After opening the SEC slate on the road against South Carolina and Vanderbilt, Ole Miss will host its first home conference game of the season the second week in October, as the Crimson Tide of Alabama visit Oxford for the 57th meeting between the schools.
Alabama, who returns 14 starters and 55 lettermen this season, hold a commanding lead in the series. The Tide own a 45-9-2 overall record, with five consecutive wins over Ole Miss since 2003. However, since the Rebels 42-28 victory that year, four of the last five Alabama wins have come by four points or fewer.
Back for the 2009 season are All-Americans Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain, along with All-SEC performers Javier Arenas, Mike Johnson and Julio Jones. Notable losses, however, are QB John Parker Wilson, RB Glenn Coffee, Outland Trophy winning LT Andre Smith and C Antoine Caldwell.
Offensively, Alabama is looking to replace seven starters. Returning is the wide receiver tandem of Jones, a sophomore, and senior Mike McCoy. As just the 11th true freshman to start a season opener for the Crimson Tide, Jones set freshmen records in yards (924) touchdowns (4) and receptions (58).
Jones ranked fourth in the SEC and 59th nationally in receiving yards per game (66.0) and seventh in receptions (4.14), while notching 18 catches of 20 yards or more. Further, 44 of his 58 receptions went for first downs or a touchdown, with 11 coming on third down. Jones caught at least one pass in every game and at least three passes in 12 of his 14 starts.
Appearing in 29 games with 18 starts over his career, McCoy is Alabama's third-leading receiver in both 2007 and 2008. The three-year letterman has 44 career receptions, along with 398 yards and two touchdowns. Starting nine games but appearing in 13 contests in 2008, McCoy tallied 16 catches and 191 yards for an average of 11.9 yards per reception.
The big question on the offensive end is at quarterback, as the departure of Wilson leaves Alabama with little experience. With 40 starts under center to his credit, Wilson holds every meaningful single-season and career UA passing record.
Currently junior Greg McElroy is slated to start, but has appeared in only eight games over his seasons in Tuscaloosa. McElroy has completed 16-of-20 passes in a reserve role over the past two seasons, as well as two touchdowns. The 6-foot-3, 220 pounder was rewarded with the Dixie Howell Memorial Most Valuable Player in the annual A-Day spring game, after throwing for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
"Greg McElroy has done a nice job of developing," head coach Nick Saban said. "He's a good leader. He's instinctive. Players like him. He makes good decisions. He's been in the offense for two years, but he does lack experience. He's only going to get that experience by playing and making plays. With that, he's going to develop a lot of respect from his teammates."
Despite the loss of Coffee, a Doak Walker Award semifinalist, the rushing attack appears in good hands with sophomore RB Mark Ingram. A Freshman All-SEC selection a year ago, Ingram saw action in all 14 games, totaling 728 yards and a team-high 12 touchdowns. Those scores also set the Alabama freshman record for a unit that ranked third in the SEC with 184.6 rushing yards per game.
While the departures of Caldwell and Smith will certainly hurt, the Crimson Tide return plenty of girth along the offensive line. As one of two returning starters, senior left guard Mike Johnson leads the way, having drawn 27 consecutive starts. Johnson was honored with second team All-SEC honors last season.
Drew Davis also returns, after starting all 14 games at right tackle. Vying for the other remaining spots are William Vlachos, David Ross, James Carpenter, John Michael Boswell and Tyler Love.
"I don't think you can really replace guys like those guys. They were outstanding players," said Saban. "Certainly (Andre Smith) performed well. He had a lot of consistency in his performance. Antoine Caldwell was not only an outstanding player at his position, but he was an outstanding leader on our football team.
"The players have opportunities to create their own identity at those positions. James Carpenter showed he could at least be a functional offensive lineman in this league through spring practice. We're hopeful he'll continue to develop and improve as his knowledge and experience grows as an offensive lineman. William Vlachos was a good center for us in the spring. But Mike Johnson is the guy that has the most experience and is a real quality player for us. He needs to be a leader who affects other people in this group so that our offensive line can develop."
