Intimidation shouldn’t be one of the emotions the No. 19 Ole Miss football team experiences this week while preparing for No. 1 Alabama.
That’s because the Rebels (1-1) have beaten the Crimson Tide (2-0) in each of the last two seasons. At 2:30 p.m. Saturday (WCBI) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Ole Miss will try to become the first team to defeat a Nick Saban-coached Alabama squad in three consecutive seasons.
“To play the number one team in the country at our home, it is an opportunity I relish,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said of the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams. “I love the attitude we had yesterday, and we are excited about this great challenge. They are an outstanding football team. They are a little better defensively, believe it or not, than what they have been. They seem faster and they are very difficult to create any drives on.”
“I think they have given up about 40 yards rushing a game, a little over 200 yards of total offense against two pretty good offensive teams so far. Western Kentucky does a good job, and they did a really good job against them and, of course, USC. It is very difficult to sustain drives on and offensively they are an explosive offense with the vertical passing game. Their run game is always one you have to worry about stopping. It is a typical Alabama football team that is going to be in the hunt for the SEC championship and the NCAA Championship if that comes to creation. We get an opportunity to play them at home, and we are eager for that chance.”
Ole Miss will kick off league play against Alabama for the second-straight year, the third time in the last five seasons (2012, 2015, 2016), and the 13th time overall. Last season, Chad Kelly led Ole Miss to a 43-37 win against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In the process, Kelly, who was in his first year as a Rebel, became the first Ole Miss quarterback to guide the team to wins against Alabama, Auburn, and LSU in the same season, and the first to lead the Rebels to five victories against ranked opponents in a season. Ole Miss rode that success to a 10-3 record and its first trip to the Sugar Bowl since 1970.
Kelly led the SEC in passing (310.9 yards per game, 10th in nation), total offense (349.4 ypg, seventh), passing touchdowns (31, ninth), and points responsible for (246, seventh). He is one of two active quarterbacks (Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight when he was at Oklahoma) to beat Alabama.
Last week in a 38-13 victory against Wofford, Kelly threw three touchdown passes and zero interceptions, his fourth such game as a Rebel. Freeze hopes Kelly has another strong game against an opponent he knows will present one of the toughest tests this season.
“We all know their depth is better than a lot of peoples, ours included,” Freeze said. “We are getting there to where our depth chart is more reflective to our players, so I think playing them early is an advantage. We typically are as healthy as you can be, this year is a little different, we have lost three really good players and you don’t like that.
“I think our first year here, when we went there and played a very physical game against them, I thought we matched blow for blow, not on the scoreboard, but blow for blow with physical play and that is something we have thought all week long, this was four years ago again. This is something we had to do to compete and our kids really drew a lot of confidence from that. I think it is a combination of the confidence that has been set through playing them the four years we have been here and playing them early is advantageous.”
Freeze has plenty of positives to point to after two games. The Rebels are tied for third in the league in scoring (36 points per game) and fifth in passing (277.5 ypg). They also are first in the SEC and tied for second nationally with a third-down conversion rate of 62.5 percent. Nine players have scored 10 touchdowns to help Ole Miss go 10-for-10 in the red zone.
Still, the Rebels couldn’t hold a big halftime lead against then-No. 4 Florida State in the season opener, which has Freeze wanting to see more consistency from his squad.
“I think the first half of Florida State (in a 45-34 loss), we looked like one of the nation’s top-10 teams and the second half not so much,” Freeze said. “It is hard to tell about last week, I felt like we took care of business offensively, did what we needed to do defensively on a short week to win. We played a lot of kids. With the schedule set up and the way we performed in the first week it is kind of hard to tell exactly who we are yet.”
Freeze said the confidence earned from winning at Bryant-Denny Stadium last season will help the team immensely even before the game starts Saturday.
“You have to believe you can and our kids do,” Freeze said. “We believe we can play with anyone in the country. That doesn’t mean we can beat them on any given day, but we do believe we have gotten to a point where we can step on a field and compete with them.
“You get a few breaks that go your way and find a way to win one and we have done that a couple of times. Confidence does come from that and our kids will be confident Saturday, it is still a tall task, but it is one I think our kids will look forward to.”
n In related news, Ole Miss’ Sept. 24 Southeastern Conference home date against Georgia will kick off at 11 a.m. and be televised by ESPN, the league office announced Monday.
It will be the Rebels’ first morning game of the season, and the second contest captured by the worldwide leader in sports’ flagship channel.
The rest of the Sept. 24 schedule of SEC games is: Kent State at Alabama, Noon (SEC Network); Mississippi State at UMass, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN3); Florida at Tennessee, 2:30 p.m. (WCBI); Delaware State at Missouri, 3 p.m. (SEC Network);
Vanderbilt at Western Kentucky, 3:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network); LSU at Auburn, 5 p.m. (ESPN); South Carolina at Kentucky; 6:30 p.m. (SEC Network); Arkansas vs. Texas A&M, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.