3:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: Alabama -14.5, Over/Under: 79
A pair of undefeated SEC rivals meet again as the reigning National Champion, (No. 1) Alabama Crimson Tide play host to the upstart (No. 12) Ole Miss Rebels, in a rematch of one of the most entertaining affairs of last season. Transitioning from once coaching staff to another is far from an exact science, and doing so during under the outstanding circumstances that was the COVID-19 pandemic made it all the more confounding, but what Ole Miss (3-0, 0-0 in SEC) managed to accomplish in 2020 should be cause for celebration. That’s because the Offense under (former Coordinator) Rich Rodriguez was heavily-run oriented in 2019, only to evolve into a wide-open, diverse passing attack directed under (Head Coach) Lane Kiffin seemingly overnight. Simply put, the man has his detractors, but few in the game today can match his play-calling acumen, which was on display throughout his first season in Oxford, Mississippi; the Rebels tallied a staggering 555.5 total yards per game (3rd in FBS) and were arguably the most improved passing attack in the country last year, averaging a healthy 10.3 yards per pass attempt, which was a whopping 3.3-yard improvement over the previous campaign, tied for the greatest statistical improvement in the country alongside Western Michigan. A big reason for that success was that Kiffin managed to find a Quarterback to run his show early, with (Junior) Matt Corral (68.8%, 997 YDS, 10.4 Y/A, 9 TD, 0 INT) developing into one of the most prolific players at his position. Corral lost the starting job after proving to be a poor fit under the previous regime, though has nonetheless flourished under the current one, averaging 333.7 yards through the air and another 50.6 on the ground, while accounting for thirty-three touchdowns in just ten games. Needless to say, there wasn’t another returning Quarterback within the SEC with a stronger portfolio. Indeed, a full and proper offseason has done wonders for the Junior, who has exhibited an even more profound command of the Offense, completing 68.8% of his passes for 332.3 yards per game on 10.4 yards per attempt with nine touchdowns and ZERO interceptions, while continuing to be threat with his legs, rushing for another 158 yards and five scores on 4.8 yards per carry. Even after losing the likes of FBS-leader in receiving yards and catches per game, Elijah Moore, the remaining Receiving Corps has been ahead of the curve, with the triumvirate of Jonathan Mingo (15 REC, 290 YDS, 19.3 Y/R, 3 TD), Dontario Drummond (20 REC, 339 YDS, 17.0 Y/R, 4 TD), and Braylon Sanders (8 REC, 133 YDS, 16.6 Y/R, 2 TD) each making plays downfield. Furthermore, both Tailbacks, Jerrion Ealy (31 CAR, 190 YDS, 6.1 Y/A, 1 TD) and Henry Parrish (25 CAR, 174 YDS, 7.0 Y/A, 1 TD), are pass-catching threats out of the Backfield, making sure that Corral has no shortage of weapons to make use of. Consider this, Mississippi TORCHED Alabama for 647 total yards in last year’s epic 63-48 defeat, the most yardage ever relinquished by a Nick Saban Defense during his lengthy tenure in Tuscaloosa. Corral accounted for 365 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns on an efficient 21-of-28 passing, while the hosts rushed for a ridiculous 268 yards and four scores on fifty-seven attempts. Sure, we we can buy into the train of thought that Kiffin (Bama’s Offensive Coordinator from 2014 to 2016) had a beat on his former employer’s scheme, but we’re selling the notion that that edge alone led to such success. Unfortunately, as impressive as the Rebels were they still LOST the game by fifteen points, with their Defense serving as the main culprit. Then again, this team was 5-5 last season, which given their prolific nature on the offensive side of the football should tell you all you need to know about the Defense. Ole Miss ranked 117th in the FBS in points allowed (38.3) and 126th in total defense (519.0), finishing dead-last within the SEC in both categories. Simply put, this unit just doesn’t have the requisite personnel (I.E. size and athleticism) up front to avoid getting pushed around by their bigger neighbors within the conference. This season, they’ve looked like a more cohesive unit, allowing a far more respectable 20.7 points (50th in FBS) on 344.7 total yards, but in all honesty they’ve yet to be tested; Kiffin’s charges have faced Louisville and Tulane along with FCS-maven Austin Peay, besting them by a combined NINETY-SIX points. However, we all know that Alabama is a VERY different monster, who will present a plethora of problems for their former employee; the Rebels have lost five consecutive meetings with the Tide, though their last was a 43-37 shocker in Tuscaloosa, one of only two victories during the Saban Era.
