Alabama at Ole Miss: 3 Keys To The Game
Do you remember the 2008 Ole Miss team that traveled to Gainesville and upset Tim Tebow's #4 Florida Gators leading to one of the most passionate post-game speeches in modern college football history? Houston Nutt and his team appeared ready to declare themselves a power in the SEC for years to come thanks to the play of Heisman hopeful Jevan Snead and future NFL players Dexter McCluster and Mike Wallace. Back-to-back 9-4 seasons including bowl wins over Big 12 foes (Texas Tech and Oklahoma State) had the fans in Oxford celebrating a winning culture, but last year was a shot back to reality. Nutt's team finished with a disappointing 4-8 record during the season (including 1-7 in the SEC) and the momentum began to slow for the Runnin' Rebels. Winning a game against the #2 team in the nation would be a great opportunity to gain some of that momentum back, but this will be a difficult year to accomplish that feat.
Alabama has defeated Ole Miss the last seven times the two teams have squared off. The last time the Runnin' Rebels were able to overtake the Crimson Tide was in 2003 when future NFL draft picks Eli Manning and Brodie Croyle were leading the two squads in another matchup at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Ole Miss has actually had two weeks to prepare for one of the nation's teams three of the past four years (2008, 2010 and 2011), but it did not make a difference in the first two matchups. What are the keys for these two teams if they expect to come out of Oxford with victory? Let's take a look.
1) Alabama's rushing attack is among the best in college football. They average 217 YPG which puts them at No. 19 in the NCAA. Trent Richardson accounts for 121.5 YPG, which ranks him No. 9 individually. This is bad news for an Ole Miss team that allows teams to rush for 193 YPG (No. 95 in rushing defense). Richardson will have extra motivation to have a big game on Saturday evening when he goes for his sixth consecutive 100-yard rushing performance. This would tie the Alabama school record for consecutive games reaching the century mark set by Shaun Alexander in 1999. Richardson is not the only Alabama sophomore the Rebels will have to worry about coming out of the backfield. Eddie Lacy has rushed for 397 yards and five touchdowns through six games this season and is averaging 8.6 YPC.
The prospect of Richardson tying Alexander's record looks promising as Ole Miss has allowed a 100-yard rusher in all but one game this season (a 14-13 season-opening loss to BYU). However, if the Rebels are able to slow at least one piece of the rushing attack down (likely Lacy based on fewer carries), it will give them some hope at the end of the game.
2) The Crimson Tide rushing defense is the BEST in the nation, and their total defense is No. 3 in the NCAA. Entering last week's game against Fresno State, the Ole Miss offense ranked No. 118 in total offense (there are 120 teams in Division I-FBS football). The numbers themselves certainly do not favor the Rebels in this case, but Houston Nutt did make an important coaching move that saw some results against Fresno State. He replaced junior college transfer Zack Stoudt with Randall Mackey. His passing numbers weren't exactly pretty (8 of 18 for 214 yards and a touchdown), but it was enough to give the Rebels their second win of the season. Mackey and Stoudt had split time under center following the season opening loss to the Cougars, but after a five interception performance for Stoudt against Vanderbilt, Nutt decided it was time to make a change at the position.
Sophomore running back Jeff Scott has dictated the way the Ole Miss offense has played in 2011. In two wins, Scott has averaged 128 YPG. In three losses the sophomore has averaged 31.3 YPG out of the backfield. It is kind of ironic that this is Scott's average in losses as Alabama as a team has allowed 39.8 YPG in rushing defense on the season. The Crimson Tide has allowed only 191.3 YPG in total defense trailing only Michigan State and Central Florida in the bowl subdivision. The Rebels certainly have an uphill battle on their hands against such a stingy defensive group.
3) Ole Miss has two players who can make a dramatic difference in this game if they continue to play the way they have all season. One of these players is sophomore cornerback Charles Sawyer, who can make things difficult for Alabama's quarterback AJ McCarron. McCarron put up career highs in yards (237) and touchdowns (4) last week, but don't expect that to phase Sawyer, who is currently tied for second in the nation with four interceptions. He has intercepted a pass in four of the five games played by the Rebels this season, returning one 96 yards for a touchdown in Week 1 against BYU. McCarron will have to know where Sawyer is at all times on Saturday evening.
The other Ole Miss player who has a great chance to affect how Alabama plays offense is Tyler Campbell, the Rebels punter. This is an important position for a team that ranks as low as Mississippi does in most offensive categories. Campbell is currently No. 8 in the nation in YPP average 46.6 per boot. If the Rebels hope to have any chance of slowing down the Alabama offense, they will need to rely on Campbell giving the Crimson Tide a long field to work with.
It's never a good sign when a team's punter is mentioned as a key player in a matchup, but this may be one game where it becomes true. Ole Miss picked up a huge momentum win just over four years ago against Florida. They rode the momentum of that victory to two winning seasons, but then began to fall apart in 2010. A win against Nick Saban and Alabama may be just the thing to reverse the fortunes for Houston Nutt's team, but it is going to take a a tremendous effort on both sides of the ball for the Rebels to end up on the winning side of the scoreboard.
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