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Ole Miss’ blowout loss to Alabama shows how far it has to climb

Three years after the Rebels won in Tuscaloosa, Saturday’s drubbing resets expectations in Oxford.

Photo by Getty Images/illustration by Red Cup Rebellion

There’s a scene in the most recent iteration of Godzilla in which the scaly behemoth, having gruesomely decapitated its foe and destroyed most of downtown San Francisco, quietly recedes into the Pacific Ocean as if nothing at all unusual has happened (for a 100-ton super-mutant, destroying a great American metropolis is just another Tuesday). As the tail slips beneath the water, it leaves in its wake a shaken and horrified populace surrounded by the smoking rubble of its city.

That’s about where Ole Miss fans find themselves after Nick Saban’s crimson colossus lumbered through Oxford on Saturday night, leaving behind a 62-7 scoreboard and a forced reassessment of expectations for this year’s Rebel football team.

Even the most optimistic of Rebel fans didn’t expect to win on Saturday—this year’s Tide appears to be historically good even by Bama standards, with the most recent radioactive mutation having added one of the country’s best QBs to an already brutally effective offense. But the Ole Miss faithful hoped to at least see progress—some sort of measurable gain that would chart a path out of the scandal-swept wasteland in which the program has wandered for the past two years. With Jordan Ta’amu throwing to the country’s best trio of wideouts from behind a seasoned offensive line, there was warranted optimism that Ole Miss could keep things close for at least a couple of quarters. But after an electrifying D.K. Metcalf touchdown on the opening play from scrimmage, the game was no more competitive than last year’s 66-3 drubbing in Tuscaloosa.

For Rebel fans, it was a sobering reminder of just how far the program has fallen from the peak Hugh Freeze years. Just three years ago, Ole Miss was celebrating on the field in Bryant-Denny Stadium after knocking off the Tide for the second straight season. Bama won a year later, but it was a tightly contested shootout that the Rebels led 24-3 at one point.

Those games seemed like ancient history on Saturday as Bama’s Tua Tagovailoa fired in his second touchdown pass of the night, making it 28-7 barely 10 minutes into the first quarter. The conversations between most Ole Miss fans from that point forward have, for good reason, revolved around defensive ineptitude. Just a week after surrendering 38-first half points to an FCS team, the Rebels defense was drug around the field like a half-dead antelope in the jaws of a leopard. The Tide snapped the neck early with touchdowns on four of its first five possessions, then pawed the carcass for another three quarters. The final numbers: 535 yards, 7.4 yards per play and a 46 percent success rate.

For as bad as the defense was, though, the lame-duck offensive showing is even more concerning. We knew defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff’s unit would get mauled, but Phil Longo’s offense was expected to put up a fight. After Metcalf raced in for his 75-yard opening score, however, the Rebels averaged just 3.4 yards per play and never again passed the Bama 40-yard line.

The offense has been prolific since Ta’amu slid into the drivers seat midway through last season, but the majority of that success has come against bad defenses. Here’s what I wrote last week:

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 and Co. are much better than they played on Saturday, and they won’t face a defensive unit as talented as Bama’s for the rest of the year. Still, their complete ineffectiveness doesn’t generate much confidence heading into a schedule that includes LSU (sixth nationally in defensive S&P+), Auburn (12th) and Mississippi State (21st). If Ole Miss is going to hang in those games, it’s going to have to pile up points.

The Rebels’ 2015 win in Tuscaloosa—which was followed two months later by the program’s first Sugar Bowl win since Archie Manning was throwing passes—was in many ways the high-water mark of the Rebel resurgence under Freeze. That night, with future NFL first-rounders Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche making plays all over the field, Ole Miss appeared to be closing the talent gap between itself and the upper crust of the SEC.

That gap looked as wide as its ever been on Saturday night.

Ole Miss will probably bounce back to a degree—keep in mind that after losing by a combined score of 140-50 to Bama, Auburn and LSU last season, the Rebs won three of their last four contests to finish 6-6. The offense will still be fun and will still score a boatload of points in most of its games. There are still reasons for optimism.

But the beatdown by Bama serves as a terse reminder that the program faces a long, hard road to again compete with the conference’s elite.