The Ole Miss Rebels scored one of the biggest wins in school history last season over Alabama – a 23-17 victory in Oxford that sent the fans at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium running and screaming to celebrate on the field. This year, the Rebels must travel to Tuscaloosa to face the second ranked Tide. There are three specific keys to scoring another huge upset win over Bama.
1. Contain Derrick Henry
Alabama running back Derrick Henry is one of the best players in college football. The 6-foot-1, 241-pound junior performed well as a backup during his first two seasons on campus (he actually led the Tide in rushing with 990 yards last season and scored 11 touchdowns), but with T.J. Yeldon off to the NFL, Henry is The Man in Tuscaloosa this season.
Through the first two games of 2015, Henry has gained 243 yards on just 31 carries (7.8 yards per attempt) and has already scored six touchdowns. Henry does it with a unique blend of power and speed that allows him to either run through defenders or run past them.
For Ole Miss to upset Alabama Saturday in Tuscaloosa, the Rebels must neutralize Henry. That means defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche must have a big game creating havoc at the line of scrimmage and drawing the attention of multiple blockers so others, such as linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and C.J. Johnson and Huskie (hyrbid linebacker/safety) Tony Conner are free to make plays. The more penetration Nkemdiche and his fellow defensive linemen can get, the better chance the Rebels have of limiting Henry to modest gains and forcing quarterback Jake Coker to convert first downs with his arm.
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2. Chad Kelly’s Mobility
New Ole Miss starting quarterback Chad Kelly has been even better than advertised in his first two starts for the Rebels. First of all, the junior college transfer has helped Ole Miss jump out to an explosive, historic start to the season by scoring more than 73 points and amassing well over 600 total yards in each of the first two games. Ole Miss currently leads the nation with an average gain of 9.3 yards per play.
Kelly has done most of his damage through the air. The junior has thrown for 557 yards and six touchdowns with one interception on 29-for-40 passing (72.5 percent). Kelly currently leads the nation in QB rating (94.3) and yards per pass attempt (13.9). He hasn’t been asked to run much, but has gained 46 yards on six carries and has scored twice. And it’s that mobility that could play a huge role in Saturday’s game against Alabama.
Though the Crimson Tide usually boasts one of the toughest and most talented defenses in the nation, Alabama has a history of struggling against mobile quarterbacks. Cam Newton’s physical presence in the running game gave the Tide fits in 2010, as did Johnny Manziel’s scrambling in 2012. Last season, Nick Marshall helped Auburn score 44 points and total an roll up an eye-popping 630 yards of total offense, and Ohio State’s Cardale Jones had 43 yards rushing on 17 carries as part of 537 total yards for the Buckeyes in last year’s 42-35 Ohio State victory in the College Football Playoff.
Kelly may not be as physical as Jones or Newton, or as fast as Manziel or Marshall, but he is agile enough to elude pass rushers to buy extra time to throw (which is great because it’s unlikely he’ll have star left tackle Laremy Tunsil protecting his blind side), and when necessary Kelly is quick enough to pick up nice yardage and move the chains on designed quarterback runs.
3. Pressure Jake Coker
The final key for Ole Miss’ upset hopes this week is creating a consistent pass rush to pressure Alabama quarterback Jake Coker. Like Kelly, Coker is a new starter that won a preseason position battle with multiple challengers and has emerged well through the first two weeks of the season. To date, the senior has completed 30 of 47 passes (63.8 percent) for 427 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He’s also yet to take a sack.
The Alabama offensive line features two of the best in the nation at their respective positions: left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly. Of course, because it’s Alabama, the rest of the group is solid as well. However, Ole Miss has several elite defenders of their own capable of getting penetration and rushing the passer. The Rebels have the freedom to move Nkemdiche around, and Johnson (four sacks in 2014) and Marquis Haynes (7.5 sacks last season, 0.5 so far this year) are great pinning their ears back and chasing quarterbacks.
Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has shown a tendency to fall in love with the pass, which could happen again this week if the Rebels do a good job of containing Henry. Even if Henry has success running the football, the Tide will test the Landsharks in the secondary.
Therefore, it’s important for Ole Miss to take advantage of obvious passing downs, force Coker to speed his decision-making and force him out of the pocket. Doing so will create opportunities for big plays — like the three interceptions the Landsharks have returned for touchdowns already this season — and give the Rebels the best chance to score a second straight upset victory over Alabama.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work on college football can also be found on SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.