The Ole Miss Rebels are hoping to make history this Saturday, as they travel to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 1 Alabama (8:15 p.m. on ESPN). The Rebels (3-1) are 0-8 all time against the top-ranked team in the nation and trail in the head-to-head series against Alabama 48-9-2.
Ole Miss has lost eight straight games to Alabama, including 10 in a row on the road, last winning in Tuscaloosa in 1988. This game will also be the Rebels’ Southeastern Conference opener.
“(Playing Alabama) can’t help but motivate you,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. “If you’re made to compete, that’s the kind of environment you want to be in. You sure hope you can go and put your best foot forward. That’s our plan and the way we’ll think. Everyone knows this is a tall challenge. It has been a tall challenge for everyone that has played them the last few years.”
Alabama head coach Nick Saban said he has seen an Ole Miss team much improved from previous years.
“The offensive numbers that they’ve been able to put up against everyone that they’ve played have been very impressive,” Saban said during Wednesday’s weekly SEC teleconference. “They are playing hard, playing with a lot of spirit. They’ve got some really good skilled players. Their defense is very quick and athletic. They move around a lot and create problems sometimes in their ability to run and affect the edges in the passing game.
“This is a team that is a completely different team. I think Hugh Freeze has done a really good job. It should be a great atmosphere for us at Bryant-Denny stadium Saturday night.”
Perhaps the biggest question mark for the Rebels heading into Saturday’s primetime game is the health of starting sophomore quarterback Bo Wallace, who suffered a right shoulder injury during the first half of the Tulane game this past Saturday. Wallace did not practice Tuesday, but did practice Wednesday and Thursday.
“He did everything today,” Freeze said after Wednesday’s practice. “It didn’t appear that his arm strength was full, but he says he was pain-free and he threw it around and did fine. He’ll try to go (Saturday), no doubt. No question after today.”
If Wallace is unable to go, the Rebels will turn to junior quarterback Barry Brunetti.
Brunetti has seen action in all four games this season but could be asked to take on a larger role this week. However, co-offensive coordinator Dan Werner said he believes a completely different game plan won’t be needed if Brunetti starts.
“We do the same stuff with him,” Werner said. “Obviously Barry does a few things a little bit differently, so we’ll have some different plays, but to the rest of the team it’s not like we have two different offenses going.”
Although there may be a question about quarterback, sophomore Donte Moncrief will be the main target for whomever is under center Saturday night.
So far this season, Moncrief has reeled in 19 passes for 343 yards and four touchdowns. His 85.8 receiving yards per game rank him fifth in the SEC, and his 4.8 receptions per game tie him for eighth in the conference.
The Rebels’ second leading receiver, junior Korvic Neat (14 receptions, 151 yards), will not make the trip due to a groin injury.
On the ground, the Rebels lead the SEC in rushing, averaging 259.8 yards per game. Junior Jeff Scott leads the way with 268 yards and three touchdowns, followed by Wallace (179 yards, 2 TD) and senior running back Randall Mackey (172 yards, 2 TD).
“I’d say I’m surprised, if you go back to spring ball and you look at where we are now,” Freeze said of the running game. “Coach (Matt) Luke has done a great job of getting the kids we have better. Obviously we haven’t played the likes of Alabama on defense yet or many others in this conference. That’s where we are right now, but we have a lot of work ahead of us.”
The Ole Miss offense faces perhaps its biggest test of season in the Alabama defense, which ranks in the top six nationally in scoring defense (2nd, 5.25 ppg), total defense (3rd, 185 ypg), passing defense (2nd, 122.75 ypg) and rushing defense (6th, 62.25 ypg).
“They’re big, fast, strong and well-coached,” Werner said. “I’ve done this for a long time and seen some good defenses, and there is usually something you think you can attack, but I just don’t see it with them.”
On the defensive side, the Rebels will most likely switch their base defense from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3 in an attempt to stop the Alabama rushing attack, which averages 204 yards per game, led by freshman T.J. Yeldon (265 yards, 2 TD) and junior Eddie Lacy (241 yards, 4 TD).
“Dave (Wommack) has all of that ready,” Freeze said. “We’ve been working with it. Unfortunately we still don’t have a lot of mass when we make that switch. It’s not a huge difference in what we have.
“I hope we come out and play more inspired, maybe be a little more disciplined with our eyes and tackle a little better.”
Up front, the Rebels will go into Saturday’s game with four healthy defensive tackles in freshman Issac Gross, senior Gilbert Pena and sophomores Carlton Martin and Bryon Bennett. Freshman Woodrow Hamilton will not make the trip, and senior Uriah Grant will be limited to emergency situations.
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