One thousand and eighty four.
That’s how how many suns have risen and set since Alabama last beat Ole Miss on the gridiron. Forty percent of Nick Saban’s losses during that big window have come at the hands of Hugh Freeze and the Rebels.
On Saturday, the little brother in college football’s hottest rivalry finally ran out of time. The Crimson Tide won, 48-43, despite doing their best to let the Rebels’ streak continue.
We’ll never know just how much those shortcomings have haunted Saban, whose perfectionist personality is all too well-known. But the sheer relief evident on his face during the postgame TV interview painted a telling picture.
“It was an unbelievable game, a hell of a game,” Saban said. “I’m just really proud of our team.”
Translation: We were really fortunate to win that game.
As Jonathan Allen rumbled toward the end zone on his 75-yard interception return, flanked by teammates on all sides, you thought this was the moment Alabama took control and squeezed out a comfortable victory. Then Chad Kelly connected on a late touchdown pass, Ole Miss recovered an onside kick, Kelly bombed a 37-yard touchdown one play later and Bo Scarbrough coughed up a final-drive fumble that nearly caused a spike in Tuscaloosa-area heart attacks.
Luckily for Scarbrough, one of his offensive linemen plopped on top of that loose ball as hastily as a 300-pound man can.
Ironic, isn’t it, that on this day an O-lineman was Alabama’s savior?
The ghosts of Freeze and Kelly might not be occupying Saban’s dreams anymore — or at least for the next four months — but Saturday’s wild shootout brought to light a whole set of issues that were simmering under the surface during Alabama’s first two games.
Offensive identity will be a hotly debated topic in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama’s first six possessions ended in three punts, a field goal, a missed field goal and a fumble return touchdown. Lane Kiffin called 42 plays, which resulted in 150 yards, 3 points for Alabama and 6 points for Ole Miss. During that sequence, Crimson Tide running backs received a total of 9 carries despite Damien Harris picking up tough yardage and Joshua Jacobs busting a 25-yard run. Kiffin’s “screen pass them to death” game plan was ineffective and confused people far more important than this reporter.
— Alex Leatherwood (@Alskee_) September 17, 2016
Kiffin eventually figured things out, namely that leaving your freshman quarterback to run for his life against a fearsome pass rush is not ideal, and that running the ball is still allowed at Alabama. A 334-yard rushing effort — at 7 yards per carry, no less — shows us exactly what this offense needed to do from the start: establish the run and maintain possession, especially against a fast-paced offense like Freeze’s.
Jalen Hurts is a special talent, but Kiffin asked an awful lot of him in only his second career start. Also remember that even outrageously gifted freshmen are capable of doing this:
And then there was the offensive line, which again was responsible for false starts, holds and blown assignments. The Ole Miss pass rush really gave Alabama fits, as evidenced in the below video of Marquis Haynes wrecking Cam Robinson’s day:
More Marquis Haynes (top of screen). He just destroyed future NFL 1st rounder Cam Robinson… pic.twitter.com/u9Ai5cUVsa
— Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff) September 17, 2016
That unit’s struggles plus Hurts’ inexperience is how O.J. Howard and Gehrig Dieter only end up with 2 catches apiece. Losing ArDarius Stewart hurts, sure, but this receiving corps is deep enough to easily withstand that.
Defensively, Alabama showed that it still does not match up well against Freeze’s finesse brand of spread offense. Kelly was on point for a large majority of the game (421 yards, 3 touchdowns). Evan Engram carved up the secondary for 9 catches, 138 yards and a touchdown.
The difference came down to Kelly’s turnovers and special teams. A sack-fumble turned touchdown, the interception to Allen and Eddie Jackson’s punt return — three Ole Miss mistakes accounted for 21 points in a 5-point game.
“We needed it obviously because we’re five points better than them. We certainly didn’t play our best game,” Saban said.
And yet here is Alabama at 3-0 with its biggest regular season challenge crossed off the list. The question is whether the Crimson Tide can truly grow from here in the above areas, because if they want to repeat, there are absolutely areas for Saban to address.