Revisiting three questions for top-ranked Alabama following its 33-14 win over Ole Miss.
Five of McCarron's third down completions against Ole Miss went to Amari Cooper.
Will the Ole Miss defense be able to hang in on first down?
TRips Friday: I could write two thousand words on the Rebels' season to date but only one of its first four opponents provide a true indication of what the Ole Miss defense will be up against Saturday night.
That would be Texas, who, after becoming enlightened to the concept of power football following its 2010 BCS National Championship Game loss to Alabama, has dedicated itself to a more physical approach on the offensive side of the football. Three seasons later, the Longhorns appear to have turned the corner, although I'd still put them in the tier below UA that includes pro-style proponents Stanford and Florida.
So with Mack Brown's ruffians in mind, I did a little research on the Longhorns first down runs in their 66-31 win over the host Rebels two weeks ago. The results: 29 rushes for 222 yards (7.7 yards per carry).
Again, that's on first down and first down only.
For the game, Texas ran for 350 yards in Oxford. Pick a run and the Longhorns probably had success with it; zone, power, reverse -- you name it and it probably went for a first down or touchdown.
For an Ole Miss defense that gave up 389 rushing yards in last season's meeting with UA, it's as simple as this: Slow down Eddie Lacy, TJ Yeldon and the rest of the Alabama running game on first down or the next two won't matter all that much.
Doing so will require additional people in the box for a unit that is light in the seat. And that's when quarterback AJ McCarron and his receivers will have opportunities to make plays against the Rebels' secondary, which is what Texas did to the tune of 326 passing yards.
TRips Sunday: Early on in Alabama's 33-14 win over Ole Miss, it was apparent that there were two things the Rebels' defense was intent on taking away from the Crimson Tide offense, neither of which should have come as a surprise.
First was the Alabama running game, especially on early downs, for reasons outlined above. Next on the list was the shallow crossing route, which had produced enough YAC (yards after catch) through four games to make an over-served Delta Tau Chi pledge proud.
For the most part, Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack's unit accomplished both goals, limiting UA to 43 yards on 13 first down runs. Meanwhile, Alabama's first crossing route went to Kevin Norwood, who fumbled after absorbing a big shot from Rebels linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche.
McCarron and company overcame those shortcomings by excelling in two areas where it had been pedestrian-to-lacking in its first four games of the season: third down conversions and kickoff returns.
Heading into the Ole Miss game, UA ranked sixth in the SEC in third downs (44.4 percent) and last in kickoff returns (15.6 yards per return).
Given Jeremy Shelley's busy evening from inside 40 yards, it would be easy to overlook the fact that Alabama converted 11 of 18 third downs on the night, including two on touchdown passes from McCarron to Amari Cooper, the first of which came on a replay overturn that left me convinced that Curtis Brown would have scored against Auburn in 1995 if replay had been available.
And then there was Christion Jones' 99-yard return for a score, which came on a night when the sophomore surrendered punt return duties to Dee Hart.
While the Crimson Tide offense struggled to sustain drives, it got some help from the McCarron-to-Cooper connection that showed promise for the third straight week and a return game that hadn't until the second quarter against Ole Miss.
How will the Alabama defense fare against Ole Miss' hurry up offense?
TRips Friday:Give Hugh Freeze credit: If nothing else, the Rebels' offense is a lot more fun to watch than the one his predecessor fielded in his final few seasons on the job.
Freeze's attack is up tempo, decently balanced and mixes in big plays, none of which applied to the Ole Miss offense by the end of the Houston Nutt era. The question is, how will it fare against an Alabama defense that was built to squash the spread?
Unlike their run defense, the Rebels' running game, which currently ranks first in the SEC at 259.8 yards per game, was respectable in the loss to Texas, going for 170 yards on 34 carries (5 ypc). Not bad considering five Longhorns' sacks factored into those totals.
As for this week, I'll be most interested to see if Alabama can stuff the run with its nickel package. Given that the Rebels like to spread the field with four wide receivers, UA will likely spend a good bit of the night in its sub packages and unlike its first four opponents, Kirby Smart's defense will see an offense that is committed to running the football.
With the Rebels lacking a big back, the perimeter of the Alabama defense might have its busiest game to date.
TRips Sunday: After watching the Crimson Tide defense give up two long touchdown drives to Ole Miss, there will undoubtedly be talk of future UA opponents going up tempo. Understandable, considering the Rebels put together what were perhaps the two most impressive scoring marches against the UA defense since the 2010 season.
As for how those drives succeeded, I didn't think it was so much the pace at which the Rebels worked as it was where they went after Alabama.
Given Ole Miss' personnel, the Crimson Tide knew the perimeter was where it would be tested. And while UA answered the bell on occasion, holding the Rebels to a season-low 80 yards on the ground, the play wasn't stout enough on the edge to make you forget about Courtney Upshaw and Mark Barron just yet.
When Ole Miss needed it the most, they looked to the outside -- and more than once they got what they needed.
That said, other than a deep ball from Bo Wallace to Donte Moncrief in the opening quarter, Alabama's corners and safeties played the intermediate to deep passing game pretty well, picking off three Ole Miss passes in the opening half.
Ultimately, an area where some felt the Crimson Tide might be lacking (defending the vertical passing game) turned out to be a strength against the Rebels, while some questions on the perimeter went unanswered.
It's Ole Miss, what's the worst that can happen?
TRips Friday: In showing his team Tim Tebow's sappy, tear-soaked apology following Florida's loss to the Rebels in 2008, Alabama coach Nick Saban hopes he fired a preemptive strike for the 30-point favorites.
Really, if he wanted to point to Ole Miss upsets of the past he could have looked no further than down the street. In 1988, the 1-3 Rebels came to Tuscaloosa and beat the Crimson Tide, 22-12.
An inept UA offense completed three passes all day, with each going to Ole Miss defenders.
The day the Paul W. Bryant Museum was dedicated.
Of course, that Alabama team was nowhere near as powerful as this Alabama team. The bigger point of Tebow's appearance in the Crimson Tide team meeting room this week was that being undefeated and ranked No. 1 offers no guarantees for success, especially in the SEC.
The Gators lost three fumbles and had an extra point blocked that day four years ago. In 1988, the Crimson Tide committed five turnovers compared to the Rebels' none.
In other words, it happens. For it to happen this week, a lot of the things that happened to Florida in 2008 and Alabama in 1988 will need to happen again on Saturday.
TRips Sunday: No promises of redemption were required of McCarron following Alabama 33, Ole Miss 14, which meant the infamous (and, depending on whom you ask, perhaps even fictional) brick wouldn't be making a return to the Mal Moore Athletic Complex.
Instead, Ole Miss joined Tennessee and Arkansas in having three different head coaches fall to Alabama teams in the Saban era. And in being pushed just enough, the Crimson Tide provided some partial answers as to whether it might have the stuff of which champions are made.
If UA fans were worried about how their team would respond to being behind, something the Crimson Tide hadn't experienced this season, they had all of 15 seconds to fret. That's how long it took Jones to travel the length of the field, almost as if the mere thought of trailing insulted he and his teammates.
Now it's on to an open week; a time for healing and introspection. With back to back road trips to Missouri and Tennessee on tap, a lot of the former and a good dose of the latter should help.
Heading into the bye, Alabama may not be the perfect football team but it appears to be the closest thing in college football to it.
Friday's prediction: Alabama 38, Ole Miss 9.
Saturday's score: Alabama 33, Ole Miss 14.
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