3:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: Alabama -4.5
SEC West titans clash as the third-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide travel to Oxford to face the upstart, eleventh-ranked Mississippi Rebels in matchup of unbeatens. Alabama (4-0, 1-0 in SEC) rolls into today’s contest fresh off a Bye, one week after completely dismantling Florida in an 42-21 debacle. Believe it or not, it was actually a pretty close game for a while; the Tide led 21-14 at halftime, before turning in 28 unanswered points in the second half. Quarterback Blake Sims put together a Heisman-worthy performance against what is always a staunch Gators’ defense, completing 23-of-33 passes for 445 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. Waitaminute here, did we just say that an Alabama Quarterback threw for 400+ yards against an SEC defense? Is Nick Saban still in charge or what? The answer to both of the questions would be “yes”, as Saban’s outfit has proven proficient at airing it out in 2014. That victory marked the second time this season in which the SEC powerhouse racked up at least 400 passing yards. So what i the name of Bear Bryant is going on in Tuscaloosa? Two words, folks: Lane Kiffin.
Lane Kiffin? You mean, the Lane Kiffin that was fired from the Oakland Raiders after just twenty games? The Lane Kiffin that departed from Tennessee after just one year in Knoxville, in favor of USC where he was unceremoniously fired three years later? National punch line Lane Kiffin? Yup, that same guy was hired by Saban to be his new Offensive Coordinator during the offseason, proving to be a masterstroke by the veteran coach, and in turn a golden opportunity for redemption for a coach that had wore out his welcome in many circles. Say what you want about Kiffin, but he’s been a pretty good play-caller wherever he’s been, and the effect that he’s having on the Tide’s typically conservative offense could be the difference in competing for a National Championship once more. Just look at the numbers; Since Kiffin took over, Alabama is averaging 33.6 points on 587.5 yards per game, over 130.0 more yards than they had posted a year ago with a four-year starter under center. Through four games, the passing game is picking up a robust 332.3 yards per game on 70.5% passing, with the aforementioned Sims clearly earning favor over heralded Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, completing 72.9% of his attempts for 1,077 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions. To his credit, Sims has performed much better than his predecessor, two-time National Champion AJ McCarron, when pressured; Sims has completed 58.3% of his passes for an average of 48.3 yards per game when pressured in the pocket thus far, while posting a Total QBR of 73.5, the second-highest figure in the country in such situations, while McCarron languished at 40.7% passing and 21.1 yards per game with a Total QBR of 9.6. Furthermore, Sims has been sacked just once when under pressure, while the current Pro was dropped seventeen times in 2013.
Perhaps benefiting the most from this change in approach has been one Amari Cooper, who has exploded onto the national scene as arguably the best receiver in the country. Upon arriving to Tuscaloosa three years ago, the Junior had drawn comparisons to former Tide Wideout and NFL star Julio Jones, but never quite put up the numbers associated with such a lofty comparison. Granted, Saban’s run-heavy offense played a major role in limiting his production, but with a wide-open playbook Cooper has really turned heads. Case in point; Cooper was phenomenal against Florida, torching the Gators’ talented Secondary for 201 yards and three touchdowns on ten catches, including a 79-yard bomb from Sims shortly before the conclusion of the first quarter. At 6-1, 210 lbs, this kid is a beast for smaller defensive backs to cover, and has finally shown the kind of production warranted of a Top-10 pick. While the sudden emphasis on the passing game has grabbed all the headlines, they still run the ball down in Alabama, which has been a stable of the program ever since Saban arrived back in 2007. The Tide have still managed to average 45.3 rushing attempts per game en route to a healthy 255.3 yards on an even healthier 5.6 yards per carry. The tandem of TJ Yeldon and Derrick Henry have rushed for 284 and 320 yards respectively, accounting for four touchdowns, while Kenyon Drake has found the end zone as many times on his own along with picking up 126 yards on just 23 carries. Yeldon is listed as probable for tonight’s game with a strained hamstring, potentially creating a void against the Rebels’ stingy defense; when these teams met last year, Yeldon racked up 121 yards and a score on just seventeen carries in a 25-0 shutout victory.
Meanwhile, if the Rebels (4-0, 1-0 in SEC) are to truly elevate themselves in the rugged SEC West, then they will have to knock off the Crimson Tide at some point; coming into today’s meeting the hosts have lost ten consecutive matchups with their division neighbors. In his third year on the job, Hugh Freese has had no problem attracting talent to Oxnard, a must when competing against the likes of LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn, Mississippi State, and Arkansas in addition to Alabama every year. Now he must do something of merit with it, and with four games in the books, he and his charges look to be on their way. Two factors have worked in their favor thus far; first and foremost, Ole Miss owns statistically the best defense in the SEC, an achievement unto itself, and with Bo Wallace taking snaps under center, they have the most experienced Quarterback in a conference that has undergone an uncharacteristic amount of turnover at the Quarterback position .
Defensively, this is where all of Freese’s work in recruiting has paid off. Mississippi has allowed a mere 8.5 points on just 248.0 yards per game, including 114.5 on the ground in addition to a scant 133.5 through the air. Thus far they haven’t allowed more than 399 yards in a game, while limiting the likes of Vanderbilt and Memphis to 167 and 104 yards respectively. Last week in the 24-3 victory over Memphis, they completed dominated the Tigers when the visitors had the ball, permitting just 1.7 yards per play, including 81 yards on 13-of-31 passing and 23 yards on 31 carries. That night, the Rebels allowed just thirteen First Downs, which was actually four more than they yielded two weeks prior against the Commodores. The final ingredient is takeaways, as Ole Miss has forced eleven turnovers in four games, nine of which have been interceptions. Seven different players have come up with a pick, with Senior Cornerback Senquez Golson accounting for three on his own. Last year’s top recruit Robert Nkemdiche has wrecked havoc after moving into the middle of the Defensive Line, while Safety Tony Connor has made a wealth of plays on the back end. Look for this unit to be out for blood, for in their loss at Tuscaloosa last season, the Rebels were trampled over for 434 yards, 254 of which came against the run, at 6.4 yards per attempt, the highest they would go on to allow all year.
With a defense ranking at the summit of the conference, Ole Miss will now look to the arm of their Quarterback Bo Wallace, if they are to indeed crash the inaugural College Football Playoff. As we stated earlier, with the majority of their competition in the SEC experiencing turnover under center, Mississippi now owns the luxury having the most seasoned of signal-callers; Wallace has started 29 games over two seasons and change, and has shown improvement on his 2013 campaign in which he completed 64.8% of his passes for 3,346 yards, eighteen touchdowns and ten interceptions. Through the first four outings this year, he has completed 71.0% of his attempts for 1,271 yards (9.7 yards/attempt), eleven touchdowns and six interceptions. However, Freese and the rest of the coaching staff would be a fool to not be concerned with his penchant for throwing interceptions, which have been an issue throughout his career. In his tenure as the starer in Oxnard, the Senior has tossed 33 picks, including one in three of his four starts this season. Furthermore, he threw three in the opener against Boise state, and was picked off two more times last week against Memphis. That isn’t something to be particularly carefree with against Alabama’s defense, which he has struggled against in two previous meetings; in 2012, Wallace went 15-of-26 for 153 yards and two interceptions in a 33-14 lost, and was just 17-of-31 for 159 yards in last year’s 25-0 shutout. Oh, and not to be forgotten, he was sacked ten times over those two meetings.