They are two Top-25 college football teams with undefeated records. Top-ranked Alabama and No. 21 Ole Miss, each 3-0 and 1-0 in the SEC, have that much in common. But not much else.
While the Rebels are the league’s hot story – they went into Texas and routed the Longhorns and are considered to have “a shot” at the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa – the two-time defending national champions seem to be under attack.
Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace (14) reacts after throwing an interception in the first half of a game against Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last year. Alabama won 33-14. Both teams are ranked this season.
(AP Photo/Dave Martin)
No matter that they went into College Station and beat Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, 49-42. The vibe around this team has Alabama coach Nick Saban on edge.
“They need positive energy around them and they need to have positive energy themselves,” Saban said this week, calling the constant attention to what this team hasn’t done well and whether it can win a third straight national title “overwhelming.”
Ole Miss, meanwhile, is confronting longer-term history. The Rebels last beat Alabama in 2003, in Oxford, when Eli Manning was quarterback and they went on to defeat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. But they haven’t won in Tuscaloosa since 1988, the only time in school history. Alabama has dominated the series with a record of 46-9-2.
“We won’t talk about Ole Miss winning just once there,” Rebels coach Hugh Freeze said. “That doesn’t matter to these kids. They don’t care. Our coaches probably don’t even know that.”
Oddsmakers apparently are aware. They made the Rebels 17-point underdogs. Last season at Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide won 33-14. But there were encouraging takeaways: Alabama scored just six points in the second half. In the third quarter, Ole Miss mounted a 16-play, 70-yard scoring drive to cut the lead to 13 points.
The Rebels also threw three interceptions. Freeze knows that, if anything, Alabama may rely on its defense more this season than last. Saban had to replace three starting offensive linemen and the running game really has not gotten untracked. Senior linebacker C.J. Mosley reportedly had a heart-to-heart with teammates this week, saying the team was not playing up to Alabama standards.
Even so, the job before Ole Miss is a huge one.
“They’re not going to make the mistake that allows you to have many explosive plays,” Freeze said. “That’s been the staple of their defense. We’ve got to find a way to create those, or stay in and convert on third and shorts and stay on the field.
“Do I think we’re better prepared this year? I do. We have a better understanding of who we are and what we want to do,” Freeze said. “(Quarterback) Bo Wallace has taken care of the ball better. If you look at last year, those three turnovers resulted in a touchdown and two field goals. If we don’t have those, maybe we’re in it in the fourth quarter.”