A how-to guide to beating Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jim McElwain doesn't buy much into the notion of Alabama's ability to be beaten. He didn't think so before his Colorado State Rams lost to the top-ranked Crimson Tide on Saturday and he didn't think so the following Monday. Losing was expected. They were, after all, something like a five touchdown underdog.

"They weren't going to show us anything they were holding for an SEC opponent," McElwain said. "I understand that."

But McElwain, who served as Nick Saban's offensive coordinator at UA from 2008-11, did have his team poke some holes in the Tide's aura of invincibility, despite maybe not getting its all. The 31-6 final score wasn't what anyone expected from Alabama's home opener. After the game, a sense of frustration spilled over from the locker room as an agitated AJ McCarron and others lamented their poor performance.

They weren't good enough, not by Alabama standards and certainly not by the standards of a team hoping to go undefeated during the regular season. Though many of the mistakes they made were minimal, they did add up -- a slow bleed no one is certain has yet scabbed over. As veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley put it, "Some of those little things will get us beat next week."

"I'm not satisfied with where we are as a football team," Saban said.

Nor should he be. Through three games, Alabama has rather obvious holes ranging from an ineffective offensive line to a porous secondary. Colorado State showed those deficiencies, even in defeat.

It was no fun being cannon fodder. The downtrodden tone in McElwain's voice over the phone on Monday said as much. Missed opportunities haunted his thoughts over the weekend.

"You might get them once," he said. "But they do such a good job on the sideline that they'll have an answer. They don't sit there very long and say, 'What are we going to do?' They have an answer immediately."

Though CSU, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech ultimately lost to Alabama, they helped provide a blueprint Ole Miss could use to upset the defending national champions Saturday. The 21st-ranked Rebels gave the Tide all it could handle a season ago, losing 33-14.

A year wiser with a blueprint in hand, maybe this time will be different.

The best defense is a good offense, as cliché as that may sound. Against Alabama, if you don't sustain drives and limit turnovers, you're dead in the water. UA's 40 points off turnovers ranks in the top 20 nationally.

"For the majority of the game we took care of the football," McElwain said. "We didn't do anything silly with it until the fumble by our quarterback. Then the very next play, they go play-action touchdown."

Said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze: "Those three turnovers [in last year's game] resulted in a touchdown and two field goals. ... You don't have those and maybe we're in it in the fourth quarter."

Texas A&M was able to gash Alabama deep, but the Aggies were an outlier thanks to Johnny Manziel's ability to extend plays with his feet. Saban said there wasn't an ounce of similarity between Texas A&M and Ole Miss, who doesn't have a Johnny Manziel at quarterback or a 6-foot-5 Mike Evans at receiver.

"I don't think that's what we'll see," Freeze said of the tape he watched of the Texas A&M-Alabama game.

Instead, Ole Miss should do what it does best: push the tempo, run the football with Jeff Scott and Bo Wallace, and mix in a few deep balls with a steady dose of the short passing game.

Getting the ball out of Wallace's hands quickly might be the best way as Alabama has allowed 87.5 percent of screen passes and 61.8 percent of passes thrown for 5 or fewer yards to be completed, compared to the 44 completion percentage on passes beyond that mark.

The UA secondary isn't what it once was, especially at cornerback where it is thin on experience and numbers. Deion Belue, who took over as the team's top on-ball defender, has been hampered by injuries, John Fulton is a question mark after getting abused by Evans two weeks ago and Cyrus Jones, a sophomore who played offense a year ago, is just as shaky. The two have combined to give up 11 of 17 passes thrown their way, compared to Belue, who has allowed just one of five passes to be completed.

By spreading out the field with multiple receivers, Ole Miss could further exploit Alabama's defense. There isn't much dropoff between Donte Moncrief, Ja-Mes Logan and slot receiver Laquon Treadwell, who leads the team with 16 receptions for 154 yards. Tight end Evan Engram is a frequent target in the passing game as well, ranking 14th in the SEC in receiving yards per game (58.3).

