In three games this year, Ole Miss has scored 70-plus points twice and beaten Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium, probably the most impressive opponent-and-venue combination outside of Columbus, Ohio.
Despite one-third of their games having been played against a Nick Saban defense in Tuscaloosa, they are averaging 567 yards (ninth in the country) and 64 points (first). They have forced 10 turnovers (first), picked off seven passes (first), recorded 22 tackles for loss (25th) and allowed a pass efficiency rating of 105.6 (29th).
Honestly, if you're voting for anybody else as No. 1 in the country right now, you're thinking too hard. Because of last season's late collapse, in which Hugh Freeze's Rebels fell from 7-0 to 9-4 and got pile-driven by both Arkansas and TCU, they were barely in the top 20 in the polls to start the season. Because of that alone, they remain only third (AP) and fifth (Coaches).
Current standing doesn't matter much. Ole Miss is atop the SEC totem pole with the largest hurdle cleared. This is a wonderful place to be.
Now the Rebels just have to stay there. Let's walk through what tripped the Rebels up last season. Might it do the same this time?
Iffy run game
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.
Through two games, despite playing without suspended left tackle Laremy Tunsil, the run game looked the part, albeit against bad competition.
Against what might be the best run front in college football, the production slowed down. Of course it did.
The duo of Walton and Jordan Wilkins combined to rush 19 times on Saturday night for 72 yards, 3.8 per carry. In last year's win over Alabama, the two averaged 3.5. That could be seen as progress, especially considering Tunsil, but we shouldn't assume this is no longer an issue.
There are plenty of strong defenses remaining on the schedule. And while it's early, it might bear mentioning that of Ole Miss' nine remaining opponents, seven are allowing fewer than 4 yards per carry so far in 2015. (Only NMSU and Auburn are not.) Trips to Gainesville and Mississippi State and perhaps Memphis could become awkward if the run disappears.
Untimely passing mistakes
In part because Bo Wallace was asked to make so many plays on passing downs, he became unfairly known for his mistakes during his three-year tenure as Ole Miss' starting quarterback.
Fair or not, Wallace's lows were awfully low. In losses to LSU, Arkansas and TCU last season, he completed 43 percent of his passes with one touchdown and seven picks. In his other 10 games, he completed 65 percent with 23 scores to just eight interceptions.
That two of those three games happened after Laquon Treadwell's season-ending injury probably wasn't a coincidence. And new quarterback Chad Kelly currently has three things going for him:
1. Treadwell's healthy and awesome. He caught five passes for 80 yards and a touchdown in Tuscaloosa and very much looks like a go-to guy for a big-time team.
2. The run game might be better. Even with improvement, this isn't the nation's best ground attack, but anything that results in fewer third-and-8s will help.
3. He's pretty damn good. Kelly's most successful play came after his worst decision of the night. He fielded a bad snap, collected the ball and blindly heaved it in the direction of a double-covered Treadwell. That it resulted in this amazing play ...
... didn't reflect well on Kelly.
Without that, Kelly completed 17-of-32 passing for 275 yards against what will be one of the best pass defenses he will see. (Even with ongoing issues at cornerback, Alabama's pass defense is only lackluster by Alabama's own standards.) He's got an awesome arm, a quick release and nice mobility, and he appears to move past mistakes better than Wallace did. Karma will bite back if he attempts too many more "Oh crap!" heaves, but that was one of his only sketchy moments of the night.
Kelly might be an upgrade, but the receiving corps has more to offer as well. Washington transfer Damore'ea Stringfellow and more experienced versions of Cody Core and Quincy Adeboyejo give the Rebels maybe the best set of No. 2 through No. 4 receivers in the country. We don't know that they would step up better should Treadwell go down again, but Core's four-catch, 123-yard performance against Alabama eases fear.
Aside from a brief rebound against Mississippi State, the offense crumbled in 2014, averaging 4.5 yards per play against Arkansas and 2 yards against TCU.
But while the defense was never bad, it did show some late cracks. After allowing 5.3 or more yards per play just once in the first seven games, the Rebels did so four times in the final six. Only Auburn had a truly good day (even TCU only averaged 5.4), but the defense could not raise its game to make up for the offense.
We saw on Saturday that the ceiling for the Ole Miss defense is still sky high. Alabama's star running back Derrick Henry was still awesome (5.5 yards per carry, plus five catches for 39 yards), and quarterback Jake Coker had more success on the ground than anybody anticipated (six non-sack carries, 66 yards), but the passing game went nowhere. Coker and Cooper Bateman completed just 55 percent of their passes, threw three picks and averaged 4.7 yards per pass attempt. The Land Sharks have future pros everywhere you look and swagger like the '85 Bears.
We'll see about the depth, though. Star tackle Issac Gross, Robert Nkemdiche's partner in crime on the interior, is out for the season. Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, Ole Miss' tackles leader on Saturday night (10 tackles, 1.5 for loss, one pass break-up), has missed time with injury each of the last two years. Attrition from last year's secondary means important roles for youngsters (sophomore Kendarius Webster) and newcomers (JUCO transfer Tony Bridges) in the back.
With a couple more injuries, maybe cracks will form. But for now, after allowing just 5 yards per play to one of the best offenses it will face, the Ole Miss defense again fits the role.
The only reason to doubt Ole Miss is because they're the Rebels and not the Crimson Tide or Buckeyes. Cynics and terrified Ole Miss fans ended up correct in their doubts last year.
Still, it's hard to prove more than what Freeze's squad has in three weeks against this schedule. Yes, the Rebels needed quite a few breaks to win in Tuscaloosa, but ... it's Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Even Ohio State at its best would need some breaks to win there.
Even if they needed help clearing the highest hurdle, the highest hurdle is now clear.
While I have used the "Best team for the first two months of the season last year" line quite a few times, it bears mentioning that Ole Miss has looked quite a bit better after three weeks than it did even then.
Alabama, meanwhile? Just fine. If it takes that many bad breaks for a really good team to beat you, you aren't going to lose much. Every time Bama loses, we race to proclaim it the Beginning Of The End for Nick Saban's dynasty. And then Alabama goes months without losing again.