OXFORD, Miss. — While some of you may not be quite old enough to remember the Ole Miss glory days of Coach Johnny Vaught or the legendary Archie Manning, you probably DO remember four years ago when Senquez Golson’s interception in the end zone sealed the 2014 Rebels’ victory over the No. 1 Tide, Alabama’s first defeat in Oxford since 2003.
That weekend was one for the ages. ESPN GameDay set up in the Grove and singer/guest picker Katy Perry picked the Rebels to win. She later celebrated with Rebels on the Square as the goalposts were torn down, hauled through the Grove, and taken to the Square. It remains a memory Ole Miss fans will never forget.
In the ensuing four years, Ole Miss has experienced a lot of change—including a new head coach and staff as well as a lengthy NCAA investigation and resulting penalties. But things finally seem to be returning to normal, and the Rebels will once again take on the No. 1 team in the country with sights set on upsetting the nation’s top team.
Here’s our preview of Saturday’s matchup between the Rebels and the Tide.
Alabama enters the Vaught with a 2-0 record. So far, the Tide has won each of its two games by at least 37 points, beating a decent Louisville squad, 51-14, in the season-opener. Alabama’s second game looked very similar to its first as Coach Saban’s team dominated the Arkansas State Red Wolves by a score of 57-7 in the home-opener in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Crimson Tide offense
Quarterback: The big story so far this year for the visiting Tide is the impressive play of their quarterback, a position Alabama has struggled with in previous squads. But this year, sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is looking like a Heisman frontrunner, racking up 455 yards through the air thus far. The 6-foot-1, 218-lb quarterback is currently ranked No. 1 in QBR in the country at 98.5 (out of 100). Look for him to receive the majority of the snaps this weekend.
Behind Tua sits a familiar name, Jalen Hurts. The quarterback who led the Tide to back-to-back national championships is now backing up the Hawaiian native. However, if necessary, Hurts is a known playmaker who will hurt opposing teams with both his imposing speed and accurate passing.
Ole Miss defensive tackle Josiah Coatney and the rest of the Rebels’ defense have spent the week prepping for the challenge the Tide brings to the field. “He’s [Tua] like every other Alabama quarterback they’ve had in the last two or three years,” Coatney said.
“The guy can throw and can run, so just make plays. You’ve just got to be honest. Know the plays; you’ve got to execute. Just execute your plays and be disciplined. Those are the things you’ve got to do to beat Bama.”
At Monday’s weekly press conference Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke spoke on what makes Tua so special. “The ability he has for a young quarterback and his decision-making,” Luke pointed out. “They ask him to do some RPO stuff where he’s got to make some decisions. He’s got a really quick release and some very good receivers to throw it to.”
Coach Luke knows the Rebels will need to find a way to slow down an opposing QB who is 10-for-10 this season on third down.
“His ability to extend plays,” Luke when asked what makes Tua so exceptional. “You watch their first touchdown vs. Louisville, he extends the play and makes the play with his feet. He keeps drives going on third down by scrambling out of the pocket. His ability to extend plays and his decision-making have been good.”
Running back: At running back, Alabama depends on the two-headed monster of senior Damien Harris and sophomore Najee Harris. The two versatile backs have combined for an impressive 281 yards of rushing and two touchdowns.
Damien Harris returned for his senior year after contemplating entering the NFL Draft. He’s the top runner in a deep stable of backs and has the chance to become the first Alabama player to rush for 1,000 yards in three straight seasons.
If you’ve seen Najee Harris, you know how incredible of a rusher he is. With breakaway speed and sneaky big power, he is the total package in the backfield. Look to see both of the Harris running backs get significant snaps in Oxford.
The Tide’s wide receivers have also been a nice surprise for the Alabama coaching staff in this young season. Sophomore standouts Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III (yes, he is the brother of Ole Miss linebacker Kevontae’ Ruggs), and DeVonta Smith all caught at least one touchdown in last week’s win over Arkansas State.
Jeudy leads the Tide in receiving with an impressive 151 yards and 4 touchdowns on only 8 catches. Bama receiver DeVonta Smith spoke to Alabama media this week on the Tide’s receivers. “No matter who it is, whichever one of us gets it, we all can make the same play,” Smith said.
Senior ‘Bama tight end Hale Hentges also commented on the abilities of the Tide route runners, saying: “We have some really great young receivers who make plays. All you have to do is just get the ball in their hands, and they’re going to make plays.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Alabama is just as solid. They have forced, at minimum, one turnover per game in 44 of their last 46 contests. They have also been the best defense in the country over the past decade in terms of scores allowed, only giving up 187 touchdowns SINCE 2009, 49 fewer than the next best LSU Tiger defense.
So far this season, the Tide defense has given up an average of less than 95 rushing yards per game and just under 250 yards per game passing. These are impressive numbers for a defense that only returns three starters from the previous season: DL Isaiah Buggs, DL Raekwon Davis and, LB Anfernee Jennings.
Defensive line and linebackers: Alabama’s front seven this weekend includes some strong playmakers including: NG Quinnen Williams (8 tackles, 3.5 sacks), DE Isaiah Buggs (7 tackles, 2.0 sacks) and DE Raekwon Davis.
