Ole Miss coaches and players this week are working, probing for areas of weakness against the kings of college football for the last decade.
Clemson’s rise has given Alabama some company at the top. It’s not lonely any more.
But there’s no denying what the Crimson Tide has achieved with Nick Saban as coach.
There’s also no denying the gap between the Ole Miss and Alabama football programs right now.
It wasn’t that long ago that Ole Miss seemed to have the blue print for competing against Alabama, posting back-to-back wins over the Crimson Tide in 2014 and 2015.
Part of that recipe for success includes winning turnover margin, something the Rebels did in both wins.
It includes having the full allotment of scholarship players – which the Rebels have this season for the first time since NCAA sanctions took hold – but also having a certain level of talent within those scholarship slots.
There are effects to sanctions and scholarship cuts, and one of those effects the last two seasons has been the seismic shift of this series back toward the Crimson Tide.
The Rebels’ 2014 win as ESPN’s Game Day visited Oxford – vacated or not – and their 2015 win in Tuscaloosa after empty trips since 1988 are treasured dates on the timeline of Ole Miss football history.
For much of the 2016 game, a 48-43 Rebels’ loss in Oxford, it looked like Ole Miss was about to win a third straight against Alabama.
Alabama has outscored Ole Miss 128-10 the last two seasons, winning 66-3 in Tuscaloosa during Matt Luke’s interim season as Rebels coach in 2017 and winning 62-7 in Oxford last season. Times have changed, and they’re humbling for the Rebels.
Ole Miss approaches the 2019 matchup with a quarterback with four career starts – or one with zero – plus a vulnerable secondary against one of college football’s top passing games, plus offensive line inconsistency. Well there just aren’t many plusses in the Rebels’ category.
College football is a sport we love because Appalachian State sometimes beats Michigan, Boise State sometimes beats Oklahoma and on and on and on.
Maybe Ole Miss pulls off that kind of upset at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday afternoon. If so, players will come out and say, “Nobody believed in us,” and I’ll say, “Guilty as charged.”
The present reality is that this Saturday winning for Ole Miss means winning small battles within the game. It means showing your rushing defense is the real deal. It’s about moving the ball with young quarterbacks and skill players, showing composure and gaining confidence for when winning is a more realistic goal. It’s about competing.
The cloud of NCAA sanctions has lifted, but the cloud of Alabama dominance in this series has not.
The Rebels can compete and begin to change that.