This is the week the Alabama defense has to grab its No. 2 pencil, make sure it's sufficiently sharpened and go to work filling in those bubbles. Oh yeah, and good luck.
The first big test of 2015 is here.
Stopping the run? Alabama has pretty much handled that assignment during the Nick Saban era. Stopping the pass? Well, Alabama used to have that one down pat, too. Not so much of late. In fact, Alabama's pass defense has slipped every season since 2011, and last season it took a huge free fall, dropping from No. 11 in the country (yielding 180.3 passing yards per game) to No. 59 (allowing 226.0 passing yards per game).
In the offseason, Saban brought in Mel Tucker as Bama's new secondary coach to try and shore up things in the back of the defense, and there's been some lineup tinkering this fall as well. There are some new faces in the secondary mixed in with some old faces in new spots. All with a purpose of pushing Alabama back up to more familiar territory when it comes to pass defense statistical performance.
But pass defense isn't just about the play of the secondary. It's also about the front seven, too, and how much pressure this group can put on the opposing quarterback. Alabama has recorded three sacks in two games thus far.
So has the retooling of Bama's pass defense worked? Eh. Still too early to tell. Alabama currently ranks No. 68 in the country in pass defense, giving up 208.5 passing yards per game. The Tide's given up three TDs through the air and has picked off two passes. But you have to take into account the competition too.
Alabama's season-opening foe, Wisconsin, is more of a run-oriented team. Alabama's opponent last week, Middle Tennessee, does fall into the pass-heavy offense category, but the Blue Raiders simply didn't have the personnel to match up with Alabama. Right system to test the Tide defense. Just not the right players.
Things, however, are about to get very interesting in Tuscaloosa Saturday night.
No. 15 Ole Miss (2-0) comes to town and these Rebels are every bit the kryptonite that's plagued No. 2 Alabama (2-0) of late. A hurry-up, no-huddle, pass-heavy offense triggered by a very capable quarterback who's surrounded on that side of the ball by dangerous, SEC-caliber playmakers. In other words, right system AND right players to test the Tide D.
"They're explosive," Alabama safety Geno Matias-Smith said of the Rebels this week. "They like to throw the ball a lot. They have great talent outside. They have a good quarterback and a good offensive line. We just have to be prepared."
Bama cornerback Cyrus Jones, who had a 17-yard fumble return for a TD in the game against Ole Miss last season, sees the same things. "They like to go fast, get lined up quick and get a lot of plays run," he said. "They run and gun. They put up a lot of points these first two weeks of the season, so we definitely have to be on our toes for these guys."
Consider these numbers. Ole Miss currently leads the nation in scoring at 74.5 points per game. The Rebels' 358.0 passing yards per game ranks 13th in the nation, and quarterback Chad Kelly is currently the highest-rated QB in the country, having completed 29-of-40 passes (72.5 completion percentage) for 557 yards and six TDs. He's thrown just one pick.
"From the film we watched (Monday) he has a great arm, good arm strength, he's mobile, and he definitely knows what he's doing," Matias-Smith said of Kelly this week. "He looks comfortable out there."
Sure, Ole Miss' first two opponents — UT Martin and Fresno State — rate as lightweight competition and would make a lot of quarterbacks look comfortable, but it's not like Ole Miss, under fourth-year head coach Hugh Freeze, hasn't been making more and more noise in the SEC in recent years. This isn't a one-season wonder of a team we're talking about. This is a program on the rise. Ole Miss upended Alabama last year and came within an eyelash of beating Auburn and would have probably made even more waves in the SEC and on the national stage the second half of last season had star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell not suffered a season-ending injury against Auburn.
Truth is, so much about being successful on offense has to do with confidence and being in rhythm and being in a groove. If nothing else — the competition notwithstanding — Ole Miss' offensive players have to be feeling confident and in rhythm and like they're in a groove right now. And they have to feel like they're fully capable of making plays Saturday night. And not only because of what they've accomplished this year through two games but also because of what they accomplished the last time they butted heads with the crimson and white.
Yep, this is shaping up to be one tough test for Alabama Saturday. The kind where that No. 2 pencil gets gripped just a little bit tighter.
"We just gotta do a good job on defense of slowing them down and getting off the field on third down," Jones said.
Said Saban: "The object is to not allow Ole Miss to get all the big plays they've been having."
Yeah, that's the object all right. The question is: Can this Alabama defense achieve that objective? Perhaps the more overriding double-loaded question is: How improved is Alabama's much-maligned pass defense this season and is this the game where the Crimson Tide make the statement that their pass defense is indeed back?
Everyone's about to watch this test unfold. And find out.
— Written by Erik Stinnett, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Stinnett is an experienced college football beat writer who has been covering Alabama since 2009.