A year ago at this time, Nick Saban's Alabama squad was basically lapping the field. The Crimson Tide had an F/+ rating nearly twice as positive as anybody else's and maintained that into mid-October before regressing a bit.
In 2013, Alabama is taking a different path. The Tide have actually dropped from first to third in the F/+ rankings after four weeks, which shouldn't be a surprise considering last week's lackluster performance versus Colorado State. Saban knows how to maneuver through a season, and he knows to never show any more cards than he has to. As a result, iffy teams can sometimes hang around for a while. But they usually don't trail Bama by just 11 points (17-6) heading into the fourth quarter.
Sound the alarms? Not necessarily. Alabama still has perhaps the single most impressive win of the season, a 49-42 survival in College Station two weeks ago. But whereas the Tide had almost no major question marks at this time last year, they do have some answers to provide this time around.
Good: Through three games, opponent passes to players not named Mike Evans have gong 50-for-94 for 472 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. That's a pretty awful completion rate (53 percent) and per-pass average (5.0 yards). Considering the injury to Deion Belue and the young (and potentially getting younger) nature of the Tide's other corners, it's possible we're overreacting to momentary struggle.
Bad: Passes to Texas A&M's Mike Evans were 7-for-9 for 279 yards and somehow only one touchdown.
Evans torched Alabama in a way few ever have or will. A&M found an area of weakness to exploit and did so ruthlessly. The thing is, "defending accurate jump balls to a great, big receiver 30 yards downfield" is a deficiency from which most defenses are going to suffer. It's just that most offenses cannot take advantage of that universal weakness like Texas A&M did. Those passes are low-percentage plays for just about anybody, but Johnny Manziel found a nice rhythm, and Evans had a wonderful day.
At 6'3, 215, and 6'3, 226, respectively, Ole Miss' Laquon Treadwell and Donte Moncrief have the big part down. Against a two-deep of corners that averages 5'11, 188, they will certainly have a size advantage, as they will against every single team they play this year. But they're only comparable to Evans' performance if they are also able to effectively run fade routes, and if quarterback Bo Wallace is as exceptionally accurate at throwing them.
Earlier this week, Alabama head coach Nick Saban had this to say about Ole Miss' offense as compared to Texas A&M's:
They’re different offenses completely. It’s not really anything the same. They’re a completely different offensive team. Their No. 1 formation is three receivers and a tight end, a very good tight end who is a very good receiver.
Saban's both right and wrong here. In one sense, Ole Miss will be able to spread Alabama out and test a potentially thin, young secondary just as A&M did. Two weeks after A&M, we will begin to find out just how much of A&M's fantastic performance was because of A&M's own great play and how much was potentially due to Alabama weakness (though the stats certainly suggest more former than latter). In this way, Ole Miss' offense is similar enough to matter.
But yes, beyond "they spread you out, and they have big receivers," there are indeed few similarities between A&M and the Rebels. For one thing, Ole Miss utilizes a lot of weapons, including, yes, a tight end. Whereas nearly three-quarters of A&M's passes against Alabama were directed at three targets (29 to Evans, Malcome Kennedy, and Derel Walker; 10 to everybody else), Ole Miss will spread the ball around to as many as five or six players. Treadwell and Moncrief are certainly the go-to duo (50 percent of Ole Miss' passes this year have targeted one or the other), but tight end Evan Engram and senior receivers Ja-Mes Logan and Jordan Holder have each been targeted at least 11 times in three games. Running back Jeff Scott will see a couple of passes per game as well.
Treadwell and Moncrief are the clear go-to's on standard downs, but on passing downs it's a bit of a free-for-all. In non-garbage time, Wallace has targeted Moncrief eight times on such downs, Treadwell and Logan seven times each, Holder six times, and Engram five times. Of the fivesome, only Engram has been particularly successful (5-for-5 for 56 yards) while passes to Moncrief have gone just 2-for-8. Ole Miss is more matchups- and numbers-based in general than A&M was against Alabama.
We know Moncrief can be a major weapon on passing downs because of his 2012 performance -- 21-for-33 for 428 yards -- but it hasn't clicked so far this year. And really, the Ole Miss passing game hasn't clicked at any sort of high level in 2013. Wallace is completing a reasonably healthy 64 percent of his passes, but at just 11.6 yards per completion and 6.9 yards per attempt (including sacks). Granted, those numbers came, in part, against Vanderbilt and Texas (not Wofford and Texas State), but they are still only decent at best.
