Last season’s meeting between Ole Miss and Alabama was one of the top games from the SEC’s 2014 slate, and the 2015 version has the potential to be another thriller on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. Both teams opened the season with a 2-0 start, but the schedule will get tougher starting on Saturday. Ole Miss crushed UT Martin and Fresno State in easy fashion, while the Crimson Tide handled Wisconsin in Week 1, followed by a 27-point victory over MTSU in Week 2.
While both teams have impressed through the first two weeks, Saturday night’s showdown is a huge barometer game for both teams. Just how good is Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly? Alabama’s rugged defense should give the Rebels a good idea of where Kelly is in his development, as well improvement from the ground attack. For the Crimson Tide, quarterback Jake Coker remains a question mark two starts into 2015, but this team is loaded with one of the nation’s top running backs (Derrick Henry) and an elite defense.
The Crimson Tide owns a significant edge in the overall series against the Rebels. Ole Miss won the 2014 meeting in Oxford, but the last victory for the Rebels in Tuscaloosa was in 1988.
Ole Miss at Alabama
Kickoff: 9:15 p.m. ET, Saturday, Sept. 19
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly
New Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly has lived up to the hype so far. After a short stint at Clemson and a stop at East Mississippi Community College, Kelly landed in Oxford prior to spring practice and edged DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan for the starting job. Through two weeks, Kelly leads the nation by averaging 13.9 yards per pass attempt, has completed 29 of 40 passes for 557 yards and six scores. The junior also has 46 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. While Kelly has been sharp in his first two outings, a road test at Alabama is a completely different animal than UT Martin or Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s front seven is arguably the nation’s best, and the secondary is loaded with top recruits. Will Kelly continue his hot start to the season? The junior’s supporting cast also has to step up, and the offensive line is not expected to have left tackle Laremy Tunsil back in the lineup due to an ongoing NCAA investigation. Additionally, the Rebels averaged only 3.9 yards per carry in SEC games last season. That won’t get it done on Saturday night. While Kelly’s play is critical, Ole Miss needs to have balance on offense.
2. Derrick Henry vs. Ole Miss’ Run Defense
Alabama running back Derrick Henry is off to a fast start in 2015. Through two games, the junior has been one of the nation’s top players. Henry has 243 yards and six scores on 31 rushes, averaging a whopping 7.8 yards per carry. In last year’s meeting, Ole Miss limited Henry to just 37 yards. However, last year’s starter (T.J. Yeldon) had 123 yards on 20 attempts. Alabama’s offensive line hasn’t been perfect this season, but there’s no shortage of talent in this group. Anchored by junior Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss’ defensive front is one of the best in the SEC. This unit has allowed only 3.07 yards per carry this season and no player has reached paydirt against this unit on the ground. Considering the new players stepping into the starting lineup on offense, Alabama needs Henry to keep quarterback Jake Coker out of obvious passing situations, but coordinator Lane Kiffin may need Coker to have success through the air early to prevent the Rebels from stacking the box.
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3. Alabama QB Jake Coker and New Wide Receivers
Alabama’s passing attack has its share of concerns entering this matchup. New starting quarterback Jake Coker is 30 of 47 for 427 yards and two touchdown passes this season and is completing 63.8 percent of his passes. Coker opened the year with a sharp performance against Wisconsin but wasn’t as crisp in the Week 2 victory over MTSU. How quick of a hook will Saban have in this game? Backup Cooper Bateman has played in both games so far this season and is 18 of 25 for 149 yards and a score. But the growth of the passing game isn’t solely on the quarterbacks. The Crimson Tide lost their top three receivers from last season, and after two games, this group is still unsettled. Running back Kenyan Drake and tight end O.J. Howard (seven catches for both players) lead the team in receiving yards. Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart are the team’s top receivers, but this group will face a tough assignment against an Ole Miss secondary limiting opponents to a 58.5 completion percentage. Coker doesn’t necessarily need a huge effort on Saturday night for Alabama to win. However, he needs to be efficient and limit the mistakes. This is his toughest test so far in 2015.
This matchup in Tuscaloosa should be one of the weekend’s best games. Ole Miss has been very impressive through the first two weeks, but the competition level has been questionable. Just how good is Chad Kelly? We are about to find out. Kelly’s ability to attack downfield is a huge asset for the Rebels, as receiver Laquon Treadwell and tight end Evan Engram are big-time playmakers that can stretch the field. Has Alabama’s secondary improved since last year? Or will the Crimson Tide’s front seven generate enough pressure to limit the big plays downfield? When Alabama has the ball, keep an eye on the trenches. Running back Derrick Henry is off to a fast start, but the Rebels want to limit the ground attack and force Coker to win through the air. Ole Miss has its share of success on offense. However, Alabama’s defense makes enough plays in the second half to secure the victory.