A Top 25 showdown is on tap in Tuscaloosa this weekend, as the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide play their conference home-opener, welcoming the 21st-ranked Ole Miss Rebels to Legion Field for an SEC West clash.
Nick Saban's Crimson Tide have won two straight national titles and three of the last four overall. Alabama took a huge step towards another national title run a couple of weeks ago with a 49-42 shootout win over Texas A&M. The Tide followed that with a 31-6 victory last weekend over Colorado State to move to 3-0 on the season.
Hugh Freeze's Rebels have quietly gone about their business in 2013 and pose a real threat to Alabama's SEC West reign. Ole Miss is 3-0 for the first time since 1989 with wins over Vanderbilt (39-35), Southeast Missouri (31-13) and Texas (44-23). The Rebels were idle last weekend.
Saban knows the Rebels will present a challenge this weekend.
"This is a very good SEC team and we are certainly going to have to play our best football to have any kind of success against them."
Alabama holds a 46-9-2 series advantage. The Crimson Tide have won nine straight matchups with Ole Miss and 26 of the last 28 meetings, overall. In addition, Alabama has claimed victory in 11 straight meetings in Tuscaloosa.
The Rebels are coming off a season-high 44-point outburst at Texas and the hope is that momentum will carry over into this contest. Senior RB Jeff Scott tallied a career-high 164 yards rushing and returned a punt 73 yards for a TD, as Ole Miss scored 30 unanswered points to blow by the Longhorns.
It has been a balanced offense that has fueled Ole Miss' success. The team is averaging 38.0 ppg in 2013, netting 250.0 ypg on the ground and 240.0 ypg through the air.
Junior quarterback Bo Wallace doesn't put up eye-popping numbers, but he is efficient, completing 64.4 percent of his throws, for 648 yards, with four TDs and no interceptions to date. The receiving corps is led by a trio of reliable targets in Laquon Treadwell (16 catches, 154 yards), Evan Engram (11 catches, 175 yards, two TDs) and Donte Moncrief (11 catches, 173 yards, two TDs).
Scott has been a force on the ground, averaging an impressive 9.4 yards per carry and 110.0 yards per game. Wallace and backup QB Barry Brunetti shoulder some of the ground work as well, and have three rushing TDs apiece.
The Ole Miss defense has done its job for the most part this season but will be sorely tested by the Crimson Tide this weekend. The team is allowing 23.7 ppg thus far, on 332.7 yards of total offense per game. The team will need to make more disruptive plays upfield going forward, with only four sacks on the season.
Junior linebacker Serderius Bryant has been the most active defender on the roster, with a team-high 26 tackles. Bryant is tied with three other Rebels for the team-lead in TFL (4.0) and has one of the team's four sacks. Junior safety Cody Prewitt is second on the team in tackles (18) and leads the squad with two interceptions.
Alabama isn't putting up huge numbers on the offensive side of the football, but the Crimson Tide possess plenty of star power at the skill positions and Saban always seems to put those players in the right position to succeed.
A lot of the success has to do with veteran quarterback A.J. McCarron, who has won 93.3 percent of his games at Alabama. McCarron isn't a favorite to win the Heisman, but he should be in the conversation, as he is one of the best team leaders in the country. He has completed 64.1 percent of his passes in 2013, for 702 yards and six TDs.
It certainly helps to have a receiving corps that includes playmakers like Christion Jones (12 receptions, 149 yards, one TD), DeAndrew White (eight catches, 161 yards, two TDs) and Amari Cooper (six catches, 72 yards).
Sophomore tailback T.J. Yeldon provides offensive balance, rushing for 91.0 yards per game on 5.6 ypc.
Alabama has long been known for its defensive prowess and this season should provide more of the same when all is said and done. The Crimson Tide are yielding 19.3 ppg and 373.0 yards of total offense, but those numbers are bit skewed due to the offensive slugfest with Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel a couple of weeks ago.
All-American linebacker C.J.Mosley is the leader of the unit, pacing the team with 28 total tackles. Cornerback Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (16 tackles) and safety Vinnie Sunseri (13 tackles, two INTs) are playing at an All-American level as well.
Freeze knows what the Alabama defense is capable of.
"They're very physical up front," said Freeze. "You have a difficult time consistently having drives on them. That's the thing that stands out game, after game, after game against (Texas) A&M. You don't put on the film and just see a consistent drive with a great play or a phenomenal one-on-one play. Those make you uncomfortable because you don't like to depend on something like that to have a consistent drive. They're just so good. They fit the proper gaps. They don't blow coverages. They just do it the right way. It's very difficult to consistently have drives on them that produce points."