- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's time to turn the page, if you haven't done so already. No. 1 Alabama had its cupcake game against Colorado State last weekend, but now comes the main course with No. 21 Ole Miss coming to Tuscaloosa on Saturday.
The Crimson Tide will win if …
After the way Alabama played against Colorado State, this team needed a talking to. The defense had too many missed assignments and the offensive line did a poor job of communicating. All around, it wasn't a pretty effort. And veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley recognized that, stepping up to talk to his teammates after the game in an effort to make sure the Tide's championship aspirations don't fall by the wayside. The little things that Alabama did so poorly against Colorado State, Mosley told his team, will get them beat, and beat badly by a team like Ole Miss.
Should Alabama play its game -- sound, fundamental football -- it should win. But there are serious questions about the play of the offensive line and the secondary. If either of those two areas do doesn't get turned around, Ole Miss could expose Alabama, whether it’s by forcing turnovers on defense or throwing the ball deep for big gains.
The Rebels will win if …
Meanwhile, Ole Miss comes into this game riding high, undefeated with something to prove. Year 2 of the Hugh Freeze experiment has been better than advertised with big wins over Vanderbilt and Texas. The Rebels have had immediate dividends on its spectacular 2013 signing class. True freshmen Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Tony Conner are all contributing.
But this team has yet to face anyone like Alabama. Going on the road in a tough environment in Tuscaloosa could either make or break Freeze's young squad. That said, Ole Miss does have some veterans to rely on in quarterback Bo Wallace, running back Jeff Scott and wideout Donte Moncrief. And that's just on the offensive side of the football. Much of the same nucleus that gave UA trouble at home a year ago returns to see if it can't learn its lesson and pull off the upset this time.
Ole Miss players to watch
QB Bo Wallace: Much of the talk about his offseason shoulder injury has been put to bed. Wallace, the orchestrator of Ole Miss' up-tempo attack, has looked good throwing the football, spreading it out to all of his receivers, especially his freshman tight end Evan Ingram, who is a nightmare matchup when he's split out.
S Tony Conner: Ole Miss has one glaring deficiency, and that's at cornerback where its starters come in at 5-foot-8 and 5-9, respectively. Alabama's wide receivers aren't giants, but they're bigger than that. Amari Cooper is much taller at 6-1 and true freshman Raheem Falkins would tower over them at 6-4. Instead, look for Ole Miss to pull down the 6-1 Conner from his safety position to get a better size matchup.
LB Denzel Nkemdiche: He says he'll play but his coach isn't committing to anything. Denzel Nkemdiche, older brother of Robert, injured his knee in the season opener and has been pushing to see the field against Alabama. Freeze, though, is taking it day by day. But you have believe Nkemdiche, who was the heart of Ole Miss' defense a year ago with a team-leading 82 tackles. He had a big game against the Tide a year ago, making 11 tackles, a sack and two stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Alabama players to watch
CB Deion Belue: It seems as if Alabama's best on-ball defender will be ready to go, but after sitting out last week's game with a nagging injury, you never know. Should he be sidelined, the secondary will be in big trouble. And even if he isn't, either John Fulton, Cyrus Jones or some other defensive back must step up to match Ole Miss' ability to spread the field, especially in the slot with Treadwell, who leads the Rebels in catches and receiving yards.
OLB Adrian Hubbard: Alabama's leading sack getter a season ago has been conspicuously quiet since skipping the NFL to return to school. Adrian Hubbard, the lanky pass rusher at Sam linebacker, has no sacks and just two tackles for loss this season. Against Ole Miss' spread, his ability to hold the edge and pressure the pocket will be huge.
O-line: Week 1 meant panic. Week 2 was relief. And Week 3 was a giant step back. It looked as if Alabama's offensive line has solved its problems against Texas A&M two weeks ago, moving the line of scrimmage almost at will, but against CSU this past weekend the sloppy play returned. Poor communication and bad technique are to blame, so say players, but however you define it 66 yards rushing, the number Alabama got against the lowly Rams, will not be enough against an SEC foe like Ole Miss.
3: Sometimes we go really in depth in the stats department, but we'll keep this number simple. Ole Miss shot itself in the foot last year with three turnovers, two from Wallace. The veteran quarterback led the league in interceptions last season (17) but he seems to have turned it around this year with zero picks through three games.
33.3: A year ago, Alabama had little trouble moving the football and converting on third downs. Not so this season as the Tide has slipped to 98th nationally and next to last in the SEC in third-down conversion percentage, moving the sticks one every three attempts, on average.
8: Alabama has owned the first half of games, outscoring teams 73-24. Those leads, though, have been harder to come by in the second half where that scoring differential slips to just eight points.
6dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough