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Ole Miss needs to generate chaos to beat Alabama again

The only thing resembling a blueprint to beating Nick Saban is to set the field on fire. Let's take a look at the numbers.

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John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The idea of a blueprint to beating Alabama has always seemed like a naïve premise to me, because it implies that your team has firm control over enough critical factors on a play-by-play basis. What you can do is wreak enough early havoc to force them to abandon their original plan of attack, making their embarrassment of riches across nearly every position seem irrelevant. With that in mind, let's take a look at what Ole Miss can do to disrupt Bama's offense this Saturday.

First, a few advanced metric definitions:

  • An offense’s success rate is a way of measuring how well the offense stays on schedule each down. Football Outsiders defines a successful play as one of the following: gaining 50 percent of the yards you need on first down, 70 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third/fourth down.
  • Havoc rate is the number of total tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total defensive plays.
  • Passing downs are defined as second down with at least 8 yards to go or third/fourth down with at least 5 yards to go.

Ole Miss has to turn it into a game of big plays.

In the past two contests, the Rebels have done a solid job of forcing the Tide out of its regular efficiency game and into making timely gains. Nick Saban's teams manage to outperform nearly every opponent in terms of success rate margins, but it hasn't been enough in recent years against Freeze.

Success rate Yards per play Yards per successful play
Ole Miss Alabama Ole Miss Alabama Ole Miss Alabama
2014 35% 45% 5.1 5.3 13.6 10.4
2015 35% 41% 6.5 5 18.4 11.4

Despite the fact that Alabama has been more effective at consistently moving the ball, they weren’t able to generate explosive plays at the same rate as Ole Miss. Part of this comes from the fortune of having played earlier in the season, when Bama was still working in an untested quarterback. Ole Miss pressured an inexperienced trio of Blake Sims, Cooper Bateman, and Jacob Coker into enough uncomfortable passing situations that finishing drives was hardly a sure thing.

Forcing Bama into passing downs is key.

Since becoming offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin has subtly infused spread concepts such as run-pass options into Alabama’s scheme while maintaining the overall look of a bell cow offense. In 2015, he did so by running inside zone and making quick throws to the perimeter when the defense devoted too many resources to stopping the run. Jalen Hurts adds a new dimension to the offense through the zone read, and while it hasn’t entirely clicked yet for the true freshman (3.7 yards per carry), the finished product could be terrifying. Alabama has run more behind and around the tackles this year, and despite mediocre returns thus far (36 percent running success rate), the running game should only improve as Hurts gets better at reading the edge rusher.

Overall success rate Passing downs success rate Yards per play Yards per successful play
Week 1 (USC) 41% 27% 7.1 17.4
Week 2 (WKU) 44% 38% 5.1 12.6

These success rate figures are pretty meh by Alabama standards (44 percent overall in 2015). What’s most interesting is the inefficiency on passing downs, when staying on schedule is most critical to the drive, so forcing them into these passing situations is key to stopping them. Much of Saban’s post-game (and in-game) grumpiness can be attributed to Alabama’s low efficiency and over-reliance on explosive plays to move the ball, ranking 94th and 32nd in the two categories, respectively. Normally, this would be great news for Ole Miss. This year, it may not matter at all.

The Rebels' shaky pass defense is a problem.

Ole Miss will throw the kitchen sink on Hurts with its pass rush, and even that may not make the job easy enough for the defensive backs. Dave Wommack’s front seven pressured Deondre Francois on 43 percent of his dropbacks, combining for four sacks, eight hits, and 16 hurries, and the secondary still allowed 420 yards.

Alabama’s sudden turnover at the receiver position in 2015 resulted in underclassmen being relied upon early. As the top target, Calvin Ridley averaged 12.4 yards per catch over the final eight games and is poised for a breakout sophomore campaign. O.J. Howard had a 208-yard outing against Clemson in the title game and may be a matchup nightmare if the Rebel linebacker corps continue to struggle in coverage. Alabama has displayed its ability to rely heavily on the passing game when defenses load the box, and this group of receivers is only going to be better.

In 2015, it was a fairly common theme for opposing offenses to abandon the run altogether with little consequence, as Ole Miss’s secondary fell to 45th in passing efficiency. What remained was the defensive backs’ ability to shut down drives when it mattered, allowing less than four points per scoring opportunity. No stat better sums up Ole Miss’s ability in recent years to knock teams out of their systematic flow than the secondary’s havoc rate of 10 percent in 2015, which ranked first in the nation. Through two games in 2016, the defensive backs sit at 111th with a rate of four percent. There’s a chance that the pass rush causes enough problems against Bama’s shaky interior line that the young defensive backfield isn’t tempted to overpursue and give up explosive plays, but it’s a question mark at best.

There’s an overtly salty narrative that Ole Miss was able to pull off consecutive upsets over Alabama through sheer dumb luck, and it starts with narrowing down what deserves merit in football to a select few traits, generally involving some cliché about playing the game "straight-up." Every football game that has ever been played has been affected to some degree by external forces, and pretty often the team that best leveraged those forces won. This game won’t be any different.