Saturday's game in Oxford between Ole Miss and Alabama features an interesting change of roles between the two teams. Usually, the Crimson Tide sit atop the SEC West and need a victory in November to secure the division crown. However, that honor has shifted to LSU and Ole Miss after Alabama's loss in Baton Rouge last week. The Rebels (8-1, 4-1 SEC) need some help to win the West, but a victory over the Crimson Tide would keep the pressure on the Tigers going into the final two weeks of the season.
After last week's loss to LSU, it's fair to wonder which Alabama team will show up in Oxford. The Crimson Tide (7-2, 4-2) have struggled on the road for the last two years, as six of the last eight games away from Tuscaloosa in the regular season were decided by one score. Coach Nick Saban's team still has faint hopes to win the West, but it needs a lot to break its way after last week's loss and the October defeat to Tennessee. Although SEC West title hopes have faded, Alabama still has a shot at double-digit victories and an appearance in a New Year's Six bowl. Considering how the last two seasons have transpired, how the Crimson Tide handle the road environment, as well as the motivation level after last Saturday, are two x-factors at Ole Miss.
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin may not win SEC Coach of the Year honors, but his coaching job is certainly among the best in the conference. Despite losing quarterback Matt Corral and a handful of other key players, Kiffin reloaded the roster through the portal and has his team in contention for a top-10 finish nationally. The Rebels started 8-0 before falling at LSU (45-20) on Oct. 22. After beating Texas A&M (31-28) in Week 9, Kiffin's squad got a much-needed off week to heal after nine straight games. With matchups against Alabama, Arkansas (road), and Mississippi State remaining, the path to an SEC West title won't be easy. However, it's a credit to Kiffin's coaching that the Rebels find themselves in the hunt in mid-November.
Alabama holds a 57-10-2 series edge over Ole Miss. The Crimson Tide have won six in a row over the Rebels. None of those six games were decided by less than 15 points. Additionally, Ole Miss has only defeated Alabama two times since 2004.
No. 9 Alabama at No. 11 Ole Miss
When Alabama Has the Ball
Alabama's offense is once again one of the best in the SEC with an average of 41.8 points a game and 6.9 yards per play. Stopping or containing this group is a hefty challenge for an Ole Miss defense trending in the wrong direction after a fast start in '22. The Rebels allowed only 10 points a game in September, but that number climbed to 30.8 in October.
Quarterback Bryce Young (19 TDs to 4 INTs) doesn't have a clear go-to receiver like he had last season, but the junior still has a plethora of talented options on the outside. Ja'Corey Brooks (28 rec.), Jermaine Burton (22), Kobe Prentice (29), and Traeshon Holden (21) headline the list of key playmakers at receiver, with running back Jahmyr Gibbs (39) and tight end Cameron Latu (21) also rounding out the key weapons in the passing game. The Rebels rank 11th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, so containing Young and his receivers is a huge test for this unit. However, although the secondary has been prone to giving up yardage, they have allowed only three pass plays of 40-plus yards. Keeping Young in check for four quarters is a tall ask. Instead, Ole Miss has to do a good job of limiting big plays, finding ways to get off the field on third downs, and forcing field goals in the red zone.
Through five SEC games, Ole Miss has allowed 185 rushing yards a contest and surrendered 4.6 yards a carry. However, the Rebels have thrived at getting into the backfield (56 tackles for a loss). That could play well against an Alabama front that's been inconsistent in '22. However, when there are holes, Gibbs (771 yards) is a big play waiting to happen, and Jase McClellan (329 yards) is another factor on the ground.
With the firepower on Alabama's offense and recent struggles by the Ole Miss defense, the Crimson Tide should be able to move the ball without much trouble on Saturday. Can the Rebels do just enough with stops on third down and in the red zone to slow Young and Co.?
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
It's no secret what Ole Miss will attempt to do on offense. Kiffin's group leads the SEC in rushing attempts (47.8) per game and rushing yardage (267.2) per contest. Of the Rebels' nine opponents in '22, just three — Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and LSU — held this offense under 233 rushing yards. And the lowest (117) was the only defeat suffered by Ole Miss this fall. The Rebels lead the SEC in plays of 20-plus yards (63), rank fifth in the conference in yards per play (6.7), and sit fourth in scoring (37.4).
True freshman Quinshon Judkins (1,034 yards) anchors the ground game for the Rebels, with Zach Evans (680) not far behind in production. These two backs combined for 20 rushing scores through the first nine games. Also, the off week should help Evans get closer to 100 percent after the TCU transfer missed the Oct. 22 game against LSU and tallied only eight carries against Texas A&M on Oct. 29. But will either back be able to consistently find running room on Saturday? Alabama's defense ranks third in the SEC in stopping the run (104 ypg) and limits teams to 3.01 per rush. The Crimson Tide excel at creating havoc up front (63 tackles for a loss), and only three teams rushed for more than 79 yards against this unit in '22.
With the success of the ground game, Ole Miss hasn't needed quarterback Jaxson Dart to win too many games through the air (averaging just 24 pass attempts a game), but the USC transfer ranks sixth in the SEC in passer rating (150.3) and completes 61.1 percent of his throws. Dart has passed for 1,911 yards and 14 scores but is also a dangerous runner (473 yards). Jonathan Mingo (30 catches) will stretch Alabama's defense vertically by averaging 22.1 yards per catch, while Malik Heath (32), Jordan Watkins (24), and Dayton Wade (12) round out the next tier of targets for Dart.
Alabama's defense enters Saturday's game giving up just 4.8 yards a snap and 23.2 points a game in SEC play. Also, this group ranks second in the conference in pass efficiency defense to go with a stingy and disruptive front. With Kiffin having two weeks to get ready, it's safe to assume he will have different looks or tricks to throw at his former boss (Saban). But this matchup could come down to whether or not Ole Miss is able to get the ground attack on track. Will the Rebels need Dart to throw more early to open up holes for Judkins and Evans?
This one is all about motivation. If Alabama is motivated despite last week's loss at LSU and with little left to play for in terms of the SEC title, Saban's team should leave Oxford with a win. However, the Crimson Tide have not played well on the road for two consecutive seasons, and despite having a 10-win season and a big-time bowl to play for, it's fair to wonder where the emotional and motivation level is for this team. On the other sideline, Ole Miss has everything to play for and shouldn't lack for motivation coming off the bye week. The guess here is Alabama's offense eventually does enough to get on track while the Rebels struggle to get stops in the second half. Judkins and Evans find some success, but the Crimson Tide come up with one or two stops in the second half to shift momentum and send Saban's team back to Tuscaloosa with a close victory.