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Ole Miss, Gameplans and Upsetting Alabama

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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The last four teams to beat Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Ole Miss and Ohio State, averaged roughly 37 points and 472 offensive yards.

I really feel like were confident and really loose going into that game and honestly felt like we could win it and, luckily, we were able to.
~Bo Wallace

What type of offensive performance does it take to beat Alabama?

Sometimes, like Deshaun Watson in the penultimate College Football Playoff Final, Johnny Manziel six years ago or Cam Newton two seasons prior to that, it takes a superhero. In other cases, see Ezekiel Elliott's breakaway burst in the Sugar Bowl or Quincy Adeboyejo's crazy catch-and-run in the first win for Ole Miss in Tuscaloosa in a generation, it takes an iconic moment. A monumental challenge calls for a fitting response. 

However victories come, they are especially-rare; Alabama has lost only nine times since the start of the 2011 season, just six times in the regular season in that span. Again ranked number one in the country, the defending national champions simply continue to stake their claim, winning 41 of their last 43 games. Dating back even further, Alabama, under Nick Saban, has advanced to either the College Football Playoff or national title game in six of the past seven years.    

Just one team, the entire Saban era on the Capstone, has defeated the Crimson Tide in regulation in back-to-back seasons: Ole Miss. With the two programs having split four meetings running, the national spotlight is back on Oxford as the Rebels will host Alabama this Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Given recent results, both in the series and on the Ole Miss schedule, the storylines, here, are obvious. The home team is talented and appears ready. 

Matt Luke's Rebels enter the weekend ranked third nationally scoring an astonishing 61.5 points per game. No offense has been more balanced and dynamic. Quarterback Jordan Ta'amu leads all power five conference quarterbacks with 392 yards passing per game, running back Scottie Phillips is one of just four running backs in the country with at least 300 rushing yards and has the highest yard-per-carry average of all of them and wideout A.J. Brown slots in the top ten in college football in receiving yards.

Ole Miss leads all teams with 9.3 yards per play. 

"I've been really, really impressed with the offense and Jordan throws the deep ball so well," nodded Bo Wallace, the former Rebel quarterback who led Ole Miss to a 23-16 triumph over UA in 2014. "I'm excited to watch the game on Saturday."

Beating Alabama requires putting pressure on the always-talented Crimson Tide defense, the unit where Saban's greatness is most-clearly showcased. Even when results vary, teams must attack Alabama, a gameplan the Rebels, with Luke previously serving as co-offensive coordinator, have been able to successfully implement multiple times. Though much easier said than done, personnel, scheme and tempo all have to be aggressively used to keep the Crimson Tide as off balance as possible.  

A year ago, Auburn ran 78 plays in its win over Alabama, tying for the most of any opponent all season and the most of any power five competitor. Georgia, which lost to the Crimson Tide in overtime in the College Football Playoff Final, ran 77. In the national championship game the year prior, Watson's Clemson offense snapped the football an astonishing 99 times, tiring the star-studded defense. Expect Ole Miss to try to spread Alabama wide and utilize a similar approach on Saturday.    

In the Rebels' two recent wins over Saban's superpower, the offense was able to move the football and make big plays through the air. Wallace passed for 251 yards and three touchdowns in 2014, while Chad Kelly threw for 341 yards and three scores in 2015. Such productivity may be key as, in the Crimson Tide's last eight losses, the winning team averaged over 275 yards passing per game; seven of those teams threw for at least 240 yards and three of them topped 340. Ta'amu's timing with Brown, D.K. Metcalf, Braylon Sanders and others will be critical.  

Quarterbacks who bring versatility into the fold have also played prominent roles in wins over Alabama. The three most-recent signal callers to top the Crimson Tide, Stidham, Watson and Kelly, each rushed for a touchdown. Additionally, Cardale Jones ran for 43 yards and Wallace ran for 32 in previous victories by Ohio State and Ole Miss. Simply the threat of an extra dimension only adds to the underdog's offensive options and, thus, the defense's responsibilities. For the Rebels, this go-round, Ta'amu will need to make the Crimson Tide account for everyone on the field.

"He throws a great deep ball and obviously that's going to open up the perimeter game. The things he can do outside the pocket with his legs, that makes him tough. The best thing to do when you do play Alabama is have a running quarterback that you can play 11-on-11 football with," Wallace added. "When it's ten-on-11, it's tough to beat that Alabama defense, so I think that will be big in the game on Saturday, what he can do with his legs and extend the play." 

Regardless of how they come, chunk plays have proven to be a critical part of the formula. Starting with Manziel and Texas A&M in 2012 up through Stidham and Auburn in 2017, the past eight teams to beat Alabama have all averaged over five yards per play. Save the Tigers in the most recent Iron Bowl, seven of those eight teams had a conversion of over 40 yards. Ole Miss, in 2014 and 2015 against the Crimson Tide, had plays of at least 50. Sanders currently ranks third in the SEC with 24.1 yards per catch and Brown, in 2017, slotted 10th with 16.7.   

"Those explosive plays are really important against them," Wallace acknowledged. "I think they were getting frustrated that we were getting those big plays against them and hopefully you can frustrate those guys by getting chunks of yards and then the tempo right behind it. I think that helps you out a lot."

The last four teams to beat the Crimson Tide, Auburn, Clemson, Ole Miss and Ohio State, averaged roughly 37 points and 472 offensive yards; that offensive production appears to be the modern watershed mark.   

Explosiveness has to meet efficiency when it comes to upsetting Alabama. The past eight teams to defeat the Crimson Tide threw a combined two interceptions, with six of them not throwing a pick at all. Those eight teams combined to complete 180-of-277 passes, for roughly a 65% completion rate. Furthermore, of the 12 most recent teams to beat Alabama, nine of them have had five or fewer penalties or 45 penalty yards or less.   

"You can't make any mistakes," Wallace detailed. "You can't beat yourself at all and you have to hope that they make some mistakes. On the touchdown that we had, they fumbled a kickoff and that gave us the ball pretty deep in their territory and we were able to capitalize on it."

Gameplan aside, the right attitude has to be in place to upend Saban's Crimson Tide. Composure and confidence, savvy and swagger, teams have to have the proper mindset in the moment. Teams must, on all fronts, be prepared. You can't fake conviction or belief, especially against Alabama. You also can't fake who you are. 

Just like practicing during the week for a Saturday game, a winning frame of reference is established in advance.

"I don't think it was during the game that we realized we could play with them. In the hotel room on Friday night, coach Freeze talked to the team. He came in that room and said we didn't have to do anything special to beat Alabama, that we were good enough and to just be ourselves and play," Wallace shared. "I really feel like were confident and really loose going into that game and honestly felt like we could win it and, luckily, we were able to."

For all of the talent that will be on the field when Ole Miss hosts the Crimson Tide, Ta'amu will be directly in the spotlight. His remarkable production aside, the Rebels will need Ta'amu to be at his situational best. Ta'amu's first career start came against Arkansas late last October; since then, he is averaging 341.1 passing yards per game and Ole Miss is averaging 43.1 points per game. In Ta'amu's first start against a ranked foe, he threw two long touchdowns against Mississippi State in a key Egg Bowl triumph.

This will be Ta'amu's first test against Alabama.

"Just to take it play to play, don't look ahead or anything like that," Wallace stated of what advice he would give to Ta'amu. "Just sit back and tell yourself how you can be perfect on this play, how you can execute this play perfectly with every single play instead of thinking forward, that's the situation. Make sure whatever down and distance you're at, make sure you are in the best situation after that for that next down."

The hype is ongoing for the biggest game of the SEC weekend. The potential script for an upset is as well.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports