By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
ORLANDO, Fla. – Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze appears to have his program on the uptick just three games into his second season in Oxford. The Rebels are sitting at 3-0 and 1-0 in the Southeastern Conference, with an emphatic non-conference road win at Texas fresh on their minds.
But whether or not Freeze has the Rebels ahead of schedule will be determined in the coming weeks, as Ole Miss kicks off a treacherous stretch of games over the next month, starting with No. 1 Alabama on Saturday.
“It’s a brutal stretch,” Freeze said Monday at his weekly press conference. “We’ve talked about that. It’s a beginning. It doesn’t get any more difficult than to go over to Alabama and play on a Saturday night. That’s the way we’ll kick it off with three other tough ones to follow it.”
Those three other games that Freeze referenced will be played at Auburn on Oct. 5 and then at home against Texas A&M and LSU in the two weeks that follow. Playing three top-10 teams in a four-week stretch is certainly no walk in the park, but the Rebels have to focus on what is directly in front of them before they look down the road.
For the Rebs to keep their five-game win streak intact they will need to pick up a win at Bryant-Denny Stadium, where they haven’t recorded a positive result since 1988. Ole Miss feels much better about where it stands this time around, however, with an improved Bo Wallace at the helm of the offense next to the SEC’s leading rusher in terms of yards per carry, Jeff Scott.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban told the media at his weekly presser that his team will need to play its best football this weekend as Scott, along with wide-outs Donte Moncrief and Laquon Treadwell, provides Ole Miss with explosive offensive potential.
"We think he's a fantastic player," Saban said of Scott on Wednesday. "He's got great speed, very instinctive, good receiver. Runs the ball extremely well on the perimeter. I think it's very difficult to simulate the speed of their offense and the speed that they have on offense, especially running perimeter plays.”
Looking at Alabama’s defensive numbers through three games, it appears that the unit is a bit down from where it has been in recent years, as Bama ranks ninth in the conference in total defense.
Those rankings are largely a product of the Tide’s win at Texas A&M, which put up big offensive numbers behind the strength of Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, who has put up huge statistical numbers against just about everyone he’s faced in his career as an Aggie. In Alabama’s other two games, the numbers look much more like a classic Nick Saban-coached unit: A stingy 3.9 yards per play and just 16 total points allowed to Virginia Tech and Colorado State.
While Ole Miss runs a spread offense and likes to use tempo to its advantage, the offensive attack itself doesn’t much resemble that of the Aggies – Saban said so himself on Monday, and elaborated a bit more during Wednesday’s teleconference.
"I think the two offenses, even though the formations may be similar, the philosophy is not the same,” Saban explained. “I think what both teams do is particularly effective for the players that they have. I think Ole Miss does a great job with the players that they have and featuring the players that they have in what they do best."
Nontheless, it will be interesting to see how Alabama handles the Rebels, who possess great talent at the skill positions with Scott at running back, Moncrief, Treadwell and Ja-Mes Logan at receiver, and Evan Engram at tight end.
Regardless of how things shake out with the rest of its daunting lineup of opponents in the coming weeks, a win over the top-ranked Tide would certainly be a statement for Ole Miss as a program; winning three national titles in four years, as Alabama has done, will make you a common measuring stick among conference foes.
“[A win] would mean that we’re definitely ahead of schedule in our program,” Freeze added, “to go there and win.”
For Alabama, this one represents another chance to strive toward the consistency that Saban demands from his teams, and which he doesn’t seem satisfied with at this point in the year. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. EST on ESPN.
Alabama leads the all-time series against Ole Miss 46-9-2…The Crimson Tide has won 26 of the last 28 meetings between the two teams dating back to 1977…Bama has won nine consecutive games in the series dating back to 2004…The longest win streak in the series belongs to Alabama, which won 12 straight over Ole Miss between 1912 and 1932…The Rebels have lost in each of their last 11 trips to Tuscaloosa…Ole Miss is playing in Tuscaloosa in back-to-back years for the first time since 1931-1932.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
2012 – Alabama 33, Ole Miss 14 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
2011 – Alabama 52, Ole Miss 7 (Oxford, Miss.)
2010 – Alabama 23, Ole Miss 10 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
2009 – Alabama 22, Ole Miss 3 (Oxford, Miss.)
