The top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide get back to work in SEC play when they welcome the Ole Miss Rebels to Tuscaloosa this weekend for a showdown at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The defending national champions once again look like the team to beat, as they have run through the competition in 2012. The team has routed a pair of then top-25 foes with easy wins over Michigan (41-14) and Arkansas (52-0) and have treated Western Kentucky (35-0) and most recently Florida Atlantic (40-7) with equal disdain. Following this contest, Nick Saban's squad will enjoy a bye, then hit the road for back-to-back games at Missouri and at Tennessee.
Hugh Freeze's first season in Oxford has gotten off rather well. The Rebels opened the campaign with a 49-27 win over Central Arkansas, followed by a 28-10 victory over UTEP. Ole Miss closed out a three-game homestand against nationally-ranked Texas, but in front of the largest non-conference crowd in school history, the Rebels were no match for the Longhorns, suffering a 66-31 loss. The team hit the road for the first time last weekend and gained back a little momentum with a 39-0 shutout of Tulane in New Orleans. At 3-1, the Rebels have already eclipsed last season's win total.
This marks the 60th all-time meeting between these two programs, with Alabama holding a sizable 48-9-2 series advantage. Ole Miss have not posted a win in this series since 2003.
Ole Miss shouldn't be taken lightly, as the team possesses a potent offense with great balance. The Rebels are netting a hefty 488.0 yards per game, averaging well over 200 yards both on the ground (259.8 ypg) and through the air (228.2 ypg).
Playmakers abound on this side of the football for Ole Miss, starting with quarterback Bo Wallace. The sophomore has completed just 55-of-86 pass attempts this season, for 717 yards, with seven TDs, while ranking second on the team in rushing with 179 yards and two more scores. Junior QB Barry Brunetti has played in all four games as well and ranks fourth on the team in rushing (153 yards). He has also completed 15-off-21 passes, for 162 yards and one TD.
Junior tailback Jeff Scott missed the opener and has only carried the ball 31 times on the year, but has certainly made the most of it, averaging 8.6 yards per carry, leading the team with 268 yards and three TDs.
Despite the success on the ground, Freeze would like to see more balance on offense.
"We want to be close to 50-50," said Freeze. "We're probably skewed a little bit right now towards the rush. We've been in some games where we're able to take control of the game, in three of them, and not have to throw as much. Hopefully as we get into league play it will be more balanced."
The receiving corps is highlighted by the big-play potential of sophomore Donte Moncrief, who has 19 receptions, for 343 yards (18.1 ypc) and four TDs.
The Rebels' up-tempo style on offense is a reason for concern according to Saban.
"Ole Miss is really a much improved team. The offensive numbers that they've been able to put up against everyone that they've played have been very impressive," said Saban. "They've got some really good skilled players. Bo Wallace has done a good job for them at quarterback. Barry Brunetti comes in sometimes. Two quarterback system, no-huddle, fast, really run the ball effectively with all the zone read options, quarterback runs, have some good skilled guys that can make plays in the passing game."
The Ole Miss defense got a little satisfaction out of shutting out the Green Wave last week after getting torched for 66 points a week earlier to Texas. The Rebels allowed a mere 159 total yards of offense by Tulane in the game and were extremely stingy against the run (-14 yards).
The Ole Miss defense has been active upfield, recording 26 TFLs and 12 sacks. The team has also registered seven turnovers, including five interceptions, three of which came against Tulane.
Junior middle linebacker Mike Marry leads the team in tackles with 22 stops, followed closely by freshman Denzel Nkemdiche's 21. Nkemdiche leads the squad in TFLs (3.0), with one sack and one interception to his credit.
With 21 players still on the roster that played on both the 2009 and 2011 national champion squads, is it really a surprise that Alabama has dominated in the fashion it has early on?
Quarterback A.J. McCarron has been the perfect field general for this team. WIth his 25 pass attempts against Florida Atlantic without an interception, McCarron ranks second now in school history with 176 consecutive passes without a pick and he is creeping up on Brodie Croyle's school record (190). On the season, McCarron has completed 63 percent of his throws, for 819 yards, with 10 TDs and no interceptions.
The ground game is still the preferred mode of travel for Alabama and despite not having a workhorse like Trent Richardson to rely on this season, the team is still finding a way to average just over 200 yards rushing per contest (204.0). It has been a stable of serviceable backs getting the job done, highlighted by freshman T.J. Yeldon (254 yards, 6.3 ypc, two TDs) and Eddie Lacy (232 yards, 5.2 ypc, four TDs).
Alabama has dominated on the defensive side of the ball for some time now and 2012 is no different. The Crimson Tide have rolled over the competition, yielding a mere 5.2 ppg (second nationally), while shutting down both the run (62.2 ypg) and the pass (122.8 ypg) to rank third nationally in total defense (185.0 ypg). In four games, the Tide have amassed 26 TFLs, 11 sacks and forced 12 turnovers.
Despite the loss of a couple of All-Americans on defense, Alabama's revolving door of talent has not missed a beat. Linebacker C.J. Mosley currently leads the team in tackles with 29, with 1.5 sacks, one interception (returned for a TD) and one forced fumble. Fellow LBs Nico Johnson (20 tackles, one forced fumble) and Trey DePriest (15 tackles) follow in terms of overall stops.
Saban has been impressed with Mosley's play thus far.
"C.J. does a really good job. He's very athletic, fast, very instinctive and is really a play-maker type of guy," said Saban. "He's learned since he's been here to fit the run a little bit better, does a good job in that regard ��� he's gotten a little bit bigger and a little stronger. He's always been a really good athlete and a space player so, with all the spread-out formations that we have played against to this point he's had a lot of opportunities to make plays, and he's made a lot plays."