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Alabama has won three out of the last five SEC West titles and back-to-back national championships. Ole Miss is still searching for its first West Division title, but the Rebels are making gains on Alabama and LSU under second-year coach Hugh Freeze.
This game isn’t necessarily an indictment of where things stand in the SEC West, but it’s clear Ole Miss is improving, and the road to the SEC Championship still runs through Tuscaloosa.
If Ole Miss wants to muscle its way to the top of the West, beating Alabama is a must. The Rebels defeated only two FBS teams with a winning record from 2010-12 but started 2013 with victories over Vanderbilt and Texas – two likely bowl teams in 2013.
Alabama already has a huge conference victory against Texas A&M and defeated Virginia Tech in a neutral site matchup to open the year. However, the Crimson Tide has looked more vulnerable in 2013 than they did in 2011 or 2012.
Alabama has dominated the overall series, recording a 49-9-2 record against Ole Miss. The Rebels last victory against the Crimson Tide came in 2003. Ole Miss has struggled in Tuscaloosa, with its last and only victory coming on the road in this series in 1988.
Ole Miss at Alabama
Kickoff: 6:30 ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -14.5
Three Things to Watch
Alabama’s Offensive Line
With the loss of three All-American starters, Alabama’s offensive line was expected to take a step back in 2013. So far, those predictions have come to fruition, but the Crimson Tide’s front five has struggled more than some may have expected. Against a solid Virginia Tech defensive line, Alabama’s rushing attack managed just 96 yards. After gashing Texas A&M for 234 yards on Sept. 14, the Crimson Tide recorded only 66 yards against Colorado State – with 38 coming on one play. So which Alabama offensive line will show up this Saturday? The Crimson Tide should perform at a higher level than they did against the Rams, but Ole Miss’ defensive line is among the best in the SEC. Freshman Robert Nkemdiche has 10 tackles – four going for a loss – in three games, while linemen Channing Ward, Carlos Thompson and Issac Gross combined for three sacks. The Rebels are holding opponents to 3.8 yards per carry, but Alabama’s offense will be the best unit they will have faced in 2013. The Crimson Tide’s offensive line was criticized after their performance against Virginia Tech and responded with a standout effort against Texas A&M. Will we see that same storyline play out on Saturday?
Ole Miss Wide Receivers vs. Alabama’s Secondary
Earlier this week, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace set the bar high for his offense on Saturday. “I think we have better receivers than A&M,” Wallace said. The junior isn’t necessarily wrong with his statement either, as Donte Moncrief is an All-SEC performer, and freshman Laquon Treadwell is already on his way to having a standout freshman season. Tight end Evan Engram has 11 receptions through three weeks, and Vince Sanders (39 catches in 2012) is back in the lineup after suffering a collarbone injury in fall camp. While Ole Miss doesn’t have a 6-foot-5 target like Mike Evans, the Rebels are loaded with plenty of capable options at receiver. Alabama’s secondary led the SEC in pass defense from 2011-12, but this unit has taken a step back in 2013, ranking 11th in the SEC through three games. The Crimson Tide’s numbers on defense are skewed slightly by the Texas A&M game, but Nick Saban’s defense isn’t quite as dominant in the secondary this year. Senior Deion Belue is the team’s top cornerback, but the other spot is up for grabs. Senior John Fulton was torched against Texas A&M, and the coaching staff could look to sophomores Geno Smith, Cyrus Jones or Bradley Sylve or freshman Maurice Smith to claim the spot opposite of Belue. One factor that could help Alabama’s secondary: A pass rush. It has been virtually non-existent for the Crimson Tide so far, as they have just three sacks in 2013.
Alabama QB AJ McCarron vs. Ole Miss’ Secondary
Although Ole Miss is solid on the defensive line and at linebacker, the secondary has been a concern in 2013. The Rebels ranked 11th in the SEC against the pass last year, and so far, the results haven’t been much different. Ole Miss ranks 12th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and opposing quarterbacks are completing 63.5 percent of their passes against this secondary. McCarron has been steady through the first three games, completing 64.1 percent of his throws and six touchdowns on 78 attempts. The senior also has the best receiving corps of his Alabama tenure, with Amari Cooper, Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and tight end O.J. Howard all capable options. McCarron has been sacked six times this year and did not have a clean pocket for most of the game against Virginia Tech. To protect its secondary, Ole Miss needs help from Nkemdiche and fellow end C.J. Johnson in getting pressure on McCarron.
Key Player: Denzel Nkemdiche, LB, Ole Miss
Nkemdiche recorded five tackles in the opener against Vanderbilt but has not played in Ole Miss’ last two games due to injury. The Georgia native earned several freshman All-American awards last season and recorded 82 stops in 13 games. Nkemdiche is expected to return to the lineup – along with receiver Vince Sanders – which will give Ole Miss a boost on both sides of the ball. The sophomore linebacker’s return should help the Rebels’ stop Alabama’s rushing attack, while helping in pass coverage over the middle of the field.
Ole Miss gave Alabama a battle last season, losing 33-14 in Tuscaloosa. The Rebels trailed only 27-14 going into the fourth quarter and held the Crimson Tide to just 305 yards on 64 plays.
This year’s Ole Miss team is improved, the depth and talent are on the rise, and quarterback Bo Wallace has another year of experience under his belt.
However, Alabama still has the edge in talent. Quarterback AJ McCarron will deliver with a solid performance, while running back T.J. Yeldon will find just enough room on the ground to run out the clock in the fourth quarter.
Ole Miss should be able to hit a few big plays in the passing game, but the Crimson Tide is a better team and finds a way to pull away late in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Alabama 34, Ole Miss 24