Headed by defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, the Tide defense welcomes nine starters back from a unit that finished third nationally in total defense, second in rush defense and seventh in scoring defense.
While All-American free safety Rashad Johnson must be replaced, Alabama offers experience throughout its roster. Six-of-seven returners will be featured along the front seven, including the 6-foot-5, 340 pound mountain in Cody.
A consensus first team All-American, Cody made 24 tackles in 2008, with 4.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. The Ft. Myers, Fla. native was also a first team All-SEC selection by both league coaches and the Associated Press, as opposing teams failed to rush for 100 yards nine times in his 12 starts. No team saw a running back rush for 100 yards with Cody in the middle, as he anchored the nation's No. 2 rush defense (74.1).
But as the quarterback of the team defensively, middle linebacker Rolando McClain spearheads the Tide. A third team All-American, McClain is one-of-four returning linebackers, but easily the most accomplished.
The rising junior has made 23 starts since his true freshman season, with a team-leading 95 tackles as a sophomore. As a finalist for the Butkus Award a year ago, he notched 12 tackles for loss, six pass breakups and ranked 12th in the conference at 6.8 tackles per game. McClain claims 169 tackles over his career.
"He played great for us last year," Saban said. "I think he showed a tremendous amount of maturity from his freshman year, when he started, to last year. I think his maturity is not just as a football player, but what he's been able to do as a leader."
While well-known for his talents as a defensive back, it's the overall versatility of senior Javier Arenas that makes the three-year letterman one of the best all-purpose players in the country.
Making 15 starts at corner last season, Arenas accounted for 63 tackles, one interception and seven pass breakups. But as a returner, the Tampa, Fla. native is even more dangerous. Arenas is Alabama's leader in punt return yards in a game, season and career. He also holds the record for most touchdowns.
A second team All-SEC performer at both cornerback and as a return specialist, Arenas is the active NCAA leader in career punt returns, punt return yards and touchdowns. Further, his 13.54 yards per return average ranks first on the school career chart.
"He's an outstanding competitor," said Saban. "You talk about a guy that's a perfectionist; he works really hard every day to be the best he can be. I think he's one of the primary examples I would use of any personality on our team. And I think it's reflected not in his development as a return man, because he was outstanding at that in the first year, as well as last year, but his development last year into being an outstanding defensive back. Not only did he play corner, but he also played our fifth defensive back or star position, which is a totally different position, and did a really, really good job at that.
"He continues with his knowledge and experience to become a better player. He's worked hard to get bigger and stronger and is a very physical player. I can't say enough about his competitive character and the kind of person he is. He affects the other players on our team with his example."
Picked by league media as the SEC West representative to meet Florida in Atlanta in 2009, it's safe to say Saban has taken little time in turning around Alabama's fortunes over his first two years in Tuscaloosa.
After finishing an underwhelming 6-6 in 2007, the Crimson Tide reeled off 12 wins in year two, before dropping the season finale to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. Now expectations will be even higher, with Alabama set to bring a motivated bunch to Faulkner Country when the teams meet for a matchup of conference contenders.
"I think the SEC West is going to be really challenging this year," Saban said. "There are a lot of good programs and a lot of good returning players. It's gonna be as tough as it's ever been in terms of the competition in our league.
"Houston (Nutt) has done a great job at Ole Miss. They're going to have a great team. LSU is going to have an outstanding team. Les (Miles) has done a fantastic job there of continuing the high level winning at LSU. I think every team in our league, on our side of it in the West, has an opportunity to win the championship."
While Alabama has dominated Ole Miss in the overall series, the Rebels have more than held their own in recent years. Despite falling behind 24-0 at halftime last season, Ole Miss scored 20 unanswered points, before falling with a failed fourth down conversion in the game's latter stages.
Some point to that second half in Bryant-Denny Stadium as the turning point of the Rebels season, as the team won six consecutive games to end the year. With the finish, Ole Miss would record a second place finish in the West, trailing only Alabama who finished with a perfect 8-0 record in-conference.
The stakes will certainly be higher when the teams meet this time, with the winner possibly placing themselves in the driver's seat to take the division crown.
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