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Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Ole Miss Rebels Preview and Prediction

Jalen Hurts

Jalen Hurts

The battle to win the SEC West officially kicks off in Week 3, as Ole Miss hosts Alabama hoping to earn its third consecutive victory over the Crimson Tide. There’s also a lot at stake for coach Hugh Freeze’s team in terms of the national picture. The Rebels lost in Week 1 to Florida State and can’t afford another defeat in order to stay alive for the College Football Playoff. After the loss to the Seminoles, Ole Miss rebounded with a comfortable 38-13 victory over Wofford.

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Alabama has looked like the nation’s best team through the first two weeks of the season but opening SEC play in Oxford is no easy task. The Crimson Tide handed the keys to the offense to true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts and head into Saturday’s game averaging 45 points per contest. This is a huge test for Hurts and Alabama’s offensive line, but the Crimson Tide continue to boast one of the nation’s best defenses and have a handful of talented playmakers to lean on. And there’s no shortage of motivation here for Alabama. After losing two straight to the Rebels, the Crimson Tide would like nothing more than to deal an early blow to Ole Miss’ SEC title hopes.

Alabama leads the all-time series 47-11-2 over Ole Miss. However, the margin is a little closer in games played in Oxford. The Crimson Tide holds a 5-4 edge over the Rebels in nine matchups all-time in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. 

Alabama at Ole Miss

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 17 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: CBS

Spread: Alabama -11

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Three Things to Watch

1. Alabama’s Ground Game

Surprisingly, Alabama’s ground attack has struggled through the first two weeks of the season. The Crimson Tide had to replace a couple of starters on the offensive line and running back Derrick Henry also departed to the NFL, but a strong ground game is a hallmark of Nick Saban’s teams. Through two weeks of action, Alabama is tied for seventh in the SEC with an average of 183 rushing yards per game and is only recording 4.4 yards per rush. Can the Crimson Tide get back on track this week? Damien Harris leads the team with an average of 9.2 yards per carry (183 yards) and has emerged as the starter, while B.J. Emmons (59 yards) and Bo Scarbrough (55 yards) are also slated to see carries. It may take a few games for the new offensive line to jell, but it won’t be easy finding cohesion against the Ole Miss defensive line. The Rebels limited Florida State to 3.9 yards per carry in the opener, and Heisman Trophy contender Dalvin Cook recorded only 91 yards on 23 carries. Defensive end Marquis Haynes is one of the best in the SEC, and Ole Miss has plenty of depth at tackle with Breeland Speaks, Benito Jones, D.J. Jones and Isaac Gross. Will Alabama’s ground attack take a step forward this week? Or will Ole Miss win the battle up front and force quarterback Jalen Hurts into third-and-long situations?

Related: Predictions for Every Week 3 College Football Game

2. The Quarterbacks

There’s quite a contrast between the two quarterbacks in this game. Ole Miss senior Chad Kelly is the SEC’s top returning quarterback and has started all 15 games in his career. Kelly was instrumental in guiding the Rebels to an upset victory over Alabama last fall, as he passed for 341 yards and three scores in a 43-37 win in Tuscaloosa. Kelly is trying to become the first SEC quarterback to beat Nick Saban twice and has plenty of support in the passing game from tight end Evan Engram, receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow and talented freshman A.J. Brown. On the other sideline, redshirt freshman Blake Barnett started the opener against USC, but true freshman Jalen Hurts has emerged as the team’s starting quarterback. In two games this year, Hurts has completed 29 of 47 passes for 405 yards and four scores, while rushing for 51 yards and two touchdowns. Hurts is a different quarterback than what Alabama has previously used under Saban’s direction, as the true freshman is a good playmaker on the run and brings an element of mobility to offense. While Hurts has been sharp in his first two starts, a road trip to Oxford isn’t an easy place for a true freshman quarterback to make his first start in an SEC contest. The freshman doesn’t have to outduel Kelly in order for Alabama to win. However, the true freshman also can’t make mistakes after the Crimson Tide tossed three in last year’s loss. Which leads us…

3. Ole Miss Secondary

Total yards allowed isn’t the best gauge of the strength or weakness of any secondary, but it’s notable Ole Miss surrendered 419 yards to Florida State in the opener and has allowed two plays of 30 yards or more through the first two games of 2016. Adding to the concerns about this unit was the season-ending knee injury to Kendarius Webster in the opener. With Webster sidelined, there’s extra pressure on freshmen Jalen Julius and Jaylon Jones, along with seniors Tony Bridges and Carlos Davis to contain the passing game. While Alabama’s ground attack has sputtered at times this year, the Crimson Tide lead the SEC with an average of 9.6 yards per pass attempt and record 287 yards per game through the air. True freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts has been sharp through the first two games and has one of the nation’s top receiving corps at his disposal. Calvin Ridley is the team’s go-to threat (11 catches), but ArDarius Stewart (22.6 ypc), Gehrig Dieter (101 yards on three catches) and tight end O.J. Howard will also see plenty of passes in their direction. Will Ole Miss tighten its coverage from the opener and find the right mix at cornerback? With a defensive line that’s capable of generating pressure with just four, the Rebels can utilize their linemen to minimize some of the coverage on the defensive backs. However, Alabama can counter with quick passes to the edge to get the ball in the hands of its playmakers. If the Rebels have trouble covering in secondary, it’s going to be tough to pull off the upset. 

Final Analysis

The formula for coach Hugh Freeze’s team is simple on Saturday afternoon. If the Rebels can win the battle in the trenches, throw a few looks at freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts and create turnovers, Ole Miss should have a good shot at its third consecutive win over the Crimson Tide. Alabama has yet to get its ground game going and isn’t firing on all cylinders. However, the Crimson Tide still dominated its first two opponents. In last year’s game, Alabama lost five turnovers and suffered a six-point defeat (43-37). If Hurts minimizes his mistakes, and the Crimson Tide doesn’t allow Kelly and the Rebels’ up-tempo attack to control the pace, Alabama should snap its two-game losing streak to Ole Miss.

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Prediction: Alabama 30, Ole Miss 20