Well after a couple of weeks off, it’s time to get back to running the gauntlet that is the SEC West. Many are saying that the SEC West is the most difficult division in all of sports and, honestly, you won’t get much of an argument from me! Every single team in the SEC West has particular strengths that, when matched up against one or two weaknesses, can be devastating to a team, to a division title and to a national championship dream.
So, that brings us to the biggest single day of college football that I can remember: 10-4, good buddy (that’s October 4 for you folks who still rely on paper calendars)! Saturday’s slate of games will feature SIX SEC West teams ranked in the top 15 doing battle against one another. For three teams, their championship dreams will live on. For another three, their title dreams will likely be dead. Like Big 10 dead. Like Brady Hoke dead. Yeah, that dead.
So, will Alabama be among the living or will the national media be lining up pall bearers for our decent to the depths of a watery grave? Here’s what to watch for against Ole Miss…
Alabama on Offense
If you read my Florida game review, then you should have noted at the end that I was very concerned about the health of Blake Sims’ arm. From about 20 rows back, I watched him try to throw a couple of passes after he landed on his throwing shoulder and he quickly shut it down and sprinted off to the locker room. Folks, I really don’t think this is just a bruise. As of the Tuesday practice this week, Sims was still not taking his full reps and on Wednesday Phil Savage said that Saban was calling it an AJ McCarron-like shoulder injury. So, what does that mean????
Before the LSU game last year, I was told that McCarron had only been cleared to play the night before the LSU game due to a shoulder injury. The intel came from a solid source and, over the course of the season, I came to believe this to be true. You’ll recall that AJ didn’t participate in the Senior Bowl due to his shoulder and he has yet to throw a single pass for the Bengals, having been placed on IR due to…you guessed it…a shoulder injury. So, when Saban likens Sims’ shoulder to AJ’s then I think that’s pretty noteworthy.
So, the lead item here is about Blake Sims’ arm. It’s a big deal. As for the game, schematically, I love to watch the Ole Miss defense play. They are fast, physical and aggressive and they rally to the football like nothing you’ve ever seen. Two years ago the Ole Miss defense brought the fight to Alabama, shutting down its running game with an effective usage of downhill blitzing linebackers, blitzing safeties and blitzing Black Bears (for a school trying to move away from their Confederate flag heritage, why did the bear have to be black – why not just a bear?). Instead of the Bama line working their way up to the second level, the second level came downhill with a vengeance, stifling the offensive line and the Tide running game in a way we hadn’t seen before. This year’s Rebel defense looks eerily similar to the 2012 version that Bama struggled to block.
Specifically, the Rebs have speed everywhere, particularly at defensive end and in the secondary. Their linebackers are also extremely fast and aggressive, though they are light on their feet. Ole Miss likes to bring five speedy rushers in zone blitz concepts while dropping six men into zone coverages and they are very good at limiting throws to extremely small windows. With Sims’ arm issues (or Coker’s many issues if he is forced into action), the Crimson Tide passing game may create more problems than it solves. Therefore, we are calling for the kind of conservative, low scoring game that Gene Stallings would be proud of featuring a low risk running attack and a stout defense.
Practice Makes Perfect: Blake Sims’ best throws of the season have mostly come against man coverage (though he has admittedly dropped a couple of dimes against zones). With Ole Miss bringing zone blitzes, confusion will reign in the secondary and it will be up to Sims to deliver the mail into the teeth of the Ole Miss zone. With Sims not being able to practice throwing much over the last two weeks, it seems like attacking the Rebs zone may be a perilous little adventure.
C’mon Ride the Train: Ole Miss is very light in their front seven, particular in their linebacking corps since they employ a 4-2-5 defense. In order to make up for their lack of size they have to aggressively rally to the football in waves, oftentimes bringing run blitzes to stuff the gaps. As Alabama has done throughout the season, look for Vogler, Howard and Fowler to be on the field for much of the afternoon as Alabama tries to make its massive Enzyte size matter against the Rebs. Speedy defensive end CJ Anderson is only listed at 230 lbs and their two of their “linebackers” barely bring 210 lbs to the table. In the first half last season, Alabama tried pulling their guards against Ole Miss with no success – it simply opened holes for blitzers to fill. In the second half, Alabama went with more zone blocking and straight ahead power blocking and that turned the Tide in the Bama running game. Bama’s girthy size should be an advantage once again (but then we thought this back in 2012, too) and will hopefully lead Nick Saban to be “Smilin’ Bob” at the end of the day.
Hook, Line and Sinker: With the Rebs coming downhill aggressively from their safety and linebacker spots, the seam routes should be open for the tight ends and the flats should be open to the swing passes out of the backfield. Given the arm issues with Sims and the blitzing aggression of Ole Miss, I’ll be a little shocked if short passes to the backs and tight ends aren’t a part of the passing game plan this week. Also, when the Rebs commit that many people to stopping the run, Kenyan Drake could find a crease and hit them for a long one as he did last season.
