Alabama at Mississippi

The Sports Xchange

September 12, 2018 at 5:13 pm.

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET
SITE: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Miss.
TV: ESPN
SERIES: Alabama leads 49-11-2 (after vacations). Alabama won the last meeting 66-3 in 2017.
RANKINGS: Alabama No. 1

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Crimson Tide
–QB Jalen Hurts, who expects to graduate at the end of the semester and could leave as a grad transfer, seems committed to helping the 2018 Alabama team. There were rumors swirling last week that Hurts would try to redshirt but he played in his second game later that day. He can redshirt if he plays in no more than four games.

–RB Najee Harris has rushed 21 times for 165 yards and two touchdowns in limited action in two games. The carries won’t get spread around as much beyond Najee Harris and Damien Harris as the games get more competitive. “Najee’s a freak,” Alabama nose guard Quinnen Williams said. “You might not know what he’s going to do. He’s a freak. When anybody’s got the confidence to do that type of stuff, to throw their body out for the team like that, it’s really not being nervous for him.”

–CB Saivion Smith’s pick-6 last week was more than impressive as he correctly read the screen attempt, dropped right into the passing lane and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown. It was also the first Division I interception of his career. The junior began his career at LSU before going to junior college.

–PK Austin Jones, a transfer from Temple, twice hit the upright on consecutive PAT attempts vs. Arkansas State, and was pulled in favor of redshirt freshman Joseph Bulovas, who made the last five PATs, along with a 39-yard field goal. We’ll see who gets the call Saturday. “Those two guys have been in close competition the whole time,” coach Nick Saban said.

Rebels

–QB Jordan Ta’amu was on with his deep ball against SIU, throwing for a career-best 448 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Four of the scoring passes covered at least 30 yards. Ta’amu did not see action against Alabama last year. He had little experience when pressed into the No. 1 job after an injury to Shea Patterson in Week 8, but the Rebels are 5-2 with Ta’amu as the starter.

–WR A.J. Brown didn’t have his best game against Alabama last year, but few Rebels did as the Crimson Tide rolled 66-3 in Tuscaloosa. Brown, a junior, was playing on a sprained ankle and had only one catch for six yards. He went on to AP All-America honors and could be the first wide receiver off the board in the 2019 draft. He has 15 catches for 251 yards and three touchdowns in two games this season, including an eight-catch, 158-yard, two-touchdown day against Southern Illinois.
–DE Qaadir Sheppard was the Rebels’ best pass-rushing end in camp. The hope is that Sheppard, a transfer from Syracuse, will become more disruptive in games. Sheppard and his mates pushed the pocket well against Texas Tech, but the pass rush was rarely visible against Southern Illinois. The Rebels have just one sack this season.
–LB Kevontae’ Ruggs won’t be making his career debut against No. 1 Alabama, but it will be close. The freshman from Montgomery, Ala., won the outside linebacker job in August camp. He played just a few snaps in the season opener against Texas Tech before leaving with a concussion after a massive hit on a special teams play. It’s possible that Ruggs could be matched up against his brother, Alabama WR Henry Ruggs III, a sophomore and 5-star signee in the 2017 recruiting class.

KEYS
TO THE GAME

In what likely is a first for the Southeastern Conference, both teams will feature Hawaiian quarterbacks when No. 1 Alabama visits unranked Ole Miss Saturday.

Kickoff on ESPN in Oxford’s Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is 7 p.m. ET.

The Crimson Tide (2-0) will start the hero of last season’s national championship game, sophomore Tua Tagovailoa, who is from Ewa Beach just outside of Honolulu.

The Rebels (2-0) will start junior college transfer Jordan Ta’amu from Pearl City, across the way from Pearl Harbor and Ford Island. Ta’amu, a senior, came to Ole Miss via New Mexico Military, and the Rebels couldn’t be happier he did.

Ta’amu is coming off a career game in which he was 23 of 33 passing for 448 yards and five touchdowns against Southern Illinois. An Ole Miss offense that averaged 99 seconds on its touchdown drives last year, the fastest in the nation, scored 76 points against the FCS opponent.

The Rebels’ 479 passing yards in that game were the second most in program history.

Ta’amu is seventh in the nation in passing efficiency (206.1 rating) while Tagovailoa is second (237.2).

Ta’amu is working with one of the top receiving corps in the nation. It is led by A.J Brown, who tops the SEC in receptions per game (7.5) and is second in receiving yards per game (125.5), eighth nationally.

He will be going against an Alabama secondary with all new starters, although the unit already has two interceptions for touchdowns against offensive-minded Louisville and Arkansas State. The Crimson Tide defeated those opponents by a combined score of 108-21.

The real surprise with the Rebels has been the running game. Junior college transfer Scott Phillips went for 204 rushing yards in his debut against Texas Tech and leads the SEC in rushing yards per game (155.5) and rushing touchdowns (four).

“I think they’ve changed their style of play a little bit,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said. “They became a much more effective running team. Play-action passes, RPOs. And (the quarterback) does a really good job of executing.”

The Ole Miss offense ranks third nationally in scoring (61.5) and eighth in total offense (596.0).

“They have an explosive offense,” sophomore linebacker Dylan Moses said. “Their quarterback has a great arm on him. They have two really great running backs. The offensive line is very good. They protect their quarterback.

“They have a lot of greatness; they could potentially beat us. They could really beat us if we don’t handle our business. We really have to come to this game prepared.”

Alabama’s offense has been lights-out good as well and boasts an impressive receiving group that is eager to see how it compares to the touted Rebels.

When Tagovailoa is in the game, Alabama has scored on 10 of its 13 possessions with nine of the scores touchdowns.

“He’s got a really quick release,” Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said. “He has very good receivers to throw it to. Then his ability to extend plays. You watch their first touchdown against Louisville. He extended the play and made a play with his feet.

“He keeps drives going on third down by scrambling out of the pocket. His ability to extend plays, and obviously his decision making, has been good.”

Alabama has also used Jalen Hurts this season, so it’ll be interesting to see if Saban sticks with Tagovailoa more against a conference opponent.

The real concern for Ole Miss is with its defense, especially after giving up 41 points to Southern Illinois. The Rebels are last in the league in scoring defense, pass defense and total defense, and are 13th against the run.

Opponents have averaged 557.5 yards of offense, and the next worst in the SEC is Arkansas at 393.0.

Yet when Alabama visited two years ago, it had to come back from a 21-point deficit in the second quarter to pull out a 43-37 victory. In 2014-15, the Rebels pulled off back-to-back upsets of the Crimson Tide, the first resulting in fans storming the field.

“The Grove will be rocking,” Luke said.

 

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