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Alabama-Ole Miss and the 3 big questions that will decide it

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Are the Rebels at Bama's level now? Defensively, maybe, but can they score?

Kevin C. Cox

Nick Saban has been hard at work helping CBS sell the Alabama-Ole Miss game after last year's contest in Tuscaloosa was a 25-0 thrashing. He's referred to Hugh Freeze's Rebels as "the best team we've played," among many other compliments, which you would anticipate, given Ole Miss' No. 11 ranking.

That said, the SEC West has five teams in the top 15 who mostly haven't played each other yet. Whether or not Ole Miss can hang with No. 3 Alabama at home in Oxford will go a long way towards sorting out how many elite teams actually are in the division.

An Ole Miss win will have profound effects on the season's narratives, including the College Football Playoff picture, Saban's issues with hurry-up offenses, SEC dominance, Freeze's program building, and recruiting. Here are the three big questions that will determine how this game unfolds, which narratives will gain strength, and which will fade.

1. Is the Ole Miss defense the best unit on the field?

Defensive S&P rankings have Ole Miss ranked as the No. 2 unit in the country and the highest-ranked on either side of the ball heading in. Of course, through four games those Rebels haven't been thoroughly vetted as a unit and certainly not by an offense as strong as Alabama's, which S&P ranks at No. 6.

Ole Miss' poll rankings are a result of that defensive dominance, as is the perception that it can hang with the Crimson Tide. The Rebels actually had a solid defensive showing in their 2013 loss, as they held AJ McCarron to 5.6 yards per attempt and would have had a strong day in run defense, if not for two long runs that accounted for 118 of Alabama's 254 rushing yards.

The Rebels defense is all about speed. Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack essentially plays two space-backer types at outside linebacker, along with a pair of fast and physical safeties who all combine to shrink the field and close on the ball with ferocity. They have nine returning starters from 2013, which means that they know what they're doing out there and are able to play extra fast, gaining confidence from familiarity.

In the past, they've played cover 3 akin to how UCLA plays it, locking down down the middle of the field with enough speed to rally to the flats. In 2014, they're more of a quarters team:

The reasons that Ole Miss is a great quarters team are evident in this clip. To begin with, they play cornerback Mike Hilton on the boundary, and he's a fearless run-support player. Because he can handle himself stopping the run on the perimeter, they can play free safety Cody Prewitt deep behind him. Prewitt has spent time at cornerback himself, meaning Hilton has coverage ability backing him up.

The weakside linebacker, known as the "stinger" in Rebel language, is Serderius Bryant, a 5'9, 220-pound bundle of fast-twitch aggression. In part because of him, it's hard for offenses to exploit the weakside edge with the running game.

On the other side, they have rover Trae Elston and nickel (or "husky") linebacker Tony Conner. Both will also come downhill with a lot of speed against strongside runs. The Rebels will mix in some robber versions of quarters, with both safeties playing fairly shallow and looking to fill against the run while the cornerbacks play deep. Prewitt is adept either in deep coverage or supporting the run, giving the Rebels flexibility.

The defensive front is loaded with explosive athletes like tackle Bryon Bennett, versatile lineman Robert Nkemdiche, and star defensive end C.J. Johnson. They employ a lot of stunts and blitzes to take advantage of their speed up front. That can create problems for a big offensive line like Alabama's, requiring big guys to block faster athletes who are attacking the backfield from a variety of angles.

Beating this defense is no small task. It will require that the Alabama line limits penetration, sets up the passing game to punish aggressive defensive backs with play action, and recognizes the Ole Miss disguises. Receiver Amari Cooper (655 yards, five touchdowns) and a bye week should help with the second and third parts, but to set the tone in this game, the Bama OL needs to work hard all day to exhaust the Rebels' smaller defenders.

I'm not sure what left tackle Cameron Robinson is trying to do on this play, but it should look more like what big No. 77, Arie Kouandjio, is up to:

Find work and finish blocks. Make the Rebel defenders think twice about flying into the scrum. Remind them that a pancake is awaiting them if they want to tango.

