Last season, two weeks removed from a 66-31 loss to Texas, Ole Miss hung tough at then-No. 1 Alabama, briefly leading early in the second quarter, but the Rebels fell to the Crimson Tide 33-14 at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
A year later, as it prepares for No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Saturday night, No. 21 Ole Miss is 3-0 for the first time since 1989 and rides a five-game winning streak, which includes come-from-behind road wins against Vanderbilt and Texas already this year.
"Last year, we didn't know what to expect," junior quarterback Bo Wallace said. "This year, we're confident and we feel like we can play with anybody.
"I was frustrated last year just because we were so close, and people were saying we were so close. I was ready to start winning those games. Now, we're starting to do that and win those close games, down at halftime and being able to come back into games. We have a pretty mature team, and hopefully we can go out, not make mistakes and win a football game."
A win against Alabama, Wallace said, would take them to that next level and put them in a chance to play for something big this year. For head coach Hugh Freeze, the motivation is clear, and it's one similar to the one entering the Texas game two weeks ago.
"What should motivate us, and I think will, is an opportunity to go stand in front of the measuring stick right now and prove that you deserve to be there. That's what we'll focus on. If it does go our way, it would certainly be a huge boost to our program and move us a few steps forward quicker than anybody thought, including myself."
Stopping The Run
Looking back on last year, defensively, Freeze said they were one of the few teams that felt like they stopped the run against Alabama, holding the Crimson Tide to 125 yards on 34 attempts, well below their 227.5 yards per game, which ranked 16th in the nation.
"They're going to play two or three tight ends, Freeze said. "
Through three games, junior defensive end C.J. Johnson said, running the football remains an emphasis for the Alabama offense, which ranks 85th in the nation in total offense, averaging 370.7 ypg, and 91st in rushing offense, averaging 132.0 ypg. Sophomore T.J. Yeldon, who has 273 rushing yards on 49 attempts, averaging 5.6 yards per carry, leads the rushing attack for the Crimson Tide.
"I haven't seen much of a difference," Johnson said of Alabama's offense. They still want to try to run the football, so they can dictate the tempo. I think they're throwing the ball a lot, just because they have great back and some pretty good receivers that can make you pay. You have to pick your poison against them."
Talking Tempo, Matching Up With Alabama's Defense
Much like the fast-paced, up-tempo offenses, which, right now, are cutting edge, Alabama head coach Nick Saban has done the same thing defensively, Freeze said, adding new wrinkles every game, switching between a 3-4 and 4-2-5 formation and giving you every look you can imagine.
"It's very multiple," Freeze said of Alabama's defense. "They're very physical up front. You have a difficult time consistently having drives on them. That's the thing that stands out game after game, even the game against Texas A&M. You don't put on the film and see a consistent drive without having a big play or a phenomenal one-on-one play.
"Physically they're very good and they're not going to make the mistake that allows you to have many explosive plays. That's been the staple of their defense. They're going to stay in the right position. Very rarely do you see explosive plays. We've got to find a way to create those, or find a way to stay in and convert on third and shorts to stay on the field."
Last year, in a 33-14 loss in Tuscaloosa, Ole Miss managed two sustained drives, one of 13 plays for 75 yards, another of 16 plays for 70 yards, but two is not enough to win against that type of team, Freeze said.
Through three games, Alabama ranks 56th in the nation in total defense and 83rd in pass defense, having allowed 373.0 total ypg through three games, including 250.3 ypg through the air. But both statistics are due in large part to Texas A&M sophomore quarterback Johnny Manziel's historic day against the Crimson Tide. He threw for 464 yards and ran for another 98 yards, as the Aggies with 628 yards of total offense in a 49-42 loss in College Station.
Manziel is a difference-maker, yes, but there are similarities between the Texas A&M and Ole Miss offenses. Part of that is tempo, where Ole Miss and Texas A&M rank second and third, respectively, in the SEC behind Missouri. The Rebels average 79.3 plays of offense per game, which ranks 20th in the nation, while the Aggies average 76.75 plays per game, 28th in the nation.
Last year, opponents ran an average of 59.8 plays of offense against Alabama, and this year, opponents have ran an average of 58.7 plays. In last year's 33-14 loss to Alabama, Ole Miss ran 68 plays of offense, while Texas A&M ran 77 plays last year and 71 plays this year against the Crimson Tide.
"We're going to go our tempo in any game we play," Freeze said. "We have it ready. I would love to say that we're going to do it a lot, but you have got to win first down to do that. They were able to win first down a lot. Even though we're similar schematically, us and A&M, at a lot of things, you don't treat us the same if you're defending us because of who is taking the snap for them."
"We can put points on them," junior quarterback Bo Wallace said. "We can put points on anybody. We have to show up and play. It's the same thing every week. That's stay on schedule, control the tempo and don't have any turnovers. We're winning first downs on most drives. Even if we don't win first downs, we have been pretty good on second downs. As long as we're staying schedule with third and short, and third and medium, we're having good drives."
Wallace also showed a lot of confidence in his group of receivers, which will be bolstered this week with the return of junior Vince Sanders, who suffered a broken collarbone during fall practice. Last season, he played in every game with 12 starts and finished with 39 receptions for 504 yards and two touchdowns, including a career-high seven receptions for 46 yards against Alabama.
"He went through a full practice yesterday," Freeze said of Sanders. "We'll incorporate him in just like we would anybody. He will be ready to go. You will probably see him, Laquon, Ja-Mes and Donte all out there at the same time some. We'll rotate them and keep them fresh. We love having him back. He gives us another threat for sure.
"It's exciting, and glad to have him back," Wallace said. "It seems like he's been gone forever. He was catching balls yesterday and looked good running routes. I'm excited to have him back."