The Rebels come to Baton Rouge with a 5-1 record after handling Middle Tennessee, 45-17, in their homecoming contest. They hold a 2-1 mark in Southeastern Conference games with wins over Kentucky and Alabama and a loss against Auburn.
Success for Ole Miss has come on both sides of the ball. Manning has led the offense to over 36 points and 276 passing yards per game, and Rebel defense is ranked No. 1 in the nation in pass defense (No. 38 nationally, 5th in the SEC for overall defense). Having watched videotape of Ole Miss, Saban feels the Rebels are a better team in 2001 despite not having some of their big weapons from last season, including running back Deuce McAllister, a first-round draft choice of the New Orleans Saints. Saban credits head coach David Cutcliffe with bringing together the Rebels and leading them to contender status in the SEC West.
"This may be one of his finest jobs because they lost some pretty good players from last year's team and have actually come back this year and have a better team than they did last year," said Saban.
Ole Miss has done a good job of utilizing its talented skills players on offense, according to Saban. Working with Manning at the helm, the Rebels have employed a variety of receivers. Chris Collins leads all pass catchers with 34 catches for 498 yards and 6 touchdowns. On the ground, Joe Gunn has gone from splitting time behind McAllister to carrying the bulk of the rushing load for Ole Miss. He has 523 yards on 80 carries (5.3 average) with 3 touchdowns.
But it's been Manning that's attracted all of the attention, even with Florida's Rex Grossman posting Heisman-style numbers and David Greene making a splash with Georgia. Maturity has been the key factor in Manning's performance this season, Saban believes. According to the information he's received from the coaching grapevine, Saban feels Eli, at this stage of his college career, could be better than his older brother Peyton, the former Tennessee quarterback who currently stars for the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.
"As the year has progressed, his consistency has progressed," Saban said of Manning. "His accuracy, his confidence, you can just see all those things in terms of his ability to execute on a consistent basis. They've got good skill people and an ability to run the ball. I think their offensive line is good, so their ability to mix the run and the pass…keeps you off balance on defense."
Defensively, Saban addressed the success Ole Miss has enjoyed using a 3-man front and offering a number of different blitz looks. The Rebels have allowed an average of 131.3 passing yards through six games but have been considerably more generous against the run. Opponents have averaged 202 yards on the ground per game against Ole Miss, a figure that's second worst in the SEC.
Saban is hoping his team can build upon the positive experience of shutting out Misssissippi State, the momentum for which he believes started with LSU's come-from-behind win at Kentucky. He believes the victory against the Wildcats provided the Tigers with an opportunity to take an internal inventory about how committed they were to concepts like team ownership and playing for 60 minutes – elements that may have been in question following losses to Tennessee and Florida.
"Maybe some of those things were there when we were winning and we didn't notice them," said Saban. "When you lose, everything gets magnified – privately, publicly – in every kind of way. So you start noticing things a little more.
"I think we had to circle the wagons a little bit, and the players contributed in a large way to doing that. I felt like this past week was the best week we had because we were kind of propelled by the way we won at Kentucky."
INJURY REPORT: Although a lot of players came away with minor injuries against Mississippi State, only offensive guard Stephen Peterman is considered questionable for the Ole Miss game. He suffered a high ankle sprain in the third quarter at Starkville but reported Monday that the pain has lessened significantly. His goal was to return to practice either Wednesday or Thursday.SEC PLAYER OF THE WEEK: LSU linebacker Trev Faulk was designated the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against Mississippi State. Against the Bulldogs, he made seven solo tackles and 13 total stops along with two quarterback pressures. The LSU defense allowed just 74 rushing yards, forced four turnovers and never allowed Mississippi State beyond its 20-yard line the entire game.