A year ago, upstart Ole Miss figured it was about time to get on the map by upsetting SEC West mainstay Alabama. Didn't happen. The Rebels lost 25-0 in Tuscaloosa. Ole Miss has another chance to make a statement versus the Tide, and this time it's at home.
Alabama and Ole Miss have identical 4-0 records, 1-0 in conference. The SEC West pecking order is at stake.
Here is a breakdown:
Alabama’s key to victory: This one is going to be won in the trenches for Alabama. First, on offense, the line must protect quarterback Blake Sims, who is starting his first game on the road, from a group of dangerous pass-rushers that includes Robert Nkemdiche and C.J. Johnson. Second, on defense, Alabama has to find a way to get to Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace. If A'Shawn Robinson and Co. can force Wallace into a few turnovers it could swing the game in the Tide’s favor.
Ole Miss' key to victory: Assuming the offense can do better than last year's shutout, this game is all about the defense for Ole Miss. It's the top unit in the SEC, giving up just 8.5 points and 248 yards a game. Something has to give in this one, as Alabama brings one of the best running games in the league (258.5 yards a game), while Ole Miss counters with a stout run defense, giving up 114.5 yards per game. The Rebs will have to control the line of scrimmage, but beyond the front seven Ole Miss might have the best safety tandem in the country in Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner. They will come in handy when its time to employ double coverage and bracket coverage against Alabama wideout Amari Cooper.
Alabama X-factor: Tony Brown has exactly one career start under his belt. But what the former five-star prospect lacks in experience, he makes up for in talent. Last week against Florida, we saw that as the true freshman played extremely well, helping limit Jeff Driskel to 9 of 28 passing. But Ole Miss will be a bigger challenge. He hasn’t faced anyone like Laquon Treadwell yet, who is one of the best receivers in the country. If Brown can help keep Treadwell under wraps, then the rest of the secondary should fall into place nicely.
Ole Miss X-factor: It could easily be the wave of emotion that is certain to sweep through Vaught-Hemingway Stadium when the underdog Rebels take the field looking to break that 10-game skid against the Tide. But let's stick with Xs and Os. This Alabama defense is not as impenetrable as it has been in years past. West Virginia's up-tempo offense did some damage through the air, and Florida ran the ball at a good clip (4.0 yards per carry). To win this game, Ole Miss' supporting receivers must come through. Treadwell will draw plenty of attention, so it's up to junior receiver Cody Core, sophomore tight end Evan Engram and senior receiver Vince Sanders to make the most of their targets. At 15.4 yards per catch, junior running back Jaylen Walton can be another big-play weapon in the passing game.
Playoff impact: As appealing as the storyline is, this isn’t a winner-take-all game. The SEC West has too many opportunities for quality wins down the road. But whoever does win will be in the driver’s seat to win the division and reach the playoff. For Ole Miss, it would be a signal that the Rebs' time has come. For Alabama, it would be a reminder that the Tide never left.