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Ole Miss vs. Alabama will show us just how good the Rebels’ offense is

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Ole Miss probably won’t win, but Saturday’s game will be a telling litmus test for Jordan Ta’amu and friends.

Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Since Jordan Ta’amu slid into the driver’s seat midway through last season, Ole Miss’ souped up offense has raced past every defense it’s faced. In the seven games since Ta’amu made his first start, the Rebels have averaged an absurd 43 points per game and 7.9 yards per play. During that same span, Ta’amu himself averaged over 10 yards per pass, completed 67 percent of his throws and racked up 22 total touchdowns. This offense has been historically good.

But that statement requires an additional clause: this offense has been historically good against mostly bad defenses. By the time Ta’amu started his first game last season, Alabama, Auburn and LSU* were already in the rearview. Of the seven opponents faced since then, only Mississippi State ended the 2017 season ranked higher than 70th in the nation in defensive S&P+. That list includes an Arkansas defense that ranked 112th, a Louisiana-Lafayette defense that ranked 125th and an FCS squad.

*Ta’amu entered in the second half of the LSU game after Shea Patterson injured his knee.

We know this offense is great (after all, it did pile up 31 points against State’s 20th ranked defense in Starkville last season). But can it keep putting up elite numbers—something it will need to do to offset the porous defense—through the whole of an SEC West schedule?

Saturday’s home game against Bama will show us what this offense is really made of.

The reality is that Ole Miss stands very little chance of pulling off this upset. Try as you might, there’s just no way to chart a path by which the Rebels defense, which got torched by an FCS team for a half last weekend, can check a Bama offense that ranks top five in the country in offensive S&P+.

But even if the Tide jumps out to a 20-point lead midway through the second quarter, there’s reason to keep watching. The Ole Miss offense will probably make some big plays and pile up some points. If Ta’amu and friends can do that against the best defense in the country, it’ll prove that this group isn’t merely the product of a soft schedule.

So what are the big questions the Rebels will try to answer on Saturday? Glad you asked.

Southern Illinois v Mississippi Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

1. Can Ole Miss’ superstar wideouts beat Nick Saban’s green but talented secondary?

If there’s a potential chink in the Tide’s armor, it’s hidden in the defensive backfield. When Bama lines up in its dime package (which it’ll do a fair amount against the Rebels’ spread), it won’t have a single 2017 starter in its secondary. Both corners, both safeties and the nickel and dime backs from last year’s squad are gone. On top of that, Saban had to make new hires at defensive coordinator and DBs coach during the offseason.

Of course, the replacements are all uber-talented blue-chippers and if anyone can coach up a group of young ‘uns, it’s Saban. Green or not, this will be the most talented secondary Ta’amu has thrown against as a starter.

The reverse is also true: Bama’s defensive backs have never seen a stable of wide receivers like the one the Rebels will trot out on Saturday. A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge, all of whom will be on NFL rosters next year, have combined for an incredible 225 yards and two touchdowns per game with Ta’amu at the helm.

If Saban’s DBs can’t slow down that group, there’s little hope for anyone else on Ole Miss’ schedule.

2. Can Ta’amu keep landing big shots downfield?

The most terrifying aspect of the Rebel offense is its ability to rip defenses to shreds with explosive plays. Ta’amu might have the most accurate deep ball in the country, which is outright unfair when he’s throwing to hulking, athletic wideouts.

Last year, he led the SEC by completing over 48 percent of his passes of 20 yards or more. Through two games this season, he leads the entire country with 11 completions of 30 or more yards.

There’s no doubt that Ole Miss will have to connect on some big plays to keep from being suffocated by a Bama defense that ranked seventh in defensive efficiency and 13th in defensive pass efficiency a year ago. For as dominant as last season’s Tide defense was on a play-to-play basis, however, it struggled a bit to stop long passing plays—Bama ranked 45th in passing isoPPP, which measures how explosive an opponent’s passing game is.

3. Can the Rebels be at least somewhat efficient on the ground?

Nobody ever really succeeds in running the ball against Bama, which has ranked first in run D for three years straight. But the Rebel ground attack doesn’t have to do anything special. It just has to do enough.

Landing those big plays over the top becomes much more doable if Ole Miss can strike some semblance of a ground threat and force the Bama safeties to respect the play fake. That’s something a Rebel O-line that returned all of its 2017 starters has struggled with so far this season. Sure, JUCO transfer Scottie Phillips racked up over 200 yards against Texas Tech, but take away his three long runs and the rushing attack as a whole averaged just 3.2 yards per carry in Houston. Even against FCS Southern Illinois last week, the Rebels averaged an unimpressive 5.4 yards per tote (SIU averaged 5.6).

Bama’s pass rush was modest by Bama standards last season; the Tide ranked 29th in adjusted sack rate. When they were able to pin their ears back on passing downs, however, that number jumped inside the top 20. The best way for Ole Miss to protect its quarterback from a marauding group of first-round talent will be to make gains on the ground to stay out of long-yardage situations.

Win or lose, an impressive showing by the Rebels’ offense will go a long way in bolstering fans’ outlook for the rest of the season.