Special teams is often a major factor in deciding games in big matchups. Whether it be the 2011 matchups game against LSU or the 2006 Cotton Bowl, Alabama has been in plenty of these kind of games. The rivalry against Ole Miss hasn’t been any different and the winning team has had the edge on special teams during the last three seasons.
In 2012, the Crimson Tide won 33-14 behind 21 points by the special teams unit. Kicker Jeremy Shelley was a perfect 4 for 4 on field goals and 3 for 3 on extra points while Christion Jones returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to give Alabama the lead for good in the second quarter. Cody Mandell even helped hold an advantage on punts, averaging 38 net yards per punt compared to the Rebels’ 32.5 net average.
In 2013, Alabama shut out the Rebels at Bryant-Denny Stadium in a loud 25-0 win. Cade Foster was the star of this one, making all three of his field goal attempts, including a 53-yard field goal in the first half. Mandell once again helped keep the Rebels back, winning the average net yards per punt 45.4 to 43.0.
Last season, the Rebels made one of the game’s biggest plays on a kickoff. After tying the game at 17 late in the fourth quarter, Christion Jones fumbled the kickoff allowing the Rebels to recover and score the game winning touchdown minutes later. Ole Miss also outgained the Crimson Tide on kickoffs by averaging 14.0 more yards per return. Field position can become a major deciding factor in a game player this closely. (Yes, the Rebels had an extra point blocked but it ended up not mattering. If Alabama scored, it would’ve likely once again be a special teams play that won the game.)
So clearly, the special teams unit has an impact on every game and especially in this rivalry. So expect nothing less on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa.
Ole Miss brings Gary Wunderlich back for his second year in Oxford. The sophomore hasn’t exactly been tested yet but has made all 17 of his extra point attempts this season and made a 37 yard field goal against Fresno State last week. Backup kicker Andy Pappanastos has even gotten playing time, making all three of his extra point attempts. Junior Nathan Noble handles kickoffs and has 14 touchback on 24 kicks so far this season.
Alabama has clearly had their struggles at the kicker position so far this season. Adam Griffith is 0-4 on field goals so far, including a 24 yard attempt last weekend. Griffith is 10 for 10 on extra points so far this season and has four touchbacks on 12 kickoffs.
Sophomore Will Gleeson was put on the preseason Ray Guy watchlist but may not get too many chances to go on the field this season. He only has three punts so far, averaging 42 yards per punt. The Australia-native has put one inside the opponent’s 20 yard line and helped limit them to just 2.7 yards per return.
J.K. Scott was supposed to be the prized possession of the Tide’s special teams unit this season but it hasn’t turned out that way yet. Scott has averaged just 36.3 net yards per punt with a long of only 46 and putting one punt inside the 20 yard line.
The Rebels have only returned four kickoffs this season, averaging 17.2 yards per return. Running back Jaylen Walton is listed as the starter for kickoff return, with returns of 18 and 15 yards on the year so far. Junior cornerback Carlos Davis is the top punt return man for the Rebels. The former Huffman High School player has averaged 10.3 yards per return, including a 58 yard return against UT Martin.
Alabama has put their return game in the hands of some of their best playmakers this season. Kenyan Drake is the top kick returner for the Tide and has averaged just under 20 yards per return, including a 40 yard return to open up the game against Middle Tennessee State. Cyrus Jones is the main man for punt returns this season. The senior cornerback has just 30 yards on six returns so far while Oregon State transfer Richard Mullaney returned one for 18 yards in the fourth quarter of last week’s game.
ADVANTAGE: Ole Miss
Caleb Turrentine is a contributor at Touchdown Alabama Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, @CalebTurrentine.