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October 17, 2008

Ole Miss - Alabama match-ups

The match-up: This meeting will be the 56th all-time between Ole Miss and Alabama dating back to 1894. The Crimson Tide holds a 44-9-2 advantage. Alabama has won 17 of the last 21 meetings and four straight since Ole Miss' 42-28 win in Oxford in 2003. The Tide has escaped each of the last three meetings by three points including last year's 27-24 result in Oxford. The Crimson Tide own a 22-1 advantage in the series in games played in Tuscaloosa, with Ole Miss' only win coming in 1988 when they won 22-12. Alabama pulled out a 26-23 overtime win in the last meeting at Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2006.

At stake: Headed into the season, the Alabama game looked like a swing game, one that Ole Miss needed to win to get to the six or seven win level on the season. However, as Alabama has progressed to a No. 2 ranking nationally, the Alabama game looks more like one the Rebels are expected to lose, and will hinge their hopes on wins over Arkansas, Auburn, ULM, and Mississippi State to get to the seven-win level. A respectable showing would help in the recruiting wars, a win - which is not totally out of the question - could catapult the Rebels to a seven or eight win season and show the earlier win over then No. 4 Florida was no fluke.

Keys to the Game: 1) Stay away from turnovers. While this may seem like a stuck record, the Rebels' three losses - and the upset over Florida - was a direct result of winning or losing the turnover battle. Alabama is talented, and any cheap scores will add to the Rebels challenge. For an upset, the Rebels must be error free on Saturday. 2) Develop some mettle. Showing up emotional one week and down the next is a recipe for a mediocre football team. Rebel head coach Houston Nutt said he was the only cheerleader on the sideline after a Jevan Snead fumble was returned for a touchdown, despite Ole Miss remaining up 17-10 against South Carolina at that point of the game. Nutt has also said the team's emotional state is fragile - and while no one is disputing that assessment - it's time seniors stepped up and lead other team members to a win instead of feeling sorry for themselves when a break doesn't go their way. If the Rebels want to be winners, they need to play like winners for 60 minutes each weekend. 3) Offensive line play must be consistent. The Rebels have had far too may "watch out" blocks - meaning an offensive lineman gets beat or misses his assignment and hollers over his shoulder for the quarterback or running back to watch out. This is a big, physical, and talented offensive line - they need to play like it.

Ole Miss rushing versus the Alabama ground defense: Ole Miss comes into the game ranked a very respectable No. 49 among the 119 Division I teams in rushing offense at 163 yards per game. Alabama comes in with the No. 2 rush defense, giving up just 50 yards a game. The Rebels don't have the backfield star as Alabama does in Glenn Coffee, but uses a running back-by-committee approach that includes juniors Cordera Eason and Dexter McCluster and true freshmen Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis. Sophomore LB Rolando McClain leads the defense with 44 tackles with 3.5 tackles for a loss and three pass break-ups, but it's tackle Terrence Cody that the Rebels must control sufficiently to keep from being a disruptive force. The 6-foot-5, 365 pound lineman is playing the way Rebel fans envisioned Jerrell Powe playing; however, Powe's progress has been hindered by three years off the gridiron. Key for Ole Miss will be an offensive line that has been outstanding on some occasions, but hasn't played consistently or as physical as necessary to win the majority of the battles against SEC-level competition. An exception is All-American Michael Oher, who has stepped up his play from his first three seasons at Ole Miss and remains one of the top tackles in the country. The Rebels have the potential to make some noise on the ground, but will need to set up the run with the pass, have excellent line play, and keep Alabama defenders off balance by throwing the Wild Rebel at them on occasion.

Advantage: Alabama

Ole Miss passing versus the Alabama secondary: Ole Miss enters the game ranked No. 54 in passing offense at almost 220 yards per game. It appears, at least statistically, to be an area where Ole Miss could find some success against an Alabama pass defense that is ranked No. 66, giving up 211 yards a game. If there's an area where Ole Miss matches up well against Alabama, it's with a group of deep, experienced, and talented wide receivers that might be able to stretch the field and opening some running lanes in the process. In order for that to work, Ole Miss has to have two things from the supporting cast - quarterback discipline on the part of Snead and protection on the part of the offensive line. While Snead has caught the brunt of criticism for some miscues - and rightfully so in some instances - it doesn't take away from the fact such considerations as being hit in the back at Florida on a pass that resulted in an interception or getting immediate pressure on the play against South Carolina when the pocket broke down and he scrambled, only to fumble. On the plus side for Ole Miss and Snead is that he is gaining experience and has already seen hostile environments at Wake Forest, and more so at Florida. He's shown the ability of late to take the loss on a bad play and move on to the next chance, something that if he continues, should bode well for the Rebels. Still, he must avoid Alabama senior Rashad Johnson, who boasts 30 stops and eight breakups and Oxford native Justin Woodall, who has collected three interceptions.