The Tide has also started the season with outstanding play from both MLB Mack Wilson (8 tackles) and WLB Dylan Moses (7 tackles, 2.0 sacks). The fast and physical front seven for the Tide defense will look to slow down the Ole Miss run game and pressure Ole Miss quarterback Jordan Ta’amu with a solid pass rush.
Secondary: Those who thought Alabama’s secondary would be less dominant in 2018 due to its relative inexperience would do well to remember that Nick Saban is an expert when it comes to defensive backs. He has done a marvelous job of coaching up the young secondary early in the season, getting them prepared for the tough road in the SEC West.
It’s not surprising to note Alabama already has recorded three interceptions on the season, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Free safety Deionte Thompson (11 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 interception) and cornerback Saivion Smith (9 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 interception for a TD) are leading the Tide secondary in the early going. Both are doing a great great job of communicating, finding where the ball is going, and getting to it.
Flipping sidelines, let’s take a look at what to expect from our Ole Miss Rebels. Sitting at 2-0 with two offensive explosions under their belts, the Rebels are feeling good about their chances this weekend to keep up with the team out of Tuscaloosa. The home-opener against Southern Illinois was a dogfight until the second half when the Ole Miss defense began to make important stops that helped the Rebels pull away with a 76-41 victory. The 76 points scored by Ole Miss is tied for fifth-most points scored by the Rebels in a single game.
Ole Miss offense
On the offensive side of the ball the Rebels are, frankly, superior to pretty much every unit across the country. To start with, senior QB Jordan Ta’amu currently leads the SEC—and is ranked second nationally—in passing yards per game with an impressive 392 yards through the air.
Last week against SIU, Ta’amu tallied the third-best quarterback performance in school history with 448 total yards accounted for and 5 touchdowns.
The Ole Miss offense is averaging a staggering 407.5 yards per game through the air, good enough for second in the country. In Monday’s press conference, offensive coordinator Phil Longo spoke on how he plans to prepare Ta’amu for the tough match ahead:
“We have probably our toughest opponent to date,” Longo said. “He’s got to prepare the same way. He’s going through the same routine today, the same routine yesterday. I wouldn’t say it’s ‘business as usual,’ but I would say that the routine and the process are the same every week. Nothing different, really.”
Nasty Wide Outs
There is no arguing that Ole Miss boasts the top wide receiving corps in the nation. Here’s how the Nasty Wide Outs (NWO), as they are known, stack up thus far this season:
- A.J. Brown (15 catches, 251 yards, 3 touchdowns)
- D.K. Metcalf (11 catches, 174 yards, 2 touchdowns)
- Braylon Sanders (8 catches, 193 yards, 1 touchdown)
- DaMarkus Lodge (6 catches, 96 yards) *Sat out game two while in concussion protocol
- Elijah Moore (1 catch, 50 yards, 1 touchdown)
The NWO, along with tight end Dawson Knox, will challenge the Tide secondary Saturday. Knox talked to reporters following Wednesday’s practice and offered his thoughts about the Rebels’ matchup against Alabama.
“In the first two games, our wideouts have been able to blow the top off the coverage, so we have stayed in to protect more and worked underneath more,” Knox said. “We will just have to see how it all develops, but we will be ready,” he added.
Knox also discussed the Rebels’ work ethic during Alabama week: “We’ve been putting in the work, whether it’s for Alabama or whoever. Of course we respect Alabama, but it’s our job to get ready each week no matter who we are playing. You have to grind and get after it.”
Knox also noted: “We are going to be ready for them. They are a great team, but we can play too.”
Running back: While talking about the Ole Miss offense, one cannot fail to mention the performance thus far of running back Scottie Phillips. In two games, the JUCO transfer has amassed 311 yards on the ground and scored four touchdowns. Phillips is averaging 10.0 yards per carry and is looking forward to the challenge he will face against the Tide’s front seven.
“They’re always good,” Phillips said earlier this week. “I’ve been preparing well for them. I’ll be ready for them Saturday.”
Phillips also expressed complete confidence in his offensive line. “I’ve got better at trusting the veteran O-line,” he said. “They’ve been doing a great job all season. I’ve just been trusting them. I continue to trust them, and they’re going to pave the way for me.”
Offensive line: The Ole Miss offensive line couldn’t be more ready to embrace the challenge this weekend. Senior left guard Javon Patterson talked on Tuesday about how his unit feels going up against a very good Alabama front.
“Their front seven is a great group of guys,” Patterson said. “If you get to third-down pressures, they have a good plan for that. It’s just the way that they get after it. They’re a great team. We’re in the SEC, so everything is kind of big and powerful and speedy…”
The Ole Miss O-line will be anchored in the middle by veteran center Sean Rawlings who will be making his 28th start for the Rebels. Rawlings, left tackle Greg Little, right guard Ben Brown, right tackle Alex Givens, and left guard Patterson, will look to not only continue protecting Ta’amu, but also open running lanes for Scottie Phillips against a stingy Bama defense.
