The three meetings between Alabama and Ole Miss in 2014, 2015 and 2016 were thrilling games from start to finish. These matchups gave us Senquez Golson’s interception, Quincy Adeboyejo’s deflected touchdown reception and the Tide’s massive second-half comeback. Nick Saban’s side proved just how good the teams he coaches are with the 66-3 trouncing that Ole Miss received in Tuscaloosa in 2017. The Tide returns to Oxford as the No. 1 ranked team. This year’s edition should be more of a shootout than any of the recent installments have been.
Something that seems all-too-common during Saban’s tenure is the high-profile quarterback competition that occurs throughout Alabama’s camps that, this year, spilled into the season. The experienced and highly successful incumbent, Jalen Hurts, has given way to championship game hero and former five-star recruit Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa poses a different threat than the Rebels have faced in Hurts the last two seasons. The lefty is a highly skilled passer who can attack a defense vertically with the help of his talented receivers.
Playmakers Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle, Henry Ruggs III and Devonta Smith are all underclassmen who make up a wide receiver group that can rival what the N.W.O. does. The biggest task for the Ole Miss defense will be preventing Tagovailoa from escaping the pocket and beating them on foot.
The Rebels’ Mohamed “Momo” Sanogo and Kevontae’ Ruggs will face their first real challenge as linebackers. The duo has not had much playing time together, as both were introduced to the starting lineup during fall camp. Ruggs has been sidelined with a concussion since early in the Texas Tech matchup, so the in-game chemistry between the two could be an issue. Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Michael Locksley will look to exploit the young linebackers.
For the Rebels to be competitive in this game, the offense must score. Against Texas Tech and Southern Illinois, the offense got off to a blazing start. Ole Miss boasts the top passing offense in the SEC and only trails North Texas, nationally. Mixing in Scottie Phillips’ fourth-most rushing yards in the nation, it is not hard to see what identity this team boasts. The Rebels will only go as far as Phil Longo and Jordan Ta’amu can carry them.
The other side of the ball is the real problem for Ole Miss. After facing a middle-of-the-road Big 12 team and Southern Illinois, a team from the FCS, Ole Miss sits sixth from the bottom, nationally, in total defense. Defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff’s players are allowing 557.5 yards per game.
Even though Tagovailoa is a prolific passer, Saban could lean on his stable of running backs. The Ole Miss defense is allowing 202.5 yards per game on the ground throughout the first two weeks. Factor in that statistic with the fact that Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs are the three best running backs the Rebels have seen up to this point, and the Tide could keep the Ole Miss offense off the field by running the ball.
There is no task taller than taming the Tide. Many teams try, with few managing to accomplish the feat. The Rebels get their chance to do so on national television. The game will be contested under the lights at 6 p.m. in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, which should give Ole Miss a huge advantage. The SEC Network’s morning preview show, SEC Nation, will broadcast live from the Grove from 9-11 a.m. With everyone wanting to see Tagovailoa in his first SEC game, Ta’amu can have his “hello, world” moment. Expect a fireworks show full of yards and points. This game could very well come down to who has the ball last.