Baby It’s Cold Outside: Boise State rushed for 183 yards against Ole Miss, most of which came between the tackles. Memphis rushed for 23 yards, most of which centered on running the ball outside of the tackles. I think counters or maybe even a reverse might yield some gains outside but by and large these Black Bears are mobile, hostile and agile and they flock to the edges faster than a gaggle of pageant girls hitting a cheeseburger after their beauty contest, er scholarship program, is over. Similar to Florida, bouncing outside won’t work. Derrick Henry is bigger than the Rebs DEs and LBs so he could very well have a big (literally) day.
Mini Cooper: Ole Miss likes to vary their coverages but the majority of the time they’ve appeared to be in some variation of a zone look. Zones are relatively easy to roll from one side to another so look for the Rebs to roll their zones to wherever Amari Cooper happens to be. Ole Miss’ pass coverage is VERY good – they are currently second in the nation with nine interceptions. With their athleticism they create very small windows to throw the ball through and since they are in zone they are able to look into the backfield and read the quarterback’s eyes. I think Cooper will get plenty of opportunities on the bubble screens as Bama tries to work outside of the rush hour that is the Ole Miss blitz. However, down the field opportunities will likely be limited and that’s why I think the check downs and swings to the backs may be key.
You (False) Start Me Up: Since this is the first true road game of the season and it’s Blake Sims’ first start in a hostile environment, I think you can expect a few critical false start penalties as Alabama uses its silent cadence. I know they are practicing it daily and weekly but there’s no substitute for a raucous environment on a critical third and three.
If you can’t tell, I really, really like the defensive schemes that the Rebs use as they are an excellent defensive team. Think I’m exaggerating? They are ranked ahead of Alabama in picks, sacks and total defense. They are fast. They are uber aggressive and they all play like their hair is on fire. Therefore, play action passes down the seams to the tight ends or even slot receivers should be open. Also, Memphis found quite a bit of room on 10 yard out routes to the sticks (first down markers) against the Ole Miss zone so that should be available as well as they have to respect the deep speed of the Bama receivers.
Look for Austin Shepherd to have his hands full with CJ Anderson. At 230 pounds, Anderson can fly around the edges so that will be a tough ask of Shepherd. Again, using the tight end here would help negate some of that ability so that’s another reason I think Bama continues to go big at tight end and fullback. Also, watch the play of Leon Brown – this is a game that could expose him badly. Lastly, their blitz wreaks havoc along the line so it will be a big challenge to make sure that Alabama gets a helmet on every helmet that’s rushing the passer.
Alabama on Defense
So, if you are nervous about everything that I’ve written above then these next few passages should put you at ease. If I were a Ole Miss fan, regarding their offensive line’s execution I’d be for it. Laremy Tunsil is solid at left tackle but everyone else along the line had some pretty brutal gaffes against Memphis and Boise State. In particular, the Ole Miss center (Ben Still) is bad. Really bad. He’s so bad that after the snap they inexplicably have him turn to his right or his left so as to not have to engage with the man in front of him (never seen this before). If you think this creates a massive hole up the middle, then you’d be correct! Weird – and they do this on purpose! Meanwhile, the left guard (Aaron Morris) struggled mightily throughout the Memphis game. At 345 pounds he evidently isn’t agile and is surprisingly easy to move around. Memphis owned the line of scrimmage (it was only 7-3 going into the fourth quarter) and the Rebs didn’t run the ball at all against Boise State. In fact, the Rebs don’t run much at all – they rank 11th in the conference and 76th nationally in rushing offense. Therefore, Bo Wallace will be forced to drop back and chunk it 30+ times and on more than a few of those times I’d expect the Million Dollar Band to be playing “Yea Alabama!” Sacks? Yes. Incompletions? Yes. Picks? Yes, a lot of them.
I Will Find the Center In You: In a song called “Sober”, Tool tells us that “I will find the center in you. I will chew it up and leave,” and I believe this song is a foretelling about this game. You see, the Ole Miss center is bad. Memphis consistently moved him 4, 5 and 6 yards back into the backfield whenever he chose to engage with a defensive lineman. But, more times than not he would simply snap the ball and turn to his right or left to chip for his guards – even if someone was lined up across from him! Look for A and B gap blitzes to chew him up and leave. Trust me. Look for A’Shawn Robinson to find the center in him and push him back into the quarterback for the first ever butt-sack in college football! Mark Sanchez’s butt fumble will have nothing on Bo Wallace!
You Wreck Me Baby: With the center and left guard struggling, you can surmise that the interior running game for the running Black Rebel Bears is closed for business – and you’d be correct. Everything Ole Miss tries to do in the running game is on the edges – something that Alabama’s front six shut down easily last year and will do again this year. Last year, Alabama’s ends got upfield in a hurry and took an angle that was to the outside shoulder of the opposing lineman – this shut down anything and everything going wide. With Wallace reading the upfield depth of the end, he ended up keeping the ball and actually led the team in carries last year. So, there was no running game last year and they appear to be worse at it this year. And, as you know, no running game means….
