TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In what seems to be a growing trend, the No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide must once again prepare for a team unsure of the health of one of its top weapons on offense.
Week 1, it was Michigan's starting running back Fitzgerald Toussaint who was kept from playing because of a suspension. The following week, Western Kentucky's offense faltered with starting running back Keshawn Simpson injured on the sidelines. A couple of weeks later, Arkansas was forced to play without All-SEC quarterback Tyler Wilson. Even Florida Atlantic went to bat in Tuscaloosa without quarterback Stephen Curtis.
This week, it's Ole Miss' turn to wonder whether its starting quarterback will play. Bo Wallace, the Rebels leading passer, has been kept from practice because of a sore shoulder. The 6-foot-4 junior has taken a beating running coach Hugh Freeze's no-huddle, read-option offense. He's attempted more passes (86) than AJ McCarron and had far more rushing attempts, leading the Rebels with 44 carries.
Freeze said on Wednesday that Wallace's status is still uncertain. He was held out of Tuesday's practice despite telling the coaching staff he could go.
"We'll see how the ball is coming out of his hand," Freeze said. "We feel optimistic about it."
If Wallace can't play, the starting duties will fall to Barry Burnetti, who is himself a dual threat at quarterback, rushing for 153 yards and a touchdown on 27 attempts this season.
"Barry has had some good moments in games," Freeze said. "We have confidence he can move our offense. He's been a little inconsistent in practice, particularly in the passing game, but we're getting him prepared."
Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner said the defense is prepared for the different looks each quarterback can bring to the table.
"Burnetti does different things than Wallace," Milliner said. "We just check to whoever is in the game, and whatever Coach [Kirby Smart] calls, we'll run it to a tee."
Whether it's Burnetti or Wallace at quarterback for the Rebels, the defense's top priority will be to get off the field as quickly as possible. Ole Miss likes to run upward of 70 plays a game and are the most successful team in the SEC at converting third downs.
"If we force three-and-out, it’s going to work in our favor," UA linebacker Nico Johnson said. "If we don’t, it’s going to work in theirs."
Johnson said he hasn't faced an offense with so much speed since Alabama played Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators.
"Florida my freshman year, when they had Tebow and (Josh) Demps and all them in the backfield, but other than that, I can’t think of anyone," Johnson told reporters earlier this week.
The Florida connection doesn't end there.
Alabama coach Nick Saban spent Wednesday afternoon reminding everyone what Ole Miss did in Gainesville, Fla., in 2008, shocking the college football world by beating the then fourth-ranked Gators. The speech Tebow gave after that game has become something of football lore in the years that have followed.
The speech has been a source of motivation for Alabama, but Saban was quick to point out that he doesn't want to have to see a moment like Tebow's apology to the world for losing. He doesn't want a loss to occur in the first place.
"Do you have to have an 'I told you so' game and does somebody have to give that speech for you to do what you need to do to realize what's at stake, to realize the opportunity you have to have a very successful, significant season if you can play one game at a time and respect the people you play, and play to your very best each and every time that you play?" Saban said. "That's the challenge and that's what we're looking forward to as coaches."
Saban said facing an offense like Ole Miss' presents a number of challenges, not just in function but personnel.
"They've got really good speed offensively," he explained. "Quarterbacks that do a good job executing what they do, a couple of wideouts that can make explosive plays.
"This is a difficult preparation not only from the no-huddle part, but also from their ability to execute with some pretty good players."