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Five keys for Alabama to defeat Ole Miss

Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster (No. 10) lining up the troops against Western Kentucky last week: Roderick Mason - Touchdown Alabama Magazine

Alabama’s first push toward Atlanta for a Southeastern Conference championship starts this weekend against Ole Miss. After two painful losses, head coach Nick Saban has his group focused on not seeing a third meeting between the Crimson Tide and the Rebels slip away.

While CBS and SEC Network set course for Vaught-Hemingway Stadium (Oxford, Miss), Alabama endures its final media viewing practice of the week. Defensive coaches Jeremy Pruitt, Tosh Lupoi and Karl Dunbar has the unit keen on harassing Chad Kelly and creating turnovers.

On offense, Mario Cristobal and Brent Key have worked with tight ends and offensive linemen on generating a push in the run game. Saban has yet to see consistency with the ground game thus far, nevertheless, Saturday’s contest presents a new opportunity to enforce good habits.

A different feel has occurred for “The Grove” and for the first time since Archie Manning (1968-70), Mississippi believes that it can compete and defeat anyone in college football.

The Tide enters this match-up with a relatively young offensive line, a true freshman quarterback and two young running backs in a hostile environment. Calvin Ridley mentioned the importance for this team to get off to a fast start, after last week’s disappointing 38-10 victory over Western Kentucky. Listed below is a breakdown, noting five keys for Alabama to use against Ole Miss.

Five keys to defeat Ole Miss

1. Establish the run game (offensive line) 

It had a few explosive plays against Southern California, but nothing consistent has come from the Tide’s offensive line in generating chances to run the football. Alabama mustered up 124 yards rushing against Western Kentucky and despite Damien Harris totaling 45 yards, true freshman B.J. Emmons had the highest yards per carry average (6.8)– upon the end of the game.

Offensive tackles Cameron Robinson and Jonah Williams have done well, but it’s the play of Ross Pierschbacher, Bradley Bozeman and Lester Cotton that needs to pick up. Whether Alabama starts Harris or Bo Scarbrough, the front line has to move Ole Miss off the ball.

2. QB Jalen Hurts: Calm, cool, collected 

No one thought Alabama would start a true freshman at quarterback, but Jalen Hurts enters week three of the season as the guy. His poise and composure stood firm against USC and Western Kentucky, yet the real test will come against Mississippi. Marquis Haynes, Breeland Speaks, Issac Gross, DeMarquis Gates, D.J. Jones and Fadol Brown all make up a Rebels’ defensive front that looks to disrupt the timing between Hurts and the Tide’s talented group of wide receivers.

He possesses accuracy (arm talent), athleticism and awareness; it’s decision making that must be sharp for Hurts, when facing an SEC defense. He is second in the conference in passer efficiency rating (157.9), fifth in completion percentage (61.7%) and third in yards per attempt (8.6).

3. Alabama’s defensive front: Harass QB Chad Kelly 

This one may be easier said than done, but it must be done nonetheless.

Rebels’ quarterback Chad Kelly made Alabama’s defense suffer last season, upon each turnover surrendered by its offense. Kelly connected on 18 of 33 passes for 341 yards and totaled four touchdowns (one rushing) in a 43-37 victory for Ole Miss at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Florida State constantly hounded Kelly in its 45-34 win in week one, forcing three interceptions and five sacks. Defensive end Jonathan Allen and outside linebacker Ryan Anderson have had success through two weeks, but expect Tim Williams to re-emerge into the picture on Saturday.

4. Win the field position battle

Insert punter JK Scott here.

Making smart decisions on punt and kick returns matter, but this week is for Scott. He’s returned to his freshman form in the last two games, nailing high-flying boots inside the 20-yard line.

The 6-foot-6, 202-pound junior is averaging 46.7 yards a punt, with six of his 10 kicks dropped inside the 20. Ole Miss moves the ball well when it has a short field; however, forcing it to drive the distance plays into the Tide’s hands. Scott can’t afford to overstride or out kick his coverage.

5. Limit negative plays (turnovers, penalties, loss yards, etc…) 

Alabama had eight more penalties in week two (12) versus week one (four).

A negative play forces a team to operate behind the down and distance, giving the opposition a chance to bring pressure. Pre-snap movements from the offensive line led to mistakes against Western Kentucky. With Saban being a stickler for attention to details, he would much rather have Jalen Hurts managing a short distance on second and third downs versus a long one.

His stern message on protecting the ball has not changed, though Saban wants to have a combination of no turnovers, along with having plays to not lose yards or bad penalties.

In conclusion

Pandemonium will be the term to describe the excitement in Mississippi this weekend.

Coach Hugh Freeze and the Rebels will look to do something that no other team has done—defeat a Saban coached Alabama team three times in a row. He’s got this year’s group and its fan base at a feverish pitch, but will Ole Miss be able to hold its own against a hungry opponent?

Answers will be revealed on Saturday.

Stephen M. Smith is a senior analyst and columnist for Touchdown Alabama MagazineYou can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @Smsmith_TDALMag.

Stephen Smith is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama. He is a senior writer and reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. He has covered Alabama football for 10+ years and his knowledge and coverage of the Crimson Tide's program have made him among the most respected journalist in his field. Smith has been featured on ESPN and several other marquee outlets as an analyst.

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