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Ole Miss can still make things interesting against Alabama

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While the Tide are favored by four touchdowns, this doesn’t have to be a boring game.

Alabama v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

After a string of wildly entertaining skirmishes between Ole Miss and Alabama over the past three years, Saturday’s 8:00 kickoff sadly lacks anything near the excitement we’ve grown accustomed to.

This is the least hyped the match-up has been since 2013, and for good reason. The Rebels don’t have quite the same depth at certain positions, and have experienced enough internal turmoil to affect on-field performance. No amount of objective reasoning leads one to confidently believe they can pull off another upset.

That stark reality doesn’t necessarily make this game meaningless, and Ole Miss has a chance to at least show they can still hang with a program that deploys infinitely more recruiting talent. Since 2014, the Rebels have specialized in knocking Nick Saban’s team out of their usual, torturous rhythm, and they’re not totally devoid of the qualities that have enabled this frenetic style of play.

Alabama is coming off a casual 59-0 murder of Vanderbilt, hoping to replicate that slaughter against another outmatched opponent. If Ole Miss wants to brand itself as 2017’s chaos team, they can’t go down without a fight.

To have any shot, Ole Miss has to play on their terms.

It goes without saying that the Rebels won’t be able to consistently move the ball and build long, methodical drives against Saban’s defense. Instead, they’ll have to maximize the scarce success they do find with big plays, whether they occur by design or utter randomness. Ole Miss ranks seventh nationally in IsoPPP (Bill C.’s measure of explosiveness), so this isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Chad Kelly and the offense took their shots last year and it paid off, averaging over seven yards per play and finding the end zone from 23 or more yards out three separate times. Two turnovers and a special teams slip-up negated that offensive success, leading directly to three Alabama touchdowns.

Part of mitigating the damage of a terrifying Bama pass rush will be to leverage tempo, a point Matt Luke himself made on Monday. For whatever reason, the offense hasn’t played with the speed that Phil Longo’s built his reputation around, ranking 78th in adjusted pace. They’ve allowed an average of 23 seconds to run off the clock between plays, despite being one of the most pass-happy offenses in FBS. Jeremy Pruitt’s group won’t struggle adjusting if they’re given time to catch their breath.

Phil Longo can’t obsess over balance against the Tide.

The age-old sports take that you can’t take your foot off the pedal when you have the lead is an annoying one, and in this case suggests that scoring against a defense like Alabama’s is a choice, rather than being closer to a privilege.

There was actually some truth to that assertion during last year’s contest, as Ole Miss leaned on the run a perplexing amount against an immovable front. The offense was insanely more effective passing than running, yet they beat their heads against the wall all game.

Play Distribution, Ole Miss vs. Alabama 2016

Play Type # of Plays Success Rate Yards per Play
Play Type # of Plays Success Rate Yards per Play
Pass 43 51% 9.3
Run 30 17% 4
Sacks are counted as passes here.

The play-calling never adjusted to the reality that the ground game clearly wasn’t working, and the runs were equally distributed between halves. After Akeem Judd’s 23-yard touchdown run on the opening drive, the Rebels averaged just 3.4 yards per carry.

The coaches understand better than any of us the importance of forcing the defense to respect the run as part of setting up big passing plays. That being said, trying to establish balance may not be worth it if you’re that much better at one aspect of offense than the other.

Alabama’s offense remains far from perfect. That may not matter against Ole Miss.

As a true freshman, Jalen Hurts put together an impressive 2016 campaign, helping the Tide put up nearly 39 points per game and finish fifth in offensive S&P+. That seemingly prolific offense turned out to have some fatal flaws that weren’t made fully apparent until the playoff. They became much less lethal when forced to pass, and that weakness hasn’t gone away.

Brian Daboll’s unit currently ranks 127th in passing downs success rate, having struggled in this department even against Fresno State in Week 2. Perhaps that’s encouraging to some, but Ole Miss first has to back up Bama into these situations - easier said than done.

The Rebel defense has shown slight improvement when it comes to stopping the run (48th in rushing success rate), but they’re still prone to giving up big gains on the ground (99th in rushing IsoPPP). Considering their best performance so far came against a banged up Cal offense, something transformative will have to take place for Ole Miss to stifle the Tide’s elite stable of backs.

The premise of a blueprint to beating Alabama is a bit absurd, in that you have to fill a certain set of attributes to even have a fighting chance, then hope the ball bounces your way a few times. It’s more of a prayer than anything systematic. Still, Ole Miss boasts at least one of those prerequisites with Shea Patterson and his receivers’ big-play potential. This doesn’t have to be a miserable viewing experience.