OXFORD — This time, it was really a popcorn game.
A year ago, Lane Kiffin challenged a CBS television audience to “get your popcorn ready” seconds before Ole Miss’ kickoff against Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Before the popcorn cooled, Alabama led 28-0, and all the drama was gone.
This year the drama lasted longer, but the result was painfully familiar for Ole Miss fans as Alabama won 30-24 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The Empire struck back.
There’s a whole different vibe about an Alabama team with two losses, but while the Crimson Tide won’t win the SEC West — that was guaranteed to LSU thanks to the Ole Miss loss — it remains a very good, very dangerous SEC opponent.
It’s the kind of opponent that requires you to play a clean game and not just a clean half.
Ole Miss was coming off a bye and had an extra week to prepare after a nice win at Texas A&M two weeks ago.
It was the same situation last year in a 42-21 loss, but this time the Rebels looked different.
There was better execution in the first half and a few tweaks, like freshman running back Quinshon Judkins in the Wildcat formation in the red zone.
The hit-or-miss Ole Miss defense was on top of its game for two quarters. Defensive coordinator Chris Partridge brought pressure against Alabama quarterback Bryce Young on most snaps, a different defensive plan from a year ago when the Rebels rushed only three most of the time.
“You can look at the analytics of him against a three-man rush. His percentage is off the charts,” Kiffin said.
That crowd around the line of scrimmage helped slow down the run game too. Alabama had 119 total yards, just 26 on the ground, as Ole Miss led 17-14 at the break.
But beating very good SEC teams, whether they’re a dynasty or not, requires execution for four quarters.
“Our defense did a really good job early and late, in the middle not as great, but plenty good enough to win when you’re playing that team especially at home. We’ve got to score more points,” Kiffin said.
Alabama adjusted offensively in the second half, getting the ball out of Bryce Young’s hand more quickly after he was sacked twice in the first half.
Also in the second half, as so many presidents have said, “Mistakes were made.”
Ill-timed holding penalties and poor tackling — the latter an unfortunate Ole Miss trademark — created obstacles for the Rebels.
As Young steadied himself in the third quarter, the Rebels did not keep pace offensively.
They drove 75 yards to answer Alabama’s game-tying field goal and push back in front with Dart’s 3-yard pass to Jonathan Mingo with 7 minutes, 28 seconds left in the period.
But the Rebels’ next two drives netted minus-5 yards on seven plays.
That’s when the game changed hands.
Alabama eventually scored on four out of five possessions in the second half.
A 35-yard run by Judkins fanned flames of hope of a Bo Wallace-esque comeback on the Rebels’ final drive.
Two plays later Judkins — who finished with 135 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries — ran for 14 yards.
But Ole Miss couldn’t move past the 14. On third down Dart was sacked, and on fourth down he couldn’t get the ball to Mingo in the end zone.
For the third time in the game an Ole Miss drive that penetrated the Alabama 15 did not end with a touchdown.
You can’t do that against upper-level SEC teams.
That may be all Alabama is right now, but that’s still a lot.
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