Meanwhile, the more things change the more they stay the same in Tuscaloosa, where Alabama (4-0, 1-0 in SEC) just continues to reload after hoisting yet another National Championship, the school’s seventeenth and the sixth won under the guidance of Nick Saban. A ridiculous 174-23 during his outrageously successful tenure with the program, we don’t know what’s more impressive about the 69-year old: his trophy case, or how he continues to turnover his staff and roster year after year? So let’s take a moment to throw some numbers at you, shall we? No school has sent more of their charges to the National Football League over the past decade than Bama, with at least NINE players hearing their name called on Draft Day in each of the last five years, including ten last Spring, six of which selected in the First Round alone. And then there are his assistants, with TWELVE different lieutenants earning head coaching jobs over the last fourteen years. Furthermore, his record against those individuals has been nothing short of impressive; Saban is a perfect 23-0 against them, with only two of those contests decided by less than thirteen points, besting them by an average margin of 25.3 points per meeting. Making the disparity even more outlandish is the fact that over half of those affairs came against ranked opponents (six in the Top-10), with the Tide trailing for 160:15 of a total 1,380 minutes of action. Needless to say, the aforementioned Kiffin is going to have his work cut out for him today at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Adding further fuel to the fire is the fact that Saban and Kiffin haven’t enjoyed the greatest of relationships either, with the former relieving the latter of his duties as Offensive Coordinator following his hiring as Head Coach at Florida Atlantic, just three days prior to the 2017 National Championship Game, which the Tide would go on to lose. With all that said, it’s not like Kiffin will recognize this new wave of stars at Alabama, for many of them are still in the early stages of their tenure with the program. Case in point; (five-star Quarterback) Bryce Young (72.1%, 1,124 YDS, 11.3 Y/A, 15 TD, 1 INT) appears to be the next superstar passer to grace the gridiron in Tuscaloosa, with the Sophomore operating the attack like he’s been doing it for years now, completing 72.1% of his attempts for an average of 281.0 yards on 11.3 yards per attempt, with fifteen touchdowns opposed to one interception. Two years ago it was Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs roaming the Receiving Corps, followed by Jaylen Waddle and (Heisman-winner) DeVonta Smith last season, and now it’s the duo of John Metchie (24 REC, 240 YDS, 10.0 Y/R, 1 TD) and Jameson Williams (12 REC, 299 YDS, 24.9 Y/R, 3 TD), and not to mention (Junior Tight End) Cameron Latu (8 REC, 119 YDS, 14.9 Y/R, 4 TD), who leads the team with four touchdown receptions. You wouldn’t know that this group only returns three starters, as they’ve averaged 46.5 points (4th in FBS) on 456.5 total yards, with both figures only representing a slight dip over their explosive predecessors (we jest). Defensively though, is where Saban is looking for improvement, for 2020 was about an un-Bama-like as they’ve been during his run with the program; the Crimson Tide yielded 19.4 points (13th in FBS) on 352.2 total yards (32nd in FBS), but they got uncharacteristically gashed in a few outings. While some would chock that up to the lack of prep time between coaching staff and personnel during the pandemic, Saban has instead doubled down on cracking the proverbial whip; they’ve come closer to reaching that lofty standard, relinquishing 17.5 points (27th Overall) on a much-improved 283.8 total yards, parlaying to 4.7 yards per play. However, of their four opponents thus far, only (No. 10) Florida has managed to give them fits, amassing 440 total yards in a rousing 31-29 affair in which the Gators simply ran out of time and real estate to pull the upset. By comparison, the rest of their opposition, including Miami (Fla), Mercer, and Southern Mississippi were all relegated below 275 total yards and outscored by a combined 114 points. We’ll see if they’ve learned anything from last year’s track meet with the Rebels, but there is a cold hard truth about that battle that we haven’t touched upon yet: as prolific and entertaining as Ole Miss was, they were still torched to the tune of sixty-three points on an INSANE 723 total yards, 417 through the air and another 306 on the ground, with that last figure representing a season-high for the Tide. Sure, the likes of Mac Jones, Najee Harris (5 TD!!!), and the aforementioned Waddle and Smith, who together accounted for a staggering 949 yards and NINE touchdowns, are long gone, but Metchie managed to put up seventy-five yards on four receptions, while (fifth-year Senior Tailback) Brian Robinson Jr. (37 CAR, 508 YDS, 5.6 Y/A, 2 TD) churned out seventy-six yards and a score on ten carries. If today’s contest turns into another shootout, these two will likely factor heavily into it’s outcome.