I’m not saying Ole Miss isn’t capable of beating Alabama, mostly because college football is a weird and wacky sport where anything can happen, but... if you’ve watched both teams through the first two weeks it’s tough to get too excited about the Rebels’ prospects Saturday.
Often in situations like this there’s still the chance for a moral victory; being a heavy underdog can sometimes mean fans come away happy with a close loss. Even if the score is close this weekend though, is that something to count on, given the makeup and prospects for this team?
In order to really answer that question, it’s important to keep in mind what truly makes a moral victory possible. I think there are two primary components that can generate happiness in a loss. First, the loss must be unexpectedly close. Given the 66-3 loss last season, I think the Rebel psyche is probably in the right place headed into the game, and anything within reason may qualify as unexpected. Second, a moral loss must inspire a sense of hope for the future.
In some ways this season is a total wash no matter what (within reason). There won’t be a bowl or a chance at an elusive trip to Atlanta. Still, it sure would be fun to do better than expected, beat some good SEC teams in Year 2 of Luke’s tenure, and show recruits the team hasn’t already given up on half the coaching staff.
Here are a few things I think could make fans feel better than expected after exiting Saturday’s contest having taken the L.
The defense doesn’t leave Alabama receiving threats wide open every few plays.
At the watch party I went to for the SIU game, a friend who hadn’t been watching showed up at halftime asking what was happening. Our synopsis? “SIU has receivers catching the ball without any defenders within 20 yards of them.” Obviously, that’s not a recipe for success, especially given the change in competition level we’re about to encounter.
If the secondary has good “eye discipline,” as defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff put it, that will go a long way in making us all feel better about the prospects of beating a heavyweight or two this season.
The defense is regularly getting to ballcarriers near the line of scrimmage.
Two games into the season, the Rebel defense ranks almost 100th in the country in yards allowed before contact. That’s against Texas Tech and SIU and doesn’t even factor in strength of opponent. It’s... bad.
That being said, freshman linebacker Jacquez Jones has graded out very well, and fellow freshman Kevontae Ruggs drew a lot of praise in the offseason before the concussion protocol caused him to miss seven consecutive quarters of football. Also, the defensive line theoretically has some capable players, though that certainly hasn’t proven to be the case so far.
If Ole Miss can keep Bama’s backs from tons of enormous gains on the ground, that would certainly be reason for optimism moving forward.
Now onto the things that could yield confidence in next season’s prospects...
Braylon Sanders and Elijah Moore make plays and help us feel better about the impending doom of WRU.
A.J. Brown, Damarkus Lodge, and D.K. Metcalf will be gone next season. How will Ole Miss handle the gaping hole at receiver without its most prolific trio of all time?
The two-game emergence of Braylon Sanders has been excellent, with Sanders garnering nearly 200 receiving yards so far this season (remember: a season ago, Sanders had just 65 total yards). He is the most proven threat of any receiver who will return.
But Elijah Moore is playing a role now too as he returns kicks and punts. Moore had his first career catch Saturday, a fifty-yard score.
Impactful games from one or both of these receivers could help fans feel a little better about the losses the Rebels are about to encounter.
Scottie Phillips runs for over 100 yards... mostly behind the right side of the line
Phillips will be back next year along with RG Ben Brown and RT Alex Givens. LT Greg Little, LG Javon Patterson, and C Sean Rawlings will all be gone, and while previous starting RG Jordan Sims will be back for one more year, figuring out who else will start on the line is a tough task.
Ole Miss could find an offensive identity on the ground next year if they have a back capable of successfully running against the likes of Alabama. If he does it running behind the part of the line that will actually be back, that’s icing on the cake.
Still, Ole Miss should just.... try to win Saturday, because that would be really neat-o.