For the first time this season, Ole Miss will appear on CBS at 2:30 p.m. Saturday to a nationally televised audience. But like three of the last four years, the opponent will be familiar, as the Crimson Tide of Alabama roll into Oxford with a lofty No. 3 ranking.
"This is what makes this league so good, because of these kinds of games," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said. "It's a tremendous league. Every Saturday until the end of the year, there will be a lot of things happening. That's why it goes back to one game at a time, as cliché as it sounds. It's true. Let's go do our best this week.
"It's very hard for any team to go undefeated in our league. It's really difficult to do that. So, it's just one game at a time and it starts this week. But the win over Vanderbilt really helped us. The momentum, the confidence – there's nothing like a win. You learn better. This will help us this week."
While position-by-position breakdowns will have to wait, the magnitude of the Rebels' fifth game of 2009 cannot be overstated.
Though topping Vanderbilt comfortably 23-7 in Nashville, questions still surround an Ole Miss squad that has yet to form an identity. Although the Rebels sit fourth in the league in total defense, concerns surrounding an inconsistent offense remain.
The team mustered 397 yards of total offense against the Commodores, but turnovers by junior quarterback Jevan Snead once again shown problematic. May it be forced throws or a simple case of lackluster play recognition, the Rebel signal-caller has yet to regain 2008's late-season form which saw Snead pass for 20 touchdowns with only six interceptions.
"We've just got to come out and execute," Snead said of taking down such a formidable opponent as Alabama. "I can't turn the ball over like I did (against Vanderbilt). Like I said, that's solely on my back and I know exactly what I need to do to get better. We just have to come out and execute. Our defense is going to do a great job. We just have to keep them off the field as much as possible. We need to go out and play ball."
Holding an overall record of 3-1, including an even 1-1 clip in conference play, the Rebels sit fourth in the SEC West. All undefeated, LSU, Alabama and Auburn head the division. However, the Bayou Bengals claim the league's best conference record at 3-0.
But the story of the young season has been the play of the Crimson Tide, which ranks third in the SEC in total offense and second in total defense. Further, Alabama leads the conference in rushing defense, limiting opponents to a mere 64.4 yards per game.
"Alabama is playing at a very high level and has real athletes," Nutt said. "They're very deep. It seems like their special teams has a whole new crop of fresh bodies when they're out there. Javier Arenas is a big-time player. On offense, they don't make mistakes. They execute, take care of the ball and wear you down. Those backs, (Mark) Ingram, (Trent) Richardson and (Roy) Upchurch, are excellent. They'll beat you up or outrun you.
"But defensively is where they've been manhandling everybody. No team has gotten very many points on them. They get turnovers, which is something you just can't have. Kentucky was right there with them, 7-6, but the floodgates opened up when they turned the ball over."
Paced defensively by junior linebacker Rolando McClain, who tops the team in tackles with 35, Alabama takes to Oxford allowing just 14.4 points per contest through five games.
As a preseason first-team All-American and Butkus Award candidate, McClain is 14th in the SEC for tackles, while ranking 13th in both tackles for loss and sacks.
"He's 6-foot-4, about 260, and from tackle-to-tackle, I haven't seen one better," Nutt said of the Decatur, Ala. native. "He has the skills to go intercept the ball and also knock them down. He's a big time force and leader. He's definitely one of the best in the SEC, if not the best."
While a vaunted Tide defense has received a bulk of the praise early in the season, one of the biggest surprises in college football has been the play of junior quarterback Greg McElroy.
In his first year as starter for Nick Saban and the Alabama offense, McElroy has thrived, amassing 1,086 yards and nine touchdowns. Perhaps even more impressive, though, he has thrown only one interception in over 199 pass attempts.
"His best friends are his defense and turning around to hand the ball to those running backs," said Nutt. "Then he's got (sophomore wide receiver) Julio Jones. When he's asked to make a throw, he's highly efficient. But again, he has good special teams play and an excellent defense. His supporting cast is awesome. I didn't know what to expect entering the year from him. I didn't know much about him."
Though the task of beating Alabama is certainly daunting for Ole Miss come kickoff, the Rebels welcome game week capable of an upset.
However, unless marked improvement is made offensively during the coming practice week, stemming the Tide may prove too difficult. Key in preparation will be eliminating turnovers and pass protection, as Alabama ranks first in the SEC in sacks.
"We know we have a big challenge (Saturday)," senior wide receiver Dexter McCluster said. "We have a few things to correct, but we are getting our momentum back and that will lead to good things. We have a few more mistakes to eliminate to be where we want to be. We're getting closer.
"On one of Jevan's interceptions, we had a miscommunication between me and him and it resulted in a pick. We will work hard this week to make sure that doesn't happen against Alabama. You can't have turnovers against a team of their caliber. We gained a lot of momentum (Saturday), but we lost a little bit of it in the middle part of the second half. We have to guard against that when Bama comes to town."
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