OXFORD, Miss. — Lane Kiffin has opened up the once-vanilla Alabama offense, and the first-year offensive coordinator has the Crimson Tide piling up passing yards and points.
Slowing down Alabama has become even tougher.
No. 11 Ole Miss (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) will see if it’s up to the challenge when the Rebels host the third-ranked Crimson Tide (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday. Alabama is averaging 42 points and 335.8 passing yards per game and features one of the nation’s best receivers in Amari Cooper.
The Rebels — at least statistically — have the best defense in the SEC. They’re giving up just 8.5 points and 248 total yards per game.
“Something’s got to give at some point,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “At the end of the day, it’ll be about players making plays.”
A talented Ole Miss recruiting class from last year has matured into its sophomore season, with guys like defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and safety Tony Connor turning into bona fide stars.
Last week against Memphis, the Rebels’ defense was nearly flawless, giving up 104 total yards in a 24-3 victory. Third-year Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said it was the best effort he’d seen from the group since he arrived.
But that was Memphis. This is Alabama — a team that has beaten Ole Miss 10 times in a row.
The last time the Rebels won in this rivalry, Eli Manning was flinging passes around the field.
This time, the key to an Ole Miss victory likely relies on the defense.
“Guys have got to embrace this any way we can,” Nkemdiche said. “We’ve got to be focused in practice and do what we’ve been doing every week. If we execute and do what we should, we’ll be good.”
Freeze said Kiffin’s arrival in Tuscaloosa has made the Tide even more of a handful, combining offensive innovation on with five-star talent all over the roster. Alabama quarterback Blake Sims completed 23 of 33 passes for 445 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Florida on Sept. 20.
Amari Cooper caught 10 of Sims’ passes for 201 yards and a touchdown. And then there is the Tide’s three-man backfield of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake.
“Having the kids they have makes their schemes even better,” Freeze said. “I know coach (Nick) Saban is getting out of his kids what he wants to, and they, under Lane, have changed a bit offensively that has made them more difficult to defend.”
Alabama’s offense may look different. But the Tide say the Ole Miss defense does, too.
“They like to do a lot of movement, so we’re gonna have to be able to adjust,” Alabama fullback Jalston Fowler said. “They’ve got some quickness off the edge. Got a big man in Nkemdiche right there in the middle. So we’re gonna have to out physical this game.”
There will be one more added wrinkle to the Ole Miss defense vs. Alabama offense matchup Saturday. Kiffin’s brother, Chris, is the defensive line coach at Ole Miss.
Freeze said it makes for some fun talk around the locker room, but probably won’t make much of a difference at game time.
“Chris will want to win and Lane will want to win,” Freeze said. “At end of the day, it’s not about Lane or Chris or Nick or Hugh. It’s about these kids who will have to win the battles.”