Ole Miss heads back to Tuscaloosa, Alabama Saturday night (8:00 p.m., ESPN) looking to earn the Rebels’ third victory over Alabama in the last four seasons. A win would give Ole Miss a 1-0 record in Southeastern Conference play, but it won’t be easy as the Rebels are dealing with some key injuries on both sides of the football as they prepare to face the nation’s number one team.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide (4-0, 1-0 SEC) has looked extremely sharp, especially in its SEC opener last weekend at Vanderbilt. Alabama rushed for 496 yards in the win and notched 677 total yards of offense in the game. The Rebels are giving up an average of 184 yards per game on the ground.
Ole Miss (2-1) has had two weeks to prepare for the Crimson Tide, and here are the Rebels’ three keys to victory:
1. Play fast and score touchdowns early
Head coach Matt Luke mentioned at Monday’s press conference that he wants sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson and the offense to play faster to try and disrupt the Tide defense with tempo. Alabama’s defensive line and linebackers are quick and get after the quarterback in no time, so Patterson won’t be able to hold onto the football for long.
In week three, the Cal Golden Bears sacked Patterson five times, so he’s going to have to have pass protection from his offensive line and backs.
In order for the Rebels to leave with a victory, Patterson will need to do as Chad Kelly did in 2015 when Ole Miss marched into Bryant-Denny Stadium and left with a 43-37 victory–get rid of the football quickly and put touchdowns, not field goals, on the scoreboard early to try and rattle the defending SEC champs.
2. Linebackers stay alert
On Saturday night, chances are Detric Bing-Dukes and DeMarquis Gates will be the two linebackers in the middle for the Rebels. Ole Miss has had some difficulty this season stopping the run, and its opponents have taken advantage of the middle of the Rebels’ defense. Alabama will use three running backs (Damien Harris, Najee Harris, and Bo Scarbrough), so Gates and Bing-Dukes (or whoever is playing alongside Gates in the middle) will need to stay alert and look for the run.
In Monday’s press conference, defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff listed some areas on which his defense needs to concentrate. “On area we must improve on is eye discipline,” he said. “Trust your keys and go out and play fast.”
3. Solid productivity from the O-Line
Ole Miss could be without its starting center Sean Rawlings, as he’s dealing with an ankle sprain; however, it would also not be a surprise to see the junior from Madison (Miss.) on the field as he is a warrior at the position. Coach Luke is prepared to start junior guard Jordan Sims at center if Rawlings is unable to go. Sims, a junior from Homewood, Alabama native, impressed the coaching staff this week with his heady play at center.
With Sims at center, Luke indicated Javon Patterson would play left guard and Alex Givens will play right guard. Greg Little and Rod Taylor will play left and right tackle, respectively. No matter who is manning what position on the offensive line Saturday night, the unit will need to protect its quarterback and open up the gaps for the running backs.
So far this season, Shea Patterson has completed more than 70 percent of his passes for 1,281 yards and 11 touchdowns. Thanks to Patterson and the talented receivers around him, the offense is fourth in the nation in passing offense (427 ypg). However, as a team, Ole Miss is averaging 69.7 yards per game on the ground, so offensive coordinator Phil Longo will be looking for a bit more balance tonight in Tuscaloosa.
8 p.m. CT • ESPN
Last: UA, 48-43 (2016 at Oxford)
Tuscaloosa, Ala. • Bryant-Denny Stadium (101,821)
Sirius: 138 • XM: 191
(Feature image credit: Dan Anderson, The Rebel Walk)