Advantage: Ole Miss

Alabama rushing versus the Ole Miss ground defense: Alabama comes into the game ranked an impressive No. 15 at 226 yards a game in rushing offense while Ole Miss is No. 35 in rushing defense, giving up 112 yards a game. Ole Miss features a defensive line that can put at least eight players on the defensive front in a four-man rotation with little to no drop off in talent - and that goes three deep in some positions, such as nose tackle with Powe, the former top recruit in the country, former four-star Ted Laurent, and lightly recruited by capable Lawon Scott. Defensive ends are deep with All-American Greg Hardy, former four star Marcus Tillman (who picked the Rebels over LSU) and Kentrell Lockett, who was offered and recruited hard by Alabama, and another four-star bagged by former head coach Ed Orgeron. Fifth year senior Chris Bowers is muscled up and having his best season and junior college transfer Emmanuel Stephens offers even more depth. Linebackers are solid with former junior college transfers Tony Fein and Ashlee Palmer, both now seniors, former four-star Californian Jonathan Cornell and former Auburn signee Patrick Trahan. Still, it's an area where Alabama has excelled and often with gapping holes, even against tough competition, like Georgia. Coffee ranks second in the SEC on the ground at 118 yards per outing with five touchdowns and ran for a career-high 218 yards against Kentucky two weeks ago. Look for Ole Miss to load up to stop the run and challenge Alabama to beat them with the pass - a situation that is scary for Ole Miss fans after Tim Tebow and Chris Smelly each had 300-yard plus games through the air against the Rebels. If Alabama gets Ole Miss on its heels due to Alabama's passing success, look for the Crimson Tide to have success in the running game, but the man-to-man match-ups on the ground are close to even.

Edge: Even

Alabama passing versus the Ole Miss secondary: Call it the match-ups of the have nots. Alabama comes in ranked a lowly No. 104 at 156 yards per game through the air, while Ole Miss is ranked No. 89 in pass defense, giving up 228 yards per game. It's likely not been lost on Alabama scouts that one of the secrets to beating the Ole Miss secondary is a quick drop and getting rid of the ball before the Rebels' excellent defensive line can impact the play, and letting playmakers take over against an undersized and talent short secondary. That worked in the Swamp for Tebow (329 passing yards), for Memphis' Arkelon Hall (265 yards in his Division I debut), Wake Forest's Riley Skinner (267 yards), and for Smelly (327 yards). The question may be if Alabama has the playmakers to make that work, but chances are good that could be the Tide's strategy. Look for it to start with freshman wide receiver Julio Jones, who has hauled in 19 passes for 278 yards and four scores. Senior quarterback John Parker Wilson has never been overly flashy, but is solid - and his senior leadership should impact the game. He has completed 76-of-127 passes for 853 yards for six touchdowns with two interceptions. Alabama doesn't necessarily offer a constant threat of big play capability from the wide receiver position, and a key for the Rebels will be to make sure playmakers don't emerge in this game.

Edge: Alabama

Special Teams: Give the Rebels an edge for place kicker Josh Shene, who is seven of eight on field goals and perfect on extra points for the season. He faces Leigh Tiffin, who has been good at times, but also struggles with consistency including two misses last week against Kentucky. Punting should be about even although Rob Park has struggled at times with consistency. Ole Miss features burner Mike Wallace on kick off returns and Alabama counters with Javier Arenas, who averages almost 17 yards a punt return. He hurt the Rebels last year and must not be allowed to get loose. Justin Sparks has done a good job in putting most kicks in a position where they can be covered from hash mark to sideline. The Rebels coverage has been spotty on a few occasions, and defenders must close quickly against Alabama, a team that features some talented returners.

Edge: Even

Weather forecast: Mainly sunny. Highs in the mid 70s and lows in the mid 40s.

Broadcast information: TV: CBS (Verne Lundquist, play-by-play; Gary Danielson, color analyst; Tracy Wolfson sideline reporter). The CSS replay of the game will be Sunday, Oct. 19 at 1 p.m. CT. RADIO: Ole Miss Radio Network (David Kellum, play-by-play; Pete Cordelli, color analyst; Stan Sandroni, sideline reporter). The in-stadium frequency in Tuscaloosa will be 89.7 FM. The Alabama radio feed will be available on satellite radio on XM 199 and Sirius 215. WEB: OleMissSports.com will provide live audio through RebelVision, live stats and an in-game blog. The official Rebel athletics website will also provide a full game recap and a photo gallery at the game's conclusion.

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