There are a lot of big matchups to watch this weekend in Tuscaloosa and we have already touched on some of the bigger ones. We talked about how Chad Kelly stacks up against the Tide’s pass defense along with an in-depth look at how Ole Miss receivers should do. We took a look at the special teams units and tried to decide who has the edge in this rivalry’s recent x-factor. Now we will go inside the trenches when Alabama has the ball and take a look at how the Crimson Tide’s offensive line can do against a talented and experienced front line for the Rebels.
Alabama offensive line coach Mario Cristobal is in his third season in Tuscaloosa and has been arguably the jewel of Nick Saban’s coaching staff. Cristobal will face off against the Rebel defensive line coach Chris Kiffin. Yes, that is Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s brother and the brothers will be battling back and forth to see whose schemes will work the best. The Tide has struggled with pass protection at times this season but has only allowed two sacks. The Rebel defense has only had one sack so for this season but has shown strong resistance against opponents’ rushing attacks.
We will start on the offensive side of the ball and take a look at the expected starters for the Alabama offensive front. Ryan Kelly will once again be in the game at center for the Tide and will look to help get a revenge win after missing the second half of the loss in Oxford last season. Kelly is the leader of this line and has shown why he is at the top of a lot of lists for the 2015 Rimington Trophy. The senior had two key plays in Alabama’s win against Wisconsin that helped open a hole for Derrick Henry touchdowns. His ability to get to the second level of defenders is something that will be needed against a strong Rebel front.
On the right side of the line, Dominick Jackson has shined in his first year as a starter. The senior has a team-high 11 knockdown blocks and has yet to allow a sack. At right guard, Alphonse Taylor will start his fifth career game on Saturday night. Taylor has impressed the coaching staff and hasn’t missed a blocking assignment through the first two games. Big sophomore Cam Robinson leads the left side of the line. Robinson has allowed one of the two sacks on an Alabama quarterback this season, along with a hurry during the opener against Wisconsin. His run blocking is unquestioned though and it showed against the Badgers.
That block was not nice and unfair. The Crimson Tide is hoping he is able to get these kind of blocks to help spring Henry and Kenyan Drake against Ole Miss. He is joined on the left side by Ross Pierschbacher. The redshirt freshman graded out at an 88 in his debut against the Badgers and has a strong hold on the starting left guard role.
The Rebels counter with a long list of talented defensive linemen. Of course, at the top of that list is junior Robert Nkemdiche. The defensive tackle/fullback/five-tool center fielder (not really) has been a force for Ole Miss over the years and the Tide will have their hands full on Saturday night. Nkemdiche brings a combination of speed and power that will be tough for even a double team to handle. He already has five tackles, one for a loss, a quarterback hurry and a blocked field goal so far this season. Last season, the Rebels lead the SEC with 7.6 tackles for a loss per game and six of their top seven players returned for this year.
Breeland Speaks, D.J. Jones and Woodrow Hamilton join Nkemdiche in the middle of the line, both who are having big starts to the season. Speaks leads the team with 11 total tackles while Hamilton and Jones have combined for 11 total tackles and 1.5 for a loss. Marquis Haynes leads the rush on the outside. The senior defensive end has just four tackles so far this year with one sack but has seen limited time in two blowout victories. Channing Ward and Fadol Brown have combined for 15 tackles and three for a loss so far this season as the backups.
Ole Miss hasn’t shown much of a pass rush so far this season so the Tide’s problems their may not be an issue in this game but the Rebels held Alabama to just 3.7 yards per carry in last season’s upset. If the Tide want to still be unbeaten going into week four, they will need to find a way to get past the strong rush defense that Ole Miss brings to the table. It won’t be easy but it may just take one or two big ones from Derrick Henry to win this one.
ADVANTAGE: Ole Miss
Caleb Turrentine is a contributor at Touchdown Alabama Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, @CalebTurrentine.