-plugger, and appears to be coming into his own in his first full year as a starter. He has 26 tackles, an outstanding number for a defensive lineman even before you count his seven tackles for loss.
Alabama ILB Prince Hall vs. Ole Miss RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Ole Miss has run the ball right at the Crimson Tide with a decent amount of success the last two years, and that's likely to be their game plan again this year. Alabama's undermanned defense has withered in the face of physical offenses late in games at times this season, notably in a loss to Georgia and in narrow wins against Arkansas and Houston. Hall appears to have overcome early discipline problems to seize a starting job in the middle over freshman Rolando McClain, who still leads the Crimson Tide in tackles with 42. But Hall has been a better practice player the last few weeks, and impressed coaches with his eight-tackle performance against Houston.
Green-Ellis is one of the better running backs in the league, and is well on his way to another 1,000-yard season (he has 570 yards through six games). Aside from Arkansas' Darren McFadden, there's not a more physical runner in the SEC than this bruising 225-pound senior.
Alabama CB Kareem Jackson vs. Ole Miss WR Mike Wallace
Alabama has been prone to the big passing play this season, giving up 10 plays (including five touchdowns) of 20 yards or more in six games. The Rebels like to strike downfield often, as witnessed by quarterback Seth Adams' 12.3 yards-per-completion average (surpassed by only Florida's Tim Tebow and Vanderbilt's Chris Nickson among SEC starting quarterbacks).
One performance overshadowed by Alabama's secondary troubles this year has been the steady play of Jackson, a true freshman who has been one of Saban's favorites since the spring. Because All-SEC cornerback Simeon Castille lines up at the "star" (nickel) position on sure passing downs, Jackson is often lined up against the opponent's best outside receiver.
That would be Wallace, who has evolved into one of the top deep threats in the SEC in his junior year. He leads the league in yards per catch at 22.2, and has touchdowns of 77, 68, 54, 45 and 36 yards this season.
Alabama RT Mike Johnson vs. Ole Miss DE Greg Hardy
Alabama had one of its better games protecting quarterback John Parker Wilson last weekend against Houston, though the Cougars were arguably the worst pass-rushing team the Tide has faced since the opener against Western Carolina. Still, one sack for minus-1 yards is good against anybody, though the competition takes a noticeable step up this week.
Johnson had a tough second half against Florida State two weeks ago, allowing two sacks, including one that led to a fumble and an easy Seminoles' touchdown. He's been troubled by speedy rushers this season, and will likely get plenty of help from backs and tight ends on Saturday.
That's because Hardy, who also doubles as the Rebels' goal-line tight end, will be lining up over Johnson on passing downs. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound sophomore has a team-high four sacks and an SEC-best 11 tackles for loss this season.
Creg Stephenson has covered Crimson Tide athletics for numerous print and online publications since 1994, and currently writes for The Anniston Star. Email him at email@example.com
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