When Nick Saban writes his season’s goals on the white board at the beginning of summer camp, the first goal in chronological order probably says, “Win the SEC championship.” In this day and age of a four-team playoff and conference championship games, it is possible to win the national title without winning the conference as Bama did last year, but an SEC title is still a goal every year for this program.
Well the Red Elephants begin their journey to that first goal on Saturday when they caravan to Oxford to take on high-flying Ole Miss in a game that will sternly test their relatively new-ish defensive personnel. As expected, the Tide have swamped their first two opponents, taking out Louisville and Arkansas State by 51-14 and 57-7 scores. The Rebels have opened some eyes with a pair of stunning offensive performances in a 47-27 win over Texas Tech and a 76-41 whitewashing of FCS opponent Southern Illinois, to account for the No. 1 scoring team in the country.
Despite all the fireworks, defense will be the difference. Just don’t expect another 66-3 rout like last year.
Alabama at Ole Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Alabama -21
Three Things to Watch
1. Ole Miss O-line, meet your biggest challenge
It seems like every preview concerning the Crimson Tide comes down to the opposing offensive line and how they handle that Bama defensive front. But it’s hard to ignore them because for years it’s been the dominant unit for this defense, leading to all those national titles. And you KNOW how defense wins championships, right? Well four of the five starters on the O-line returned this year for the Rebels, combining for 102 career starts. It is one of the strengths of the 2018 Rebels and they have been dominating so far, clearing the way for an offense that averages 62 points per game. But this week the intensity gets amped up exponentially by facing the Tide pressure. And that’s a completely different animal.
2. Is It possible to outscore Bama?
We may find out this weekend. If the Rebels have a prayer here, they’ll have to outscore the Tide and also get a turnover or two along the way of course. As of now, Rebel leader Jordan Ta’amu has a QB rating of 206.1, Scottie Phillips is averaging 10 yards per carry while amassing 331 rushing yards and the “Nasty Wide Outs” receiving corps is averaging more than 400 yards per game. Will those numbers continue through this Saturday? Okay, that’s highly doubtful. Because you know that Tide defense is going to harass and harangue Ta’amu into mistakes and turnovers and put the squash on the Rebels getting into any kind of rhythm. Keep a keen eye on the talented Rebel wideouts against that relatively young Tide defensive backfield. Can they get separation? Can they find open field? This receiving corps will be the best that Bama’s deep seven will face this season. No doubt.
3. Oh that defense
Alabama has one. Ole Miss... Well let's say that defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff has his work cut out for him in order to prove it.
Watching the first half of last week’s win over Southern Illinois was a forehead-slapper. The Salukis went through the Rebels like milk through a cheese grater, repeatedly seeing their receivers so wide open they were dancing in the moonlight and leading them to a 38-35 halftime advantage. In total, SIU racked up 29 first downs and 629 total yards vs. the Rebels last week. That just shouldn’t happen. If Sam Stroud had enough time to pitch a tent in the pocket vs. Ole Miss last week, just imagine what Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts are going to do with all that time and their many top-flight weapons. It is imperative that the Rebels make a stop, get a turnover and keep the Tide’s offense off the field as much as possible.
As evidenced so far, it’s hard to imagine the Rebels are going to stop anything Alabama’s offense is going to throw at them. They just won’t. The only caveat to this being an absolute obliteration is if the Crimson Tide turn the ball over a bunch. Like six or seven times, even. The Tide has scored on nearly 75 percent of the drives that Tua Tagovailoa has started in his career. Probably not a lot to slow that stat down this week.
What is the only change that Nick Saban and his staff have made in anticipation of facing the Rebels? At placekicker. Austin Jones struggled with a couple of “doink’d” extra points off the uprights last week so redshirt freshman Joseph Bulovas came on and nailed five PATs and a 39-yard field goal and will take over the starting duties.
Obviously, that’s the equivalent of arranging deck furniture on the Titanic for this one. Expect the Rebels to get some points and for the Tide to continue to roll.
Prediction: Alabama 56, Ole Miss 24
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.