Ole Miss vs. Alabama: Here’s what to watch in this top-25 matchup in Tuscaloosa
We are officially hours away from No. 15 Ole Miss taking on No. 13 Alabama. There has been much coverage and excitement surrounding this top-25 matchup, so let’s break down a few areas of interest that will go a long way toward determining the outcome.
The battle in the trenches
It’s a safe bet to say, as is often the case, this game is going to come down to the battle in the trenches. Alabama’s offensive line has allowed 12 sacks through three games — five, alone, last weekend against a weak South Florida team.
On the flip side, the Ole Miss defense has notched 10 sacks through three games. No, perhaps the Rebels have not played an opponent the caliber of Alabama’s week-two contest against the Texas Longhorns, but they did play a top-25 team in Tulane and a vastly improved Georgia Tech team that leads its league in passing. So this huge sack disparity is an eye-opening stat and one worth watching as the game unfolds.
Sources indicate the Tide is expected to return both OG Tyler Booker (back) and DT Jaheim Oatis (ankle) for Saturday’s clash, so that could help Alabama in sacks made and allowed.
The Rebels’ offensive line has struggled at times to open up the run game, but quarterback Jaxson Dart’s enhanced rushing production should provide a variety of option plays, play action, and draws to keep Alabama on its toes.
Jalen Milroe and Jaxson Dart
The next component to keep an eye on will be the opposing quarterbacks in Jalen Milroe and Jaxson Dart.
For Milroe, it will be worth paying attention to how he responds after being benched in week three following Alabama’s loss to Texas. Head coach Nick Saban has been impressed with Milroe throughout the week in practice.
“He’s doing good. His energy has been good, his attitude has been great, and the execution on the field has been good,” Saban said of the redshirt sophomore from Katy, Texas.
Contrary to the Alabama quarterback situation, the Rebels have had no question at the signal-caller position. Dart has been spectacular both on his feet and in the air. He has thrown for 852 yards on the season and also leads Ole Miss in rushing yards with 213.
He also leads the SEC in yards per attempt at 12.5 (No. 2 FBS), yards per completion at 18.9 (No. 2 FBS) and passing efficiency at 202.5 (No. 6 FBS). And he’s taking control with his legs, also. Dart also leads all SEC quarterbacks in rushing at 71.0 ypg, as well as fourth overall at 6.7 per carry.
Dart’s versatility is starting to stand out, especially to opposing coaches.
“We thought he was a really good player last year,” Coach Saban said when asked about Dart’s improvement.
“He’s playing really well this year. He’s throwing the ball well. He’s a great runner. He’s tough and a great competitor. It will be really challenging for us to play him, run and pass.”
Nick Saban on Jaxson Dart
Receivers and secondary matchups
In looking at the receivers and the secondary matchups, it is difficult to analyze completely at this point because Ole Miss could be adding three critical pieces of the offensive puzzle: wide receivers Tre Harris and Zakhari Franklin and tight end Caden Prieskorn. Harris was injured against Tulane, while Prieskorn and Franklin have yet to play. These three have never seen the field at the same time and could present a number of problems for the Alabama defense should they all be able to play Saturday.
Reports are that Harris, Franklin and Prieskorn are all on the travel roster for Tuscaloosa.
When quarterback Quinn Ewers and the Texas Longhorns came into Tuscaloosa, Ewers threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns. His average pass traveled 9.3 yards and his quarterback rating finished at 90.1. There’s no denying the Tide struggled the last time they saw a top-25 opponent with a very good quarterback in their stadium.
On the flip side, there were several points against Tulane and Georgia Tech when the Ole Miss secondary appeared vulnerable. Haynes King of Georgia Tech threw for 307 yards; however, he only rushed for 42 yards on 14 carries. Watching Ole Miss contain King from escaping the pocket and limiting his rushing yards is a promising sign for the Rebel defense which will face one of the fastest rushing quarterbacks in college football in Milroe.
Coach Saban knows Ole Miss safeties coach Wes Neigbhors will have his unit prepared. Neighbors was a part of five national championships at Alabama as both a player and a coach.
“He was on staff here and I always knew that he would be a really good coach,” Saban said earlier this week of Neighbors.
“He has developed into a nice coach, those guys play really well, they play hard. Pete (Golding) does a good job with the defense, they have a good scheme, and I think they are playing a lot better on defense because of it. They play with a lot of inspiration and they do a good job of executing scheme, and I’m sure Wes has a lot to do with that.“
Coach Saban on Ole Miss safeties coach Wes Neighbors
Nick Saban vs. Lane Kiffin
Our last breakdown is between the two head coaches. This will be the third consecutive year that Saban’s Tide and Kiffin’s Rebels are each ranked in the top 25 during their matchup.
As competitive as they are, each coach has shown each other the utmost respect. Kiffin is on record saying he coached at Alabama (2014-2016) during a tough time in his life, and he gives Saban a great amount of appreciation for taking a chance on him.
“I’m extremely grateful to him and he really helped me at a really challenging time in my life,” Kiffin said.
As for Saban, he also speaks highly of the schemes and offense that Lane ran at Alabama and currently runs at Ole Miss.
“Lane did a fantastic job when he was here. It really set us off for the future with what we do on offense and what we have been able to do on offense. I have nothing but respect for Lane and the kind of coach he is. They’re doing a great job at Ole Miss, they’re one of the best offensive teams in the country in terms of yards, production, and problems created by what they do… it’s a challenge. It is always a challenge when you play against good former assistants.”
Nick Saban on Lane Kiffin
Ole Miss and Alabama kick off at 2:30 p.m. (CT), and the game will be broadcast on CBS Sports.