Bo Knows Interceptions: Bo Wallace is a senior quarterback and he was thought to be the edge that would catapult the Ole Miss offense into a national contender. However, because his line is so bad and because entirely too much of the offense is on his shoulders then he can’t simply be a “game manager.” Instead, an average QB is forced to have to win the big games and Wallace has failed miserably in every big game he’s ever played in. That streak should continue Saturday. Bo is a one read guy who will sling the ball whether it makes sense or not, and many, many times it simply does not make sense. Pressure is not his friend – he’s a 56% passer against the blitz – and this game will have a LOT of pressure. Hope the secondary has their catching mitts on b/c they are going to get more than a few opportunities…
Ain’t that Tough Enough: The Ole Miss tight ends and H-Backs are tremendous receivers and present matchup problems for linebackers and safeties, alike. Evan Engram is 6’3, 217 and plays like a wide receiver. Jeremy Liggins is a massive 6’3, 280 beast who is a former quarterback. Funny thing about converted wide receivers and converted quarterbacks – they do not like to block and these two are not very adept at it. If you are scoring at home (or if you’re alone), that’s four guys along the line of scrimmage who are not very good blockers. That’s a lot.
*Note: Liggins is a monster as their wildcat quarterback in short yardage situations – he looks like the Fridge back there…or maybe a good-sized freezer..
Man on the Run: Suddenly Alabama has three decent corners that they feel comfortable in rolling out there on defense. Eddie Jackson and Tony Brown are both taller corners who should fare well if locked up in one on one situations against the Rebel receivers. However, at 5’9, Cyrus Jones may be the guy Hugh Freeze tries to pick on. Laquon Treadwell is 6’2, 224 and is probably the second best WR in the conference. Cody Core is even taller at 6’3, 196. Cyrus will have his hands full with either one and will likely give up a deep shot or two.
Take Control: I’m counting on Alabama’s front four to be even more disruptive than Memphis’ and because of that I feel that Bo Wallace is going to be in for a long day. The Crimson Tide should dominate the line of scrimmage in such a way that Wallace and the Ole Miss offense will begin to panic early in the contest. Interior runs won’t work. Outside runs won’t work. And, when they drop back to pass, the Rebs should only have a very limited time to get the ball off before something terribly bad happens to Bo in the backfield. Their line is just that bad.
Gutfest: If anyone gets this Digital Underground reference I’ll be amazed. Anyway, look for Robinson, Jarran Reed, DJ Pettway and Jonathan Allen to fire off up the gut and ruin the best laid plans of the Rebs all day long.
If Wallace is given time, he does have some mismatches on the outside against Cyrus Jones and on the inside against whoever the Alabama linebacker of the day is. I just don’t think he’s going to have much time. And any time Alabama can shut down the running game by using just their front six (as they did last year against Ole Miss) then the Tide can begin constricting around the quarterback and the passing game like an anaconda around its prey. In watching Ole Miss you see horrific decisions by the quarterback, an absence of a running game due to woeful blocking by their interior line and tight ends and a propensity to give up sacks. Now, again, when given time Wallace has some playmakers at the receiver position but it’s really going to be difficult for him to buy enough time to drive the ball down the field.
Alabama on Special Teams
Against Memphis, Rebel kicker Andrew Fletcher missed two consecutive kicks from his left hash so I’d suspect that those two misses will be going thru his mind if he lines up over there for another field goal try. However, both kicks were well struck. He’s now 3 for 5 on the season (with a long of 31) with both misses being last week and over 40 yards. Ole Miss’ punter averages exactly 44 yards per punt and is only giving up 1.8 yards per return. However, the Rebels are currently last in the conference in kickoff return average and punt return average (Alabama is 5th and 4th, respectively) so look for Alabama to have an advantage in field position throughout the game. JK Scott did pull a shankapotomus against Florida and has only punted five times on the season – I suspect he’ll come close to matching his entire season’s total Saturday – so that may be an interesting thing to keep an eye on.
So, here we are again. It’s been another week full of pundits trotting out the “now we’ll find out about Bama” stuff that they seem to throw out each and every Saturday. And, here we are again with Ole Miss playing in the “biggest game in their school’s history” while, for Alabama, it’s just another Saturday. The Grove will be hosting Gameday for the first time ever and it will be an absolute zoo. Hugh Freeze has never, ever seen anything like this and neither have his players. But, Alabama has.
If I were assured that Blake Sims’ shoulder was 100%, I’d forecast this game to be a runaway. In looking at Ole Miss’ offensive line it appears to be one of the worst ones in the SEC, particularly up the middle where Alabama happens to be exceptionally strong. There is no doubt that the Rebels have a very, very, very good defense but at the end of the day, because of their offense’s woes, they will have spent their entire afternoon on the Vaught Hemingway feaux grass getting pounded by a bigger, stronger, more experienced team. Roll Tide!
Final Score: Alabama 23 Ole Miss 13
*Editor’s Note: After watching every team in the SEC play at least twice, right now I would rank Ole Miss squarely behind Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and Mississippi State. I’m not sold at all on the Rebs as you need to have a solid offensive line and a running game in this conference to survive the schedule that is ahead of them.