The Tide's beef up front goes 325, 315, 290, 313, and 315 pounds, with the added advantage of being able to use fullback Jalston Fowler or tight end Brian Vogler on the edges to punish people. Alabama was able to tire out Ole Miss in the fourth quarter in 2013 and needs these big bodies to do the same thing this year.

2. Will Blake Sims-to-Amari Cooper break the Rebels' pressure?

A mostly unexplored theme of 2014 is how Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is adopting pop passes to do extra damage outside.

They ran another pop play that resulted in a completed deep fade to Cooper, negated by an illegal motion penalty. Both instances functioned like ultra-effective play-action plays that allowed Alabama to get its considerable skill talent isolated against man coverage.

This is a potent weapon for Alabama moving forward, as most defenses do not have the DBs to hang with Cooper and DeAndrew White (who might be banged-up against Ole Miss).

Since Ole Miss' favorite game is to sit back in softer coverage before flying downhill, the obvious counter move by Alabama is to include plenty of play-action and pop passes that look to hit vertical passing windows left open by aggressive Rebel secondary support.

Quarterback Blake Sims has proved to be adept in the dropback game and has earned quite a deal of trust from Kiffin.

On this play, Sims beats very good underneath coverage (and shoddy deep coverage) with a well-thrown ball up the seam to Cooper. As good as the Bama WR has been this season, the new starting quarterback has not held him back as much as one might have anticipated.

Kiffin has shown a lot of comfort with moving Cooper around to attack different parts of coverage, even playing a running back out at the X receiver spot and having that back run a sluggo route (with a screen to Cooper on the opposite end) to get matchups that his athletes can exploit.

The Ole Miss defensive backfield has very good tacklers throughout, but Alabama will test their ability to play coverage, which is a different task.

3. Can Ole Miss run the ball?

If the Rebels can't run the ball, Alabama is going to destroy them.

In the 2013 contest, the Crimson Tide mucked up the works for the Rebels by playing wide DE contain against Freeze's staple power-read play and giving Dr. Bo Wallace a "keep" read, which required him to find interior lanes against linebackers like C.J. Mosley.

This went poorly for the good doctor. Ole Miss managed only 46 rushing yards on 25 attempts. This was most evident in Wallace's stat line, as he ranked among the top Rebel rushers with 12 carries for only five yards. Speedy backs like Jeff Scott were eliminated from the plan.

This flaw has always been a problem with using the power-read as a base play, and it got Devin Gardner beaten down at Michigan over the course of 2013.

When you run an option play, you are asking the defense to make a choice on what they want to defend, with the intention of punishing them for whichever they choose. If teams choose to take away the sweep on the power-read play, your QB has to be able to pick his way up the gut for yardage. Dr. Bo is a crafty runner, but taking away interior creases is something that Alabama linebackers do better than perhaps any other team in the country.

As it happens, this Ole Miss team has experienced a lot of turnover with its offensive line and is currently struggling to help the case by opening up larger holes in the middle. Against Memphis, they routinely struggled to make lanes inside.

On this play, they attempted to run A-gap power, only to see their line fail to blow the Tigers off the ball and the play stuffed. That might be acceptable against the various Tigers in the SEC West, but when it happens against the ones from Memphis, that's a bit more concerning.

Ole Miss will have to run the ball via other means, like sweeps:

The Rebels' strength on offense in 2014 is having versatile players like tight end Evan Engram, a matchup problem in the passing game at 6'3, 217, but not a guy who's going to be able to kick out Xzavier Dickson and open a running lane for Dr. Bo or a Rebel RB.

If Freeze can draw up some misdirection and plays that create a horizontal stretch on Alabama's defense, they might be able to run the ball well enough to set up Wallace and the passing game for success. But the prognosis is grim. The problem for Ole Miss, as compared to other hurry-up spread teams that have had success against Alabama, is that they can't threaten the linebackers in the middle of the field.

If the defense isn't afraid of your inside running game even when it's playing nickel or dime packages with two deep safeties, then hurrying it up and spreading it out doesn't actually work.

The most likely scenario is that Alabama demonstrates that Ole Miss, while strong on defense, is still a tier below the big dogs. Expect another beating as the Bama D takes down Freeze's offense.