In theory, it’d be easy for No. 2-ranked Alabama to ride into Oxford this weekend on a high horse.
A program that looks as primed as any to compete with Clemson for this year’s national championship faces a first-year coach hoping to lead a controversy-jolted team to its first bowl game in 5 years.
Yet the buzzword around Tuscaloosa this week has been “respect.” Not just because of new Runnin’ Rebels coach Lane Kiffin, who oversaw a juggernaut offense at Bama from 2014-16.
But because the Crimson Tide haven’t become the dynasty they are by overlooking anybody.
“We’re playing a very good Ole Miss team this week,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I think Lane has done an outstanding job there.
“We certainly need to have the proper respect for this team.”
That’s especially true for a defense intent on reaching ultra-elite status once again after finishing 13th in FBS in scoring defense and 21st in total defense last season. Coordinator Pete Golding’s group has made it look easy at times this season.
Among the many impressive stats, this jumps out: The Crimson Tide have allowed just 3 plays covering 30 or more yards.
But that was against Missouri and Texas A&M.
Through 2 games, Kiffin’s offense is something else entirely.
Ole Miss boasts FBS’ No. 4 passing offense and No. 5 total offense after shootouts against Florida and Kentucky. Newly-minted quarterback Matt Corral is 46-for-60 with 357.5 passing yards per game and a passer rating of 211.94 — good for 3rd nationally.
Ole Miss is 1st or 2nd in the SEC in plays covering 10+, 20+, 30+ and 40+ yards.
“There’s a lot of good quarterbacks in our league — and Matt (Corral) certainly is one of them,” Saban said Monday. “I mean he’s played really, really well in the first 2 games. He hurts people with his feet and extends plays, he makes a lot of explosive plays, very accurate with the ball, does a great job of executing their offense, you know, with the RPOs and the reads that he makes.”
Said defensive lineman LaBryan Ray: “Ole Miss have a great offense, one of the best in the nation. It’s a big task for us, but we have to rush smart, rush fast.”
That great offense features game-breaker Elijah Moore, who already has 20 catches this season. Tight end Kenny Yeboah has emerged as a favorite downfield target and averages 21.75 yards per reception.
“As a secondary,” cornerback Patrick Surtain II said, “you get excited for games like these.”
Then, of course, there’s the Lane Factor.
Kiffin’s offenses are notorious for going up-tempo and throwing off defenses with a lot of pre-snap motion. It’s something Bama’s defense has worked on diligently this week, especially in light of “mental errors” referenced by Saban and Surtain that allowed Texas A&M to make things interesting last week and Missouri to score a couple of late touchdowns in the season-opener.
“We’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for the job Lane did when he was here, and he’s doing a lot of the same things,” Saban said.
The weather could make things interesting, too. Hurricane Delta is expected to make landfall in Mississippi and Louisiana as early as Friday.
But Bama’s defenders appear a lot more concerned with stymying Ole Miss’ attack than this weekend’s forecast.
“I think any time you get to play in the rain, it makes it interesting,” Ray said. “That’s something that we’re definitely ready for, if that’s the case.”