The sixth Saturday of the 2014 season was perhaps the state of Mississippi's greatest football day. Mississippi State thumped No. 6 Texas A&M and, with Katy Perry holding corn dogs on GameDay and hugging bears on the sideline, Ole Miss stunned No. 3 Alabama, 23-17, turning Steven Godfrey into a goal post tracker.
It was the definitive day of the first half of the season ... at least until a few weeks later, when Ole Miss' collapse began.
Two weeks into 2015, it's time for the rematch. The 15th-ranked Rebels visit Tuscaloosa with the nation's most prolific two-week offense, and the second-ranked Tide welcome them with an experienced, angry defense (9:15 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPN).
Two weeks is not enough to draw lasting conclusions, but we have partial answers. What do we know about both so far, and more importantly, what might we learn on Saturday?
1. Can Ole Miss run the ball?
Ole Miss had plenty of known quantities. The Rebels boast one of the nastiest defensive front sevens, a hard-hitting secondary, and speedy receivers. But while most were focusing on the QB battle won by Chad Kelly, the most important offseason development would come when the QB first handed the ball off to a running back.
Even with quarterback Bo Wallace's inconsistencies, Ole Miss ranked a healthy 21st in Passing S&P+ in 2014 -- it was even higher before go-to receiver Laquon Treadwell went down. With Treadwell healthy, dynamic tight end Evan Engram back and a load of big-play threats (Cody Core, Quincy Adeboyejo, Washington transfer Damore'ea Stringfellow), the receiving corps is loaded. Against lesser competition (UT Martin, Fresno State) Kelly has taken full advantage.
But Ole Miss simply couldn't run last year. Despite attempted balance, the Rebels ranked 89th in Rushing S&P+, putting pressure on Wallace to make plays on third-and-long. In Ole Miss' four losses, starting running back Jaylen Walton carried 33 times for 91 yards, 18 of which came on a single carry against Arkansas. Those memories you have of Wallace getting sacked or making sketchy passes? Most of them happened on passing downs.
You're only going to learn so much against bad defenses, but in the first two games, the Rebels achieved a level of run dominance that they couldn't in previous years. The fivesome of Walton, junior Akeem Judd, sophomores Eugene Brazley and Jordan Wilkins and freshman D.K. Buford have combined for 448 yards and six touchdowns. That's 8.5 yards per carry, which would be somewhat impressive against Division II opponents. Plus, that's without star left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who's being held out because of an ongoing investigation into impermissible benefits. That's encouraging.
Alabama's front eats "encouraging" for breakfast. The Crimson Tide had the most efficient run defense in the country last year and returned five starters in their front seven. In games against Wisconsin and MTSU, they have allowed running backs a total of 91 yards in 38 carries.
The Rebels proved last year that they could beat Bama with a middling run game, but that's not something you want to try twice.
2. Is Alabama still impeachable at corner?
Though Ole Miss backs averaged barely three yards per carry against Bama last year, the Rebels were able to generate through the air. Wallace posted what might have been the most composed performance of his career: 18-for-31 carries for 251 yards and three touchdowns. Including sacks, he averaged 7.5 yards per attempt, a decent average made better by the lack of mistakes.
Problems are relative when the Alabama defense is involved -- the Tide's allegedly shaky pass defense ranked 17th in Passing S&P+ last season -- but it was a detriment at times. Despite almost no run threat, three opponents were able to post passer ratings of at least 139, and long pass plays became a major issue against Auburn, Missouri and Ohio State.
Thus far, the damage has been minimal. Wisconsin's Joel Stave was able to complete two-thirds (26 of 39) but averaged under nine yards per completion. MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill averaged under eight while completing barely 50 percent.
Now comes the real test for corners Cyrus Jones, Marlon Humphrey, Tony Brown and company. Treadwell, Core, Adeboyejo, Stringfellow and sophomore Markell Pack have combined to catch 34 passes for 600 yards and seven touchdowns. Plus, unlike the run game, the receiving corps has a track record.
Kelly has had it pretty easy. With a good run game and two outmanned defenses grasping at straws, Kelly has completed 73 percent at more than 19 yards per completion. Can the Rebels strike deep a few times? Is the Tide secondary shored up to the point where even a relative weakness is a strength?
3. Has the Rebels' secondary lost a step?
Ole Miss' Land Shark defense was devastating at every level last year. The Rebels were so loaded, from tackles Robert Nkemdiche (now also a part-time running back) and Issac Gross to safeties Mike Hilton and Cody Prewitt, they could play with bend-don't-break principles and still overwhelm opponents. Their line wreaks enough havoc that they can use their back seven to attack the ball with minimal risk.
A majority of last year's two-deep returned, but the Rebels still have to replace a few difference-makers, namely Prewitt and cornerback Senquez Golson, who snagged the game-clinching interception against Alabama last October. Gross was lost for the season with a neck injury, but there are still more questions for the secondary.
So far, so good. In two games against overwhelmed opponents, Ole Miss has allowed a 59 percent completion rate and barely 10 yards per completion. Combined with four picks and a couple of sacks, that'll do. Free safety Trae Elston has combined two picks with 1.5 tackles for loss, and Hilton and Tony Conner still know how to lay the wood.
Alabama running backs Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake have combined for 360 yards (7.7 per carry) and seven touchdowns, so far, and the Tide still have the boa constrictor act down. They are going to get their yards, even against Nkemdiche and company, but you can stop them short of the end zone if you can render them one-dimensional.
4. Can Alabama throw when it has to?
Alabama returned Henry and Drake and key offensive line pieces, but the components in the passing game are almost entirely new.
This would be a concern for most teams, but no team has more consistently proved it can win with a new passing game than Nick Saban's Tide. In 2011, Alabama had to replace both quarterback Greg McElroy and receiver Julio Jones and, with AJ McCarron and Marquis Maze, won the BCS Championship. In 2014, with McCarron and coordinator Doug Nussmeier gone, Alabama reached the Playoff with Blake Sims and Lane Kiffin.
Losing Sims and all-world receiver Amari Cooper is scary, but only so scary. Thus far, quarterback Jake Coker and company have been perfectly fine. Coker is completing 64 percent of his passes, and Alabama has all the receiver diversity it lacked last year. Sophomores Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart and freshman Calvin Ridley have combined to catch 25 passes for 223 yards, tight end O.J. Howard has caught seven for 105, and Drake has added seven for 139. This has not been a big-play attack, but it doesn't need to be. Bama won a national title with Maze (56 catches, 11.2 yards per catch) leading the way.
Still ... this is an awfully stiff test this early. Coker, who has been spelled by Cooper Bateman in both games and is listed as an "OR" starter, has seen progress in fits and starts. Against Wisconsin, he mixed extreme efficiency with a couple of mini-droughts. Against MTSU, he completed shorter passes with a couple of deep misfires.
The loss of Gross is a ding to Ole Miss' pass rush, but even if he's got time, Coker (and/or Bateman) will be looking for young receivers scattered among a nasty secondary.
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Alabama is a touchdown favorite, and that makes sense, but the outcome will fall into one of three categories:
- a tight Alabama win that reinforces Ole Miss' stature as a top-10 or top-15 team,
- an Alabama-humbles-an-upstart blowout (a la 59-0),
- or an Ole Miss upset.
No matter what, our instinct will be to judge Ole Miss more than Alabama because the Tide are such a proven entity (six straight years of ranking either first or second in the F/+ rankings).