“I have a lot of respect for Alabama, coach Saban and the things they have been able to accomplish,” head coach Matt Luke said to open Monday’s press conference. “They’re No. 1 in the country for a reason; the most impressive thing so far is they haven’t turned the ball over yet.”
In the present era, Alabama has dominated the college football scene. Head coach Nick Saban has led the Crimson Tide to four National Championships and was just shy of his fifth last January against Clemson. It’s no secret what a powerhouse program Saban’s Alabama team is, but coach Luke is not afraid to take on that powerhouse.
“We are excited for the challenge,” Luke said. “This is why you coach and why you play: You play for the big game.”
Another key factor for Alabama’s success is the environment Bryant-Denny Stadium, which holds more than 100,000 people, provides. Coach Luke knows it will be a factor and has been preparing. In practice, the Rebels have been simulating the expected crowd noise by playing recordings over the speakers to reduce pre-snap miscommunication, something that ran rampant against Cal.
“When you get out there in front of 100,000 people, you have to go execute,” Luke said. “That is something we have been working on over the week, and I feel like we are getting better.”
The last time Ole Miss beat Alabama was also on the road in 2015, when the Crimson Tide was ranked No. 2 and Chad Kelly was under the center. A handful of players from the 2015 Alabama team have since transferred to Ole Miss, bringing added environmental experience to this year’s Rebel squad.
“I think it obviously helps when you have guys who have been there and who have played there in that environment,” Luke said. “The thing about it is two years ago doesn’t mean anything for this year. This team is the one that has to go to Tuscaloosa.”
Although the environment may pose a minor obstacle in Saturday’s game, the Crimson Tide on the field has been a force that seemingly can’t be stopped this year.
“They are running for 300 yards a game. We have to limit their direct runs and make them bounce the ball where they can’t attack us straight downhill,” Luke said. “It’s going to be an area of focus for us to make sure we stop the run and make them throw the ball.”
Despite improvements in the defense’s ability to stop the run against Cal, Alabama is an entirely different beast. Last week, Alabama ran for more than 400 yards in a 59-0 obliteration of the Vanderbilt Commodores.
“They are going to do the same running plays over and over again and just wait until you make a mistake, and they are going to capitalize on it,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “That’s the nature of the ball club. (Alabama) has a lot of good football players, and the scheme is set up to let their playmakers make plays.”
The Rebels had a bye week this weekend, and that has been important for the recovery of players like center Sean Rawlings, who was injured two weeks ago against Cal, and receiver A.J. Brown, who also went down that game while holding his knee. The bye week also gives added time to prepare for such a big game.
Brown set the school record for receiving yards in a game against the University of Tennessee at Martin and led the SEC in receiving yards prior to this past weekend. He is a big part of the offense, and having him back will be crucial to any success Ole Miss hopes to find this weekend.
“(The bye week) gives you some extra time to study videotape,” McGriff said. “The one thing you have to guard against in an open week is to make certain you don’t put in a lot of scheme. Sometimes time can be your enemy, and you don’t want to overload your players with scheme and paralyze your athletes, but I think the biggest advantage is that you have a chance to get some players healthy.”
The coaches, players and Rebel faithful alike hope the extra time off will prove valuable in a game that will hope to surprise many. Ole Miss squares off with the Crimson Tide at 8 p.m. Saturday in Tuscaloosa.