In the annals of Southeastern Conference football, the Alabama/Ole Miss rivalry has really not been much of a rivalry at all, as the Crimson Tide has traditionally dominated the annual clash of longtime SEC foes.
Alabama handily leads the overall series between the two schools 47-11-2, but Hugh Freeze's Rebels have become quite the thorn in the side of the Crimson Tide recently.
Ole Miss has won the last two meetings against Nick Saban's team, including last season's 43-37 shootout in Tuscaloosa which saw the visitors take advantage of five Alabama turnovers on the way to giving the host team its only defeat of a 2015 national championship season.
Taking all that into account, plus the fact that Ole Miss already has a loss to Florida State, and can ill afford to drop to 1-2 in the early season if it hopes to make another appearance in an elite bowl, this makes Saturday's matchup between the Rebels and the Crimson Tide a pivotal early showdown.
No. 1 Alabama (2-0) and No. 19 Ole Miss are set to clash at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford in a game set for a 2:30 p.m. CT kickoff. The contest will be televised by CBS.
Although the Rebels have lost a number of key offensive and defensive weapons from a year ago, including Jaylen Walton, Laquon Treadwell, Cody Core, Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche and Trae Elston, Freeze's team is still gifted with a talented roster led by senior quarterback Chad Kelly.
Saban said Monday he knows his top-ranked team is in for another formidable challenge from its SEC Western Division opponent.
"We're certainly looking forward to starting the SEC season, great challenge for us early in the season against a very, very good team," he said. "Playing on the road early on has its own challenges, but this is a team that has really been a prolific offensive football team. They've got a really good quarterback (in Kelly, from Buffalo, N.Y.), a really good tight end (in senior Evan Engram) and a lot of other really good players, young players that are really good players. So, when we have struggled in the past (against the Rebels), we've given up explosive plays, which is something their offense is constantly trying to create, so it's going to be important for us to really play well in the back end, control the line of scrimmage so they can't run the ball effectively against us. Defensively, you know these guys are very aggressive, very quick. A very quick, aggressive front, do a lot of movement and always have against us. It's going to be a challenge for our offensive line and our upfront people, so that's where it's going to start in terms of us getting better execution on the offensive side of it. They're very well-coached and Hugh Freeze has done a fabulous job there. I think this guy is one of the best coaches in our league and certainly does a great job with the players that he has. The fastball pace that they use offensively is always challenging, and it's going to be something our defensive players have to do a good job with."
The Tide coach added that his team needs to focus not so much on gaining payback against the Rebels because of the back-to-back losses against them, but on continued improvement, especially in terms of its fundamental execution on the offensive side of the ball where Alabama has been inconsistent in its two wins against Southern California and Western Kentucky.
"I think what I would rather focus on with our players is not the emotion of the game, there will be plenty of emotion for the game I think, being an SEC game and being a division game, being a team that we've struggled against the last couple of years," said Saban. "I really want to focus on, 'What do I need to do to go out there and pay attention to the details and the things that are right in front of me?," which is 'How do I block this play, how do I cover this guy, and how do I tackle this runner and how do I leverage this ball?' All those types of things. We keep going back to the fact, that everything that we mess up, it's not really what the other team did, it's what we didn't do. We can get more focus on the execution, the process of what we need to do to get it right."'
For the Rebels, it all begins with its accelerated offensive attack led by Kelly, considered by many as the top signal caller in the league, as well as one of the most prolific in the nation.
Through two games, Kelly has completed 41 of 66 passes for 532 yard, along with seven touchdowns and three picks. He has also carried the ball 17 times for 39 yards in 2016.
His leading receiver is Engram, the steady tight end, who has hauled in 11 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown, with a long reception of 42 yards. Junior Damore'ea Stringfellow is second on the team with eight catches for 81 yards and a touchdown.
Senior Akeem Judd leads the Rebel rushing attack so far with 19 carries for 108 yards and a touchdown while Eugene Brazley has totaled 42 yards on six carries.
Defensively, sophomore free safety Zedrick Woods leads Ole Miss with 15 tackles, while senior outside linebacker Terry Caldwell has 14, junior outside linebacker DeMarquis Gates has 13 and graduate transfer linebacker Rommel Mageo and junior defensive end Marquis Haynes have 11 tackles each. Gates leads the team with two sacks and senior nosetackle D.J. Jones has three quarterback hurries to pace the Rebels.
Junior placekicker Gary Wunderlich has converted his only field goal, a 40-yarder against Wofford last week. He also has punted four times for an average of 41 yards while junior Will Gleeson has punted two times for an average of 44.5 yards.
With Ole Miss yet to establish much of a running game threat in the early going and Kelly continuing to identify his main go-to receivers, the Rebel offense does not appear to be quite as dynamic as a year ago, although it is still solid and potentially explosive.
Much of this contest boils down to whether an Alabama defense that appears to have more speed and athleticism, as well as a more aggressive approach under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, can harass Kelly early and often and force the kind of mistakes that have plagued the Tide against Freeze's team the last two seasons.
For Alabama offensively, with freshman quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Blake Barnett facing their first true hostile road environment, it would help greatly if Alabama is able to finally establish some consistency with the ground game to alleviate much of the pressure for the young Tide signal callers.
The main objective for the Tide is to play clean football offensively, and to avoid the crucial penalties and turnovers that have proven to be the ultimate difference in Ole Miss escaping with wins against UA the last two years.