On Wednesday, Coach Luke reported Brown is in the concussion protocol; however, the redshirt freshman is expected to be “probable” for Saturday’s game.
Earlier this week, offensive line coach Jack Bicknell noted the attention to detail that is required in the trenches and offered insights into what makes his group so special.
“Now, with these guys, it’s all about preciseness,” Bicknell said. “On the OL, one inch makes a difference. If you take a step one inch too wide, that may leave enough room for a DT to get through and get your quarterback, so we are all about precision at this point in their careers. The biggest thing for us now is being exact, especially against the top tier competition we will face from this point on,” he added.
In addition to coaching a talented group, Bicknell is also impressed with their resilience. ”My guys have so much character,” he said.
“They are such a great bunch of guys. Last Saturday, there was no panic in them against SIU. They just kept going back to work and getting the job done. When you combine unbelievable experience and great character, you have a chance at something special.“
Ole Miss offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, Jr.
Coach Bicknell also explained how his unit works within Coach Longo’s offensive scheme. “It’s Coach Longo’s offense,” he said. “Because our passing game is so good, we rarely have to worry about a safety coming down, so it’s really all about the numbers. We are going to run the ball against even numbers, and that’s what it comes down to. When you throw 14, 5 and 1 at them out wide, it opens things up. We spread things out and the run game should be there if we can keep the safety out of the box. This is the best offense I have ever been in for the run game.”
Ole Miss defense
On the opposite side of the ball, the Landshark defense is preparing to face the best and most talented offense they will have seen in this young season.
After the big win in Houston versus Texas Tech, the defense faced FCS Southern Illinois and struggled to contain the Salukis in the first half. However, in the second half, defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff’s group was able to keep the Salukis off the board with the exception of one field goal.
Defensive line: DE Victor Evans, NT Benito Jones, DT Josiah Coatney and DE Qaadir Sheppard are all coming off solid performances in last week’s game and are looking to make a statement this coming weekend against the Alabama offense.
Coatney, a junior, and Evans, a senior, spoke with the media Wednesday regarding this week’s preparation and how they feel about the matchup against the Tide.
Coatney was succinct in his assessment of what the Rebels need to do against the Tide. ”Getting ready for this week. Getting ready to get a win,” he said. “Do everything possible to ensure that we can stop the run, stop the pass and limit the points as much as possible. They’re a great team, so we’re doing the best we can in preparation.”
Evans echoed Coatney’s sentiments, explaining how the defense is approaching Saturday’s game. “It’s not about them. It’s about us going out there and playing how we know we can play,” he said. “So, as long as we can go out there and play how we know we can play, without any miscommunications or mental mistakes or mental errors, we’ll be fine.”
Linebacker: At linebacker on Saturday, the original starting group from game one is going to be back on the field following some adjustments made as a result injuries. That group includes MLB Mohamed Sanogo and OLB Kevontae’ Ruggs. Ruggs missed most of the game against Tech and the entirety of SIU as he was in the concussion protocol.
The linebacker group looks to communicate well this week, avoiding the “mental” errors that plagued them last weekend. It is a promising sign to have Ruggs back in the lineup as he is recognized as one of the most physical guys on the team.
Secondary: Landshark mainstays Myles Hartfield, Zedrick Woods, C.J. Moore and Ken Webster look to improve the Rebels’ pass defense this Saturday. Both Vernon Dasher and Montrell Custis have played well at the STAR position. Last weekend, Dasher recorded an 88-yard pick-6 that helped seal the Ole Miss win.
Coach McGriff said Monday his group is looking to build off the second half of the SIU game.
”The biggest thing is that I’ve got to get them going early,” McGriff explained. “As Coach Luke said, we didn’t change the scheme in the second half—and it worked pretty good with three turnovers, only allowing three points and scoring twice on defense. As a defensive staff, our job is to get them playing with energy and playing fast—and not after halftime. We just did not get that done in the first half.”
When Coach Luke was asked about the defense’s mentality going into Saturday’s game agains Alabama, he described an increased focus.
“Naturally, they want to do better,” Luke said. “So I think the level of focus goes up. It’s the start of SEC play and they’re the number one team in the country. There are a lot of reasons that you have to be focused.”
Wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge should be ready to go this weekend after finishing up the concussion protocol. Also coming out of the concussion treatment should be OL Ben Brown. Lastly, after a week’s hiatus, LB Kevontae’ Ruggs, as stated before, will be back in the starting lineup this weekend as he has been taking first team snaps in practice all week.
To summarize what is possibly the biggest game in Oxford since the 2014 contest, it is safe to say this Rebel team is looking forward to the challenge.
The Crimson Tide is ranked No. 1 for a reason, however, and the Rebels will need an almost perfect game to notch a victory over them this weekend. Having said that, if there is one team I truly believe can outscore Alabama, it is this Ole Miss team. I wouldn’t mind seeing those goalposts go down, once again.
Ole Miss and Alabama kick off at 6:00 p.m. (CT) Saturday, September 15. The game will be televised on ESPN.
Are you ready?