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Ole Miss vs. Alabama: 3 keys to a Rebel upset in Tuscaloosa

Can Lane Kiffin’s squad shake off the specter of history and take down a vulnerable Crimson Tide?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 Alabama at Mississippi Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Does anyone else sense the deja vu this week?

Ole Miss is once again gearing up to face Alabama in a game that feels like it will be a measuring stick for the whole season. I think I had the same feeling in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2021, and 2022, and probably a few other years that I’d be embarrassed to admit feeling optimistic about.

A few of those years, Ole Miss rolled up against the Crimson Tide with no losses yet on the season; in a couple of others, the matchup was the Rebs’ last gasp at winning the SEC West, or securing a “special” season. It’s a nervy week for players, coaches, and fans, in large part because of the history of the rivalry. Ole Miss is 2-8 against Alabama in the last ten years, and as you keep zooming out, the record never really gets much better, or much worse. Ole Miss tends to beat the Tide once every six or seven years, sometimes getting two wins in a 4-5 year span or something like that, just to go a decade without a win.

More than often in the last 15 years, playing Bama has felt like walking into a buzzsaw; Alabama’s average national rank the last 10 years heading into the Ole Miss game was 2.3. TWO POINT THREE. But this year, things are a little different. Alabama is – for the first time in several years – rightfully disappointed with its situation at quarterback. The Tide doesn’t have a Heisman hopeful on either side of the ball, and is coming off a humbling loss to Texas and a frustratingly close matchup with South Florida. Alabama sits at No. 13 in the national rankings. Meanwhile, Ole Miss is undefeated and ranked No. 15 after an FCS cakewalk, a gut-check road win against a very good Tulane squad, and a reaffirming blowout of Georgia Tech.

So what will it take for Lane Kiffin’s year 4 squad to break a seven game losing streak against Nick Saban’s 16th (please retire already) Crimson Tide unit?

Ole Miss has depth: it needs to use it effectively.

At most positions, Lane Kiffin has used the transfer portal to build experience and depth, rather than to spend heavily on top players. The result is about what you’d expect: the Rebs have their best second and third units since…ever, but they are a bit short on star power, especially on defense. Lack of depth often comes up as an issue for Ole Miss against Bama and other top-tier teams. We saw it last year, when Quinshon Judkins broke two big runs in a two-minute drill to get Ole Miss down to the Alabama 14, down by 6. Judkins was gassed (Lane Kiffin said as much in the post-game presser), fellow star running back Zach Evans had been knocked out of the game with a concussion, and third back Ulysses Bentley was out with a broken wrist. Ole Miss had run the ball effectively most of the night, but on the game-deciding red zone possession, was forced to put the ball in Jaxson Dart’s hands against a smothering Alabama secondary. It… didn’t work.

This year, perhaps the biggest area of concern for Ole Miss depth-wise is once again its offensive skill players. Judkins is struggling and a bit banged up through three games, superstar wideout Tre Harris will be questionable at best this weekend, and fellow receiving targets Zakhari Franklin and Caden Prieskorn will both be playing in their first game at Ole Miss, coming back from minor surgical procedures; their effectiveness will be a complete mystery until the game kicks off. In the absence of Harris, who was injured on the first drive against Tulane, Jaxson Dart has completed 10 passes to Dayton Wade for 196 yards, 9 passes to Jordan Watkins for 179 yards, 5 passes to Judkins for 59 yards, and 1 pass each to Ayden Williams and Michael Trigg. That’s it. If Harris, Prieskorn, and Franklin aren’t healthy enough to contribute, Alabama will be able to key on Wade and Watkins. The Rebs need to find a way to spread the ball around enough to keep the Tide defense honest. If Ayden Williams, Kyrin Heath, Jalen Knox, or Bralon Brown plan to step up this season, Saturday might be a good time to do it.

On defense, look for contributions from five-star all-everything linebacker Suntarine Perkins off the bench. Khari Coleman, if he hasn’t elevated himself to starter status, could also provide some big plays as a backup. So too could pass rushers Isaac Ukwu and Akelo Stone, both of whom are seeing more time (and more impact) each week. At the back of the Rebel D, cornerback Deshawn Gaddie and safety Teja Young could be relied on to play major snaps in relief.

Jaxson Dart can’t become a punching bag for the Tide.

Against Ole Miss last year, Alabama played one of the most… let’s just say “physical” against a quarterback that you’ll ever see, including a shockingly dangerous facemask that took the air out of Vaught-Hemingway for a beat.

This and various other facemasks, helmet-to-helmet hits, late hits, wide receiver drag-downs, etc., elicited mostly shrugs and no-calls from the SEC officiating crew. This time, Lane Kiffin and the Ole Miss offensive line can’t let Alabama dictate the physicality of the game in the same way. First, the line simply has to take up for their quarterback and protect him during *and after* the play. It’d be nice if Dart wasn’t sacked four times like he was against Tulane, but it’s not reasonable to expect the offensive line to keep him totally clean against an elite front seven like Bama’s. But the cheap shit after the play has to stop, and the five 300+ pounders up front need to put themselves in between Dart and the Bama defensive line after the whistle.

More importantly, Lane Kiffin needs to design plays specifically to nullify Alabama’s pass rush. The quick strike pass has never been a strength of Jaxson Dart’s, so Kiffin and offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss jr. will have to manufacture ways to help him get rid of the ball quickly, to stretch the defense horizontally, and to utilize misdirection to penalize the defense for overpursuing. If Quinshon Judkins isn’t running all over the Tide (and at this point, his struggles make that seem unlikely), then Ulysses Bentley, Dayton Wade, and even backup QP Spencer Sanders could provide some trick play mojo to keep some of the relentless pressure off of Dart.

Pete Golding’s defense must make Alabama sustain drives.

Through three games, Alabama’s pass protection stands out as its biggest area of concern. The Tide’s arsenal of 4 and 5-star offensive linemen allowed 5 sacks each against Texas and USF, while Bama QBs threw a total of only 50 passes in those two games. Further, Alabama ball carriers are averaging just 4.4 yards per carry on the season, including a 3.1 ypc tally against Texas. Alabama’s two touchdowns against Texas came on 49 and 39-yard pass plays from Jalen Milroe. Take away those two plays (very fair, I know), and Milroe’s stat line is 12/25 for 167 yards and two picks.

With those stats in hand, it stands to reason that if Ole Miss can limit Alabama’s deep passing game, it stands a good chance of forcing Milroe and the Tide into making some mistakes. This isn’t to say Pete Golding should employ a “bend-don’t-break” strategy against his former team – Alabama definitely still has the backs and receivers to take advantage of a soft defense. Ole Miss just needs a big game out of its defensive secondary. So far, starting corners Deantre Prince and Zamari Walton have been stingy against the deep ball, but opposing offenses have still made several big plays on other defensive backs and linebackers.

The other important component of making Bama sustain drives is playing a clean game all around. Turnovers, shanked punts, ill-advised 4th down attempts… any of these could create the short field opportunities that the struggling Alabama offense needs. Each of the past three years against Alabama, there have been times when it felt like Lane Kiffin was pushing a little too hard to make something happen. He’ll have to carefully pick his spots on Saturday – and he’ll need to guess correctly on most of his “all-in” moments.