Early Analysis: Ole Miss at Alabama

(Photo Courtesy: USA Today Sports)

No. 21 Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0 SEC) at No. 1 Alabama (3-0, 1-0 SEC)
Saturday, 6:30 p.m. EST (ESPN)
Line: Alabama -16

While the eyes of the SEC world will be on Athens, Ga. Saturday afternoon, there’s another game in conference that’s of equal importance in both the National Title and SEC Championship picture happening roughly 275 to the west Saturday.

That game comes courtesy of the No. 1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, and the latest challenger to their throne, Hugh Freeze’s Ole Miss Rebels.

Now, under normal circumstances this game would barely be a blip on the radar of college football…but as most everyone reading knows, these aren’t your normal Ole Miss Rebels. They are skilled, athletic, and most of all, playing very un-Ole Miss like through three games. They’ve already got a come from behind road victory in the SEC (versus Vanderbilt) and a separate road win at Texas.

Nope, these aren’t your father’s Ole Miss Rebels.

But are they good enough to knock off the No. 1 team in the country?

Let’s take a look.

For Ole Miss to Win: Frankly, they need to hit some quick-strike, big plays. Not just because that’s what the Rebels offense is best at, but also because it’s what proven to be Alabama’s kryptonite the last few years.

That’s right, the Crimson Tide’s defense hasn’t been very susceptible to much lately (just ask Notre Dame), but what they have been unable to defend is the undefendable big-play, usually by a tall, tough, physical receiver. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’m thinking about Texas A&M’s Mike Evans when I make that comment.

That’s also why wide receiver Donte Moncrief and tight end Evan Engram could be keys to this game for Ole Miss. I’m not saying either is on the level of Evans (unless you ask Bo Wallace), but they both have some of the same qualities Evans does, and that gave the Crimson Tide trouble in the past. They’re both big (each listed at 6’3), with a penchant for big plays (each averages over 15 yards per catch!).

And if either can haul in a few of those big catches, it does open things up against the Alabama defense. Whether it opens things up enough for an upset is another story all together.

For Alabama to Win: They’ve got to run the ball consistently, something which- believe it or not- the Crimson Tide haven’t been at that great at this year.

Yes, this is the point that most Alabama fans reference the six-yards per carry that the Crimson Tide piled up against Texas A&M earlier this year. However, I’d counter by responding that they followed it up by barely averaging two yards per run against Colorado State a week later. Their 66 total yards rushing was the fewest they’ve had in nearly three full seasons.

The problem of course, can be blamed on a few reasons: One, without Eddie Lacy, it’s a heavier workload for T.J. Yeldon (although, Kenyan Drake seems to be doing his best to help solve that), and the offensive line has hardly jelled yet.

Whatever the reason is, it better be solved in a hurry.

This run game might do enough to hold on at home Saturday. But it needs to be better, to keep winning the wars across the SEC all season.

Key Player, Ole Miss: Look, I could go a million different ways and discuss a number of different variables, but at the end of the day it’s Engram.

Look, we know the focus is going to be on stopping Moncrief, and then it’ll also be to stop Jeff Scott on the edges. At the same time even Alabama can’t cover everybody, and it should give Engram- at least in theory- room to make plays, specifically over the middle.

And while I’m not going to go all fake-analyst break-down mode on you here, what I will say is that just a few plays in the middle of the field could soften up Alabama’s defense to open up a big play for Moncrief, Scott and others.

And you do remember what I said about big plays before, right???

Even just a few plays should be enough to soften the Crimson Tide’s defense and really open things up for the entire Rebels offense.

Whether Engram will make them or not against this tough secondary is another question all together.

Key Player, Alabama: Call me cliché (Aaron, you’re so cliché!) but it’s absolutely, positively A.J. McCarron.

Look, at the end of the day (more clichés!) we know that Alabama’s defense is going to be fine; while they might not slow down Ole Miss completely, they are going to more than keep the Crimson Tide in the game. We also know that the running game is suspect.

Which means that just like the Texas A&M game, a healthy load of the Crimson Tide’s successes and failures will fall on the shoulders of their fifth-year senior quarterback.

Thankfully, it’s impossible to imagine McCarron won’t be up for the challenge. In addition to the fact that frankly, McCarron has played in about as many big games with as much on the line as any quarterback in recent college football history, the truth is that he is coming off one of the best performances of his career Saturday. Against Colorado State he completed a staggering 20 of 26 passes, and frankly, Alabama needed every one of those completions.

He’ll need to be just as good, against a much better opponent Saturday.

Speaking of which…

Key Stat: 1989… that’s the last time Ole Miss started a season 3-0.

It’s taken a long time just to get to this point for the Rebels, but if you think they’re stopping here, you’re sadly mistaken.

Ole Miss might not get the victory Saturday, but they’re going to be a thorn in the side of the SEC’s best teams for years to come.

For more insight, analysis and opinion on college football, follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.  

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.