This weekend the 21st-ranked Ole Miss Rebels come to town to do battle with the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. Thus far this season, Ole Miss won a slugfest with Vanderbilt, blew out Southeast Missouri State, and came from behind against Texas to blow them out as well.
Alabama on the other hand, has had double digit, yet not-so impressive victories over Virginia Tech and Colorado State and won its own slugfest with sixth-ranked Texas A&M. Here are the keys to victory for Alabama to earn its second SEC victory of the year.
Limit big plays on defense
Against Texas A&M big plays in the first and fourth quarter gutted Alabama and nearly cost the game, and almost all of them came in the passing game. Ole Miss’ up-tempo, spread offense has drawn some comparisons to Texas A&M, but it really isn’t the same thing. Rebel quarterback Bo Wallace is a good athlete but he isn’t the scrambling threat that Johnny Manziel is, and Ole Miss has a much better conventional running game as well. Ole Miss running back Jeff Scott has run for 330 yards and two touchdowns, and the small back is electric in the open field.
The biggest threat for the Alabama defense is the tall, rangy receivers Ole Miss features. Tight end Evan Engram and wide receivers Donte Moncrief and Laquon Treadwell are all in the 6-foot-2 or 3, 220-pound range, and it was receivers just that size that Alabama struggled mightily with against Texas A&M, especially Mike Evans.
None of the Ole Miss receivers are on Evans’ level yet, but they are in that same mold, especially Treadwell, and limiting their big plays is going to be a priority for the Alabama defense. Getting Deion Belue back will be a huge plus for the Alabama secondary, and John Fulton and Geno Smith will likely get most of the playing time along with Belue.
Alabama must do a better job of rushing the passer as well, to help out the Alabama defensive backs. Bo Wallace isn’t quite the runner that Manziel is, but he is still dangerous in the open field. In the past Wallace has been forced into making bad mistakes due to pressure, which will be the hope for the Alabama defense. However Wallace has yet to turn the ball over in 2013, marking a huge improvement in his game thus far.
Get the running game going
Alabama struggled yet again last week at running the ball after running all over Texas A&M two weeks ago. The offensive line made several mental errors and had breakdowns in communication, much like we saw against Virginia Tech in the opener. There weren’t a lot of holes for the Alabama running backs and they were hit in the backfield on multiple occasions. We are very likely to see a rotation of backs like we did against Texas A&M with T.J. Yeldon, Jalston Fowler, and Kenyan Drake splitting carries early to try and wear down the Ole Miss defense. Ole Miss is going to sell out to stop the run and try and force AJ McCarron to beat them and get him in third-and-long situations all night. McCarron has shown he can do that, but without a solid running game to lean on it will make things that much more difficult for the senior leader.
Convert third downs
The Crimson Tide were absolutely atrocious on third down on offense against Colorado State, converting just two of ten on third down and not having a single successful third down conversion until the fourth quarter.
A lot of it had to do with having negative plays on first and second down, putting Alabama behind the sticks on third down, but there were multiple third and manageable situations where either the Alabama receivers ran short of the first down marker, or McCarron threw to a shorter route hoping that a runner could make a tackler miss.
Alabama cannot get itself into third-and-longs often and must convert third downs, if for no other reason than to give the defense a rest. Yet another up-tempo offense is going to test the resolve and the conditioning of the Alabama defense, and the Alabama offense converting third downs and accumulating long drives will be important in keeping the Alabama defense from getting worn out.