Not so much this year, according to senior tight end Evan Engram.
No, the No. 19-ranked Rebels have been here before, and their approach is consistent with the recent success they’ve had in the series with the Crimson Tide. Gone are the days of Ole Miss trying to prove it belongs in the same stratosphere as the reigning national champion.
Engram and his teammates have shown they do.
“The past two years, our preparation going into big games has been huge,” Engram said. “Its how locked in we are, how confident we feel, and we have a lot of fun with big games like this. But we know the opportunity we have; we know what the atmosphere is going to be. We are real serious on preparation. We take it serious but we like to have fun, and have positive energy going into the week.
“So I think our preparation is a huge part of that, and when the game comes around, everybody is ready to make that play if needed. Our defense played really good against them. We had a lot of turnovers against them last year, and we capitalized on them.”
A third-straight Rebel win would only act as a final, definitive statement. Kickoff on Saturday is set for 2:30 p.m. on CBS.
“I’m more at ease about it, calmer,” Engram said. “The last couple of years have always been hyped up and kind of looking forward to it weeks beforehand. But I’m calmer, more at ease, really excited for it. I have had a lot of big games here, been through the ringer a little bit. I’m really excited about the opportunity and I’m really calm about it. I can’t wait to really start getting our team ready, energy wise and confidence wise, for Saturday.
“We love opportunities, and we know what’s at stake here with this game, and I just have a confidence about it. I’m really excited, really ready to get our team prepared. That’s one thing I think that’s kind of easing my nerves at how well I know we are going to prepare this week.”
Ole Miss is 1-1 on the year. The Rebels easily dispatched of Wofford on Saturday, 38-13. Engram caught two passes for 43 yards in the game.
On the year, Engram, a preseason All-America and All-SEC selection, ranks fourth in the conference in receiving yards (164) and fifth in receptions per game (5.5). He’s quickly emerged as the favorite target of quarterback Chad Kelly, a role long held by now-Minnesota Viking Laquon Treadwell.
Treadwell caught five passes for 80 yards and a touchdown in the Rebels’ 43-37 win in Tuscaloosa last season.
“Definitely improved chemistry,” Engram said of his on-field relationship with Kelly. “I give a lot of credit to the film room. Personally, just seeing coverages, and actually being involved in the game plan, actually understanding what we are trying to do, how we are trying to move the ball down the field. Just being involved in more and the Xs and Os has really helped me take that next step. And of course the small things are working, running routes, timing with Chad, and some things like catching the ball.”
As it has seemingly every year under head coach Nick Saban, Alabama boasts a dominant defense that has limited opponents to 276.3 yards per game, good for third in the nation in total defense. The Crimson Tide is eighth nationally in scoring defense, allowing only 8.0 points per game.
Even more, Alabama has, on average, held its opponents to 43.5 rushing yards and 216.5 passing yards.
“We have to make big plays down field,” Engram said. “It’s really important to control the line of scrimmage in this league. It’s really hard to run the ball against Alabama; their run defense is really solid. But you have to have some type of balance to be successful in this league, and us having big plays through the air down the field will definitely help us in that aspect of our game.”
On playing two Top 25 teams in the season’s first three games: “It’s a great opportunity for us to prove how good we are. The loss against Florida State hurt but this is an opportunity for us to get back into the talks, and up in the playoff rankings. But it’s just a great opportunity. We love competition, love playing big guys, love being the underdog. We love proving ourselves, and it’s really not proving ourselves for anybody else. It’s proving our worth to ourselves. All the work we have put in, and to be it on the field together as brothers, that’s what we love to do against top talented teams.”
On knowing the season wasn’t over after FSU: “That was how we coped with the loss. It didn’t determinate our season. That was a non-conference game against a really good Florida State team. So it didn’t determinate that for us, and we knew that we had opportunities ahead of us just like this week, and so on to bounce back. So we’re really looking forward to those opportunities to get our confidence back. We do have our confidence but it would be huge to get this win.”
On similarities between FSU and Alabama: “Their defensive backs are little bit better. Florida State had some good DB’s here and there. But I think Alabama’s secondary has improved tremendously all around from corner to safety to nickel. I think that’s the big difference is their secondary is more sound.”
On Alabama’s visit to Oxford two years ago: “It was crazy for that whole week. We knew College Gameday was coming, and it was really, kind of hard to focus in class. I mean, everybody was asking ‘how are we going to play? What we got going?’ There’s definitely some buzz on campus this week. I think SEC Nation is going to be here. It’s going to be an exciting week, and definitely the atmosphere builds up the week. I think that’s something we can thrive off of and use to our advantage.”
On if he was aware Katy Perry would be attending the game in 2014: “No, not until the game when they showed her on the jumbotron like 20 times. That’s when I figured it out, and after the game they showed her at Funky’s jumping off the bar. Hopefully she comes again, and give us some good luck.”