That Treadwell, a five-star freshman, has already worked his way up the totem pole is a good sign for the future, but he hasn't really done anything with his chances yet (24 targets, 16 catches, 154 yards). That could all change on Saturday for all we know, but let's just say that Bo Wallace's "We have better receivers than A&M" claim is premature at best, hilariously inaccurate at worst.
So how is Ole Miss 3-0 with two big road wins, then, if their passing game hasn't been as good as advertised? Defense has helped, sure, and the Rebels will certainly bring a better, more intriguing defense to the table than A&M did. But the running game has also been very, very good. Isn't that right, Coach Saban?
They have a really good running game. They run for 250 yards a game. So it’s a completely different game than trying to defend Texas A&M. There’s not even an ounce of similarity.
Against most opponents, Texas A&M's running game is just fine. Ben Malena and Tra Carson have combined to gain 428 yards on 77 carries (5.5 per carry) and have mostly prevented Johnny Manziel from having to take too many hits early in the season (23 carries in three non-Alabama games). But while the duo is averaging more than 20 carries per game in A&M's three wins, they combined for just 16 carries and 60 yards against the Tide. It just wasn't an option, because Alabama was controlling the middle of the field.
Versus Alabama, A&M's offense wasn't so much an offense as a collection of ideas. The Aggies eschewed their standard running game in favor of interesting quarterback counters (stretching as far wide as the sidelines would let them) and lobs to Evans. A good majority of A&M's yardage came from these two concepts. Thirteen Manziel carries and nine passes to Evans accounted for 382 yards (17.4 per play), and A&M's other 49 plays gained 246 yards (5.0 per play). Bo Wallace isn't going to beat Alabama to the sideline and turn upfield like Manziel, so unless Moncrief and Treadwell are capable of punishing Alabama on fade routes a high percentage of the time, the A&M script is worthless.
Ole Miss will likely be sticking to its base offense, in other words. That means short, efficiency passing, and it means a lot of Jeff Scott and the zone read.
Game charting data from Ole Miss' contests versus Vanderbilt and Texas tells us that 71 percent of the Rebels' rush attempts in those games were variations of the zone read. Running backs Jeff Scott, Jaylen Walton and I'Tavius Mathers will occasionally take more standard handoffs (usually wide, via loaded backfield and a convoy of blockers), but for the most part the zone read is Ole Miss' running game. And hey, it makes sense to do what you're good at doing -- in those two games, the Rebels averaged 7.1 yards per play from the zone read.
Ole Miss' offense is the spread in its most mathematical form. Where do our guys outnumber their guys? Let's go there with the ball, and let's go there quickly. The ball doesn't usually stay in Bo Wallace's hands for very long. Not including three balls that were batted down at the line, a full 32 percent of Wallace's passes against Vandy and Texas (22 of 68) weren't thrown beyond the line of scrimmage. These passes were reasonably successful (18-for-22 for 110 yards) and basically served as an extension of the running game. They also served to open up possibilities downfield. In 22 passes thrown at least 10 yards downfield in these games, Wallace completed 12 for 206 yards. Not bad considering that yards after catch have been minimal. But only two of those completions went for more than 20 yards; one has to figure Ole Miss will need more big plays than that on Saturday.
Hugh Freeze's Rebel offense is based on pace, both in terms of the time between snaps and the quick-hitting nature of the plays themselves. Will this work against Alabama? Probably not. At least, it probably won't work enough. Last year, we tried to make a big deal about Ole Miss' success against Alabama and the problems pace could cause for the Tide, but in the end, the Rebels scored 14 points and gained just 218 yards (3.2 per play). They did churn out scoring drives of 13 plays for 75 yards and 16 plays for 70, momentarily catching Alabama's defense gassed and on its heels, and they should expect to do that again.
And hell, the Ole Miss offense is better and deeper this year, so maybe the Rebels can pull off a third long drive. But without big plays, A&M wouldn't have almost beaten Alabama two weeks ago, and it's hard to imagine Hugh Freeze's squad nailing enough big gainers in Tuscaloosa on Saturday.