2008 – Alabama 24, Ole Miss 20 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
A LOOK AT THE LAST MEETING
No. 1 Alabama hosted Ole Miss last season at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and the Crimson Tide ran away for a 33-14 victory over the visiting Rebels. Mississippi briefly held the lead in the second quarter following a Jeff Scott touchdown run, but Alabama’s Christion Jones swung the momentum right back to the Tide with a 99-yard return for a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff. AJ McCarron passed for 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and the Rebels were unable to overcome the sting of three turnovers on the road.
PLAYMAKERS – OFFENSE
Alabama – AJ McCarron, Senior, Quarterback
The Crimson Tide has an array of offensive weapons including running back T.J. Yeldon, a deep receiving corps and a pair of reliable tight ends in O.J. Howard and Brian Vogler, but McCarron is the navigator for Alabama. Surprisingly, the Tide is near the bottom of the SEC in rushing offense (4.1 yards per carry as a team) and in the middle of the pack in passing offense, but much of that is due to the production of points via defense and special teams that Bama has enjoyed thus far. McCarron has been stellar once again in 2013 at the helm, averaging 9.0 yards per pass on his way to 702 yards and six touchdowns through three contests. While Ole Miss’ stellar run defense will get a dose of Yeldon and co., and the Rebels will have to worry about explosive playmakers like Amari Cooper and Christion Jones on the outside, everything runs through McCarron for Alabama. If he continues to make good decisions and get the ball into the hands of Bama’s elite skill players, the Tide will be just fine regardless of statistical rankings.
Ole Miss – Jeff Scott, Senior, Running Back
Ole Miss has received a boost from young pass-catchers like Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram, as well as veteran receiver Donte Moncrief, but the bread and butter of the Rebels’ offense has been Jeff Scott on the ground. The senior from Miami has been explosive out of the backfield for Hugh Freeze’s squad, ripping off 9.4 yards per carry (best in the SEC) in 2013 with an average of 110 yards per game. Scott has gone for 100-plus yards in each of Mississippi’s two games against FBS opponents this year; he churned out 138 yards and the game-winning score at Vanderbilt on only 12 carries in week one, and ran wild on Texas in week three to the tune of 164 yards and a score on 19 totes. Alabama has been among the nation’s best run defenses throughout Nick Saban’s tenure, but the Rebels have a hot hand coming in on the ground with complementing weapons on the outside that the Tide must be ready for.
PLAYMAKERS – DEFENSE
Alabama – Vinnie Sunseri, Junior, Safety
Sunseri became just the second Alabama player ever to score touchdowns on interception returns in back-to-back game when he took picks to the house against Virginia Tech and Texas A&M. That streak came to an end last week against Colorado State, but Sunseri still boasts a 55.5-yard return average on his two interceptions this year. Playing center field opposite fellow safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Sunseri has been a steady, consistent presence for the Tide in the middle that will look to force Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace into errant throws as it did a season ago when it picked him off twice in a 33-14 victory.
Ole Miss – Robert Nkemdiche, Freshman, Defensive End
Nkemdiche came into the season with massive hype surrounding him after being ranked as the top recruit nationally last fall. The 6-foot-5, 294-pound defensive end possesses insane athleticism for his size, and he has used his physical gifts to his advantage early in his career – through three games, Nkemdiche led all freshmen in the nation in tackles for loss with six. He is a young cog in a good defensive line for the Rebels, and the unit showed flashes of potential in its last win over Texas with disruptive plays in a 44-23 win in Austin. Alabama enters this weekend’s contest with vastly different rushing numbers than it was putting up a year ago, but with a big offensive line and a battering ram in T.J. Yeldon, the Rebels know what kind of running potential they’ll be facing in Tuscaloosa. “He’s given us tremendous effort,” Freeze said of Nkemdiche. “He’s certainly is a threat. He makes freshman mistakes like most of them do, but we’re glad we have him. He’s definitely made our defense a better defensive team.”
• Over the last six seasons, Alabama is 24-7 against teams ranked in the Associated Press poll, including a 1-0 record against ranked teams this year following a win at Texas A&M.
• Ole Miss is 3-0 for the first time since 1989, and are looking to move to 4-0 for the first time since 1970 with a victory in Tuscaloosa this week.
• At No. 21 in the AP poll, Ole Miss is sitting at its highest ranking since ending the 2009 season at No. 20.
• The Rebels’ current five-game win streak dating back to last season is the team’s longest since winning eight consecutive from 2008-2009.
• The last time Ole Miss and Alabama met as ranked teams was in 2009, and the last time both entered the game undefeated was in 1982.