Where Ole Miss might not have a Mike Evans to turn to as Texas A&M does, it has the edge in terms of depth.

"I think we have better receivers than A&M," Wallace told reporters. "They want to talk about Mike Evans being so good, but we have Donte [Moncrief] and I think Laquon [Treadwell, a freshman,] is going to be that way. We have better players on the outside than A&M does.

"I think we can put points on them. I think we can put points on anybody."

Offensively, Alabama does have a weakness. And unlike years past it's not by forcing the pass. Rather, the key to stopping UA is by going right at the offensive line and limiting its ability to control the line of scrimmage through the running game.

With three new starters, Alabama's offensive line hasn't gelled like many expected and, as a result, the ground game has suffered. UA, which averaged 227 yards rushing per game a season ago, was able to muster just 66 yards against CSU. UA's rushes for zero or negative yards have risen from 16.0 percent in 2012 to 28.1 percent in 2013, from third nationally to 105th.

Alabama has had trouble converting on third down, moving the sticks once every three attempts, on average, ranking 98th nationally and next to last in the SEC. Third-and-longs have been a frequent sight as 21 of Alabama's 33 third downs have come from seven or more yards out with the Tide converting on just 32.8 percent of those attempts.

Keeping the running game from getting going has in turn limited what the Tide can do in the passing game, specifically its ability to work off play-action. McCarron has seen both his completion percentage and yards per attempt drop off play-action from a year ago.

He has been sacked more, too. When he has been blitzed, his completion percentage drops from 72.5 percent to 48.1.

Virginia Tech had particular success blitzing Alabama. By using stunts and shifts, the Hokies got the Tide off balance.

"I don't think we were expecting so much movement the whole game," Steen said following the season opener. "We expected some, but it felt like that whole game we were constantly moving sideways."

The line looked better against Texas A&M, but many of the troubles returned against CSU. With all the movement up front, communication issues were obvious. Missed assignments have been prevalent all season.

"We make a few mental errors where the guy doesn't pick up the [blitz] -- we had a big play on -- and it stops a drive right in the red zone and we have to kick a field goal." Saban said. "You know, a breakdown in protection and we throw an interception just trying to throw the ball away."

Expect Ole Miss to try to force the same mistakes, loading the box to stuff the run and get in the face of McCarron. A turnover here or there could be the difference in momentum, and ultimately the game.

But whatever you do, don't be basic on defense, said McElwain, whose Rams put up a healthy 278 yards of offense on Alabama, better than all but four of the Tide's opponents a season ago.

"We tried to do a couple things they hadn't seen because the defensive staff does such a good job of dissecting every single formation that you do and keying it. It's like they know what you're doing before you do sometimes. We just tried to do some things so you don't telegraph."

The simple truth, though, is that beating Alabama won't be easy. You can prod and pry McElwain for all his secrets, but he won't budge. You won't be the first to get turned down and you certainly won't be the last.

"Since I have been gone that has been a question that's come up, people wanting to know," he said. "Out of my respect for the time I was given there and the opportunity to be there, those are the things I refuse to answer and it's up to you as a coach to figure out. I would never ever breach that, I guess, unwritten code."

How many people ask?

"More than you'd probably realize," he said. "My answer is the same: There's no way I'd ever do that.

"The good thing is maybe that they were trying."

The one bit of advice McElwain would divulge is so simple, yet very few teams can do it: When Alabama hits you in the mouth, don't lay down and give up.

Alabama has outscored opponents 73-24 in the first half of games this season, but that margin shrinks dramatically to 42-34 in the second half when teams get comfortable and get back to playing their game.

"What happens to teams when they play Alabama sometimes is that if the first thing doesn't work there's doubt that creeps into the opponent's mind: Can we hang? Can we actually do this?" McElwain said. "That's part of the mystique that's there."

That aura of invincibility has been dented some this season, though not completely. Ole Miss has an opportunity to learn from CSU, Virginia Tech and Texas A&M's losses and hit Alabama wear it hurts. The whole blueprint may not be there yet to dethrone the Tide, but a rough outline has come into view.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this article.