A mere two years ago, Ole Miss, lead by former head coach Houston Nutt, served as nothing more than SEC West cannon fodder for the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide. With the Rebels headed to Tuscaloosa on Saturday, not much has changed within coach Nick Saban’s program. Except, of course, the talent level may have gotten even better.
Something is a’brewin’ in Oxford, however, and that something has the Rebs poised to take a real run at the defending national champions in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Second-year head coach Hugh Freeze led the program to a shocking seven wins in 2012 and carried the momentum through the recruiting season and into this fall.
But can No.21 Ole Miss remain undefeated against the toughest opponent it will face all year? The program has already beaten Vanderbilt and Texas, but quarterback Bo Wallace has yet to see a defense this loaded.
Led by linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive back Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the Tide boasts talent and experience at nearly every position. Safety Vinnie Sunseri has already returned two interceptions for touchdowns through the team’s first three games.
Could turnovers be a deciding factor on Saturday? As a sophomore in 2012, Wallace threw a whopping 17 picks. However, he has been sparkling in the early going this season, tossing four touchdown passes compared to zero interceptions. Of course, it helps to compliment star junior wideout Donte Moncrief with not one, but two spectacular pass-catching freshmen. Laquon Treadwell was widely considered one of, if not the, top wide receiver recruits in the nation coming out of high school. He leads the team with 16 receptions and his 154 yards rank third. Moncrief’s 173 rank second and there’s a shocker at No. 1: Even Engram, a 6-foot-3 freshman tight end out of Tennessee, who boasts 175 yards and two touchdowns on 11 receptions.
This unit, along with running back Jeff Scott’s 330 rushing yards, could make life extremely difficult for Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s unit.
That being said, if there is anything we learned from Bama’s 49-42 win on the road at Texas A&M, it is that this version of the champs can win high-scoring affairs, as well as smash-mouth games.
That is in large part due to the right arm and experience of senior quarterback A.J. McCarron. The only passer in the history of the sport to ever win back-to-back BCS national championships (and the only one that ever will, seeing as the BCS is set to be scrapped after this season) completed 20-of-29 passes for 334 yards, four touchdowns and no picks against A&M. His passer rating finished at a sparkling 211.23 in outplaying reigning Heisman winner Johnny Manziel.
If McCarron can outplay Johnny Football, he should have the firepower to score enough points to take down Bo Wallace. Especially with T.J. Yeldon taking handoffs out of the backfield and fellow sophomore Amari Cooper stretching the defense.
Ole Miss’ star linebacker, Denzel Nkemdiche, will be watching from the sidelines, which should make life easier for Bama’s offense. Nkemdiche collected a team-high 82 total tackles as a redshirt freshman a year ago, but was hurt against Vanderbilt in the season-opener.
Instead, a rebuilt Bama offensive line will have to focus on Nkemdiche’s “little” (we use the word extremely loosely in this case) brother, Robert. The No. 1-ranked high schooler in the country in 2013 measures in at 6-foot-5 and 294 pounds – but he’s got speed. He has already recorded four tackles for a loss and even took a fake punt 11 yards for a first down.
The Kouandjio brothers, Anthony Steen and the rest of the Tide offensive line will have their hands full with him. Has Bama’s big uglies improved enough to barrel through another tough SEC unit? If not, can McCarron continue to prove he is more than simply a “game manager” and out-duel another elite conference quarterback in Bo Wallace?
What about Hugh Freeze? He has proven he knows how to build a program from the ground up, but does he have enough tricks up his sleeve to blow up Alabama’s season and head back to Oxford with a team-defining win in the process?
We don’t know the answers to these questions, but perhaps you do. It’s time to settle it.