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Ole Miss has the goods to challenge Alabama’s defense

This could be a very different game from a year ago.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Texas Tech Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Laying out the guidelines for having a realistic shot of beating Alabama is well-trodden territory — it takes some combination of 1) explosive plays on offense and 2) a defense that can hunker down when the big plays aren’t there. If you have a pulse, you know that a severe lack of the latter part essentially rules Ole Miss out of contention this Saturday.

After suffering a 66-3 slaughter in Tuscaloosa a year ago, it’s reasonable that a certain segment of fans may be asking for no more than a slightly less embarrassing loss this time around. Not nearly enough has changed since then to expect an upset — it would take a miracle for that margin to flip Ole Miss’ way just a season later.

That’s just one way of looking at this game, though. While the Rebels may not have the balance to shock the Tide, they can still make this interesting, and perhaps even watchable. They have the firepower on offense to make this an entertaining affair, and they’ll be taking on a defense that’s plugging in a lot of unproven pieces.

Jordan Ta’amu’s ability to stretch the field maximizes this offense’s potential.

The early returns on 2018 suggest the offense is as explosive as we thought it’d be, putting up 9.4 yards per play. After picking apart Texas Tech and Southern Illinois, Ta’amu is posting a ridiculous 17.4 yards per completion and 54 percent success rate through the air (national average last season was 40 percent).

While those numbers may not be sustainable against stiffer competition, there’s a case to be made that the general tendencies for how he attacks defenses will stick around. Ta’amu has taken the vertical passing game to heights not seen in Oxford since Chad Kelly was on campus.

After demonstrating a promising deep ball toward the end of 2017, he finished the year throwing for 10.3 air yards per attempt, which measures how far the ball travels downfield before reaching the intended receiver. So far in 2018, he’s throwing for 13.1, having completed ten of 14 passes that traveled 20 or more yards through the air. Here’s a full breakdown of his passes this season, which I charted myself for some reason.

Most notable about Ta’amu’s distribution of throws is how often — and efficiently — he’s been able to attack defensive backs isolated deep and near the sidelines.

Offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s hurry-up offense has prevented defenses from accounting for all of Ole Miss’ possible angles of attack before the snap, resulting in some pretty damn favorable matchups on the outside for the Rebels.

At this point, it’s less of a take than a foregone conclusion that three or four of his top targets are favored in one-on-one situations, regardless of opponent. SEC defenses are going to put up more of a fight on contested balls and lower that ridiculous completion percentage, but the opportunities to connect downfield are still going to be there. You can thank a number of things for that.

Longo’s offense poses threats all over the field.

Heading into the season, a major point of concern was whether Longo would be able to replace running back Jordan Wilkins’ production. While the team’s personnel strengths dictate that this will remain a pass-happy group, the times they do run need to count, partly to keep defenses honest.

On top of Ta’amu’s proven mobility, the emergence of Scottie Phillips has fans feeling better, as the JUCO product already has four touchdowns and 311 rushing yards on just 31 carries. It’s entirely possible that the Tide’s stout front can force Ta’amu to read run and stop it with a relatively light presence in the box. Overall efficiency on the ground rarely happens against Nick Saban, but sometimes the mere threat of a run is enough to open up a big play elsewhere.

Another reason Ta’amu has found so many good looks on the outside is that opposing defenses have made it a priority to cut off the middle of the field. A.J. Brown’s numbers on slants and crosses are enough to inform a coach’s entire game plan, but because of this offense’s proven ability to punish secondaries elsewhere, it’s not crazy to think he’ll have a few chances to shine in this area in Week 3. It also doesn’t hurt that Alabama is replacing a lot on this side of the ball.

Saban’s working with a lot of new faces in the secondary.

When people argue about whether they’d rather face the Tide earlier or later in the season, this is a great reason for preferring the former. Every year, they inevitably turn into a near-unstoppable death machine, stocked with former blue chips to plug in at every position. Getting to play them as early as September means an opportunity to expose some of the less seasoned, albeit still immensely talented, pieces on defense.

Fortunately for Ole Miss, Bama is dealing with an amount of turnover unprecedented under Saban, including a new defensive backs coach, pair of starting cornerbacks, and safeties/nickelbacks. Those new corners could struggle without help against these receivers, but the most daunting task may be finding an immediate answer to the departure of Minkah Fitzpatrick (selected 11th overall in the NFL Draft), who helped make the interior of this defense essentially matchup-proof in 2017.

There’s a pretty strong case that Ole Miss can turn heads against what should end up being another typically elite Alabama defense, but it’s still a long shot that the Rebels’ potent offense flip the final score their way.

Because this is still Alabama, there’s only so much damage Longo’s offense can do, and scoring droughts are inevitable. That should be more than enough for the Tide to pull away. Some will draw unfair conclusions about Ole Miss’ offense, perhaps even pushing a narrative that Tua outdueled Ta’amu, which is absurd because Tua will have had the privilege of facing a Wesley McGriff-coached defense.

Regardless of the outcome, putting Alabama defenders on their heels is an accomplishment boasted by few other teams over the past decade. It’s taken longer than many had hoped for a bowl-banned Ole Miss to embrace the image of the crazy guy in the bar fight, but that time may finally be here. This game may end up being a rout, but it could still be fun as hell.