Be it in the 50-point wins of the previous two seasons or in the losses of 2014 and 2015, the University of Alabama football team has known what to expect from recent Ole Miss teams: big passing numbers.
The jury remains out on the 2019 Rebels.
New coordinators and nearly entirely new offensive personnel have forced Ole Miss (2-2, 1-0 SEC) into some growing pains before this weekend’s matchup with No. 2 Alabama. The quarterback issue in Oxford is only complicating matters.
The starting quarterback, Matt Corral, suffered a rib injury in the final six minutes of the 28-20 loss to Cal last week. Freshman backup John Rhys Plumlee entered the game, brought Ole Miss within a touchdown then drive the Rebels to the goal line, where a controversial officiating decision played a role in Ole Miss failing to score what could have been a game-tying touchdown.
“I think John Rhys showed he can go out there and handle himself,” Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said. “He brought a spark into the stadium and on the sideline. Moving forward, what he can bring with his legs, especially against a really good defense, I think that addition gives them something else to prepare for. Because Matt and John Rhys are so different, they have to go into the game preparing for both.
“Again, you hope that Matt is healthy and they have to prepare for both of them. That is the goal, to get them healthy and have both of them available.”
Still, the youth movement and a new coordinator has not dissuaded Ole Miss from its typical offensive system. Corral and Plumlee are both freshmen; the team’s leading receiver by a large margin is a sophomore, as Elijah Moore has 29 catches and no other Rebel has more than seven. The team’s No. 2 running back and best receiving threat from the backfield is a freshman, Jerrion Ealy.
The team still runs RPOs on 39 percent of its snaps, which leads the SEC.
“I think they’re very versatile. They run good routes, they’re pretty fast, they’re pretty physical,” Alabama defensive back Xavier McKinney said.
Cornerback Patrick Surtain II added, “They’ve got a pretty dynamic offense. Their quarterback gets the ball around to their receivers. They put up points on the board, so I feel like it’s going to be a task for us to stop them from doing that.”
Those may seem like strong words for a team currently ranked tied for 59th in the nation in yards per pass attempt and tied for seventh in the SEC in both passes of 10+ yards and passes of 20+ yards. Many of the season numbers are held down by an abysmal debut against Memphis: 9 for 19 for 93 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
The Rebel passing attack has improved since then, arguably putting up its most impressive performance of the season against Cal: completing 60 percent of its passes (29 for 48) for 348 yards against a top 25 pass defense by yards per attempt allowed.
The potential of the Rebel passing attack has UA’s full attention.
“It’s an opportunity to play what could be arguably the best team we’ve played so far this year,” UA coach Nick Saban said. “I know Ole Miss had a tough loss last week. But they’ve played well in a couple of games and had a couple of good wins. The quarterback’s playing really well for them. The backup quarterback came in and played even better in the game last week. They’ve got a really good runner. They’ve got some really good skill players at receiver.
“This is a well coached team and this is a team that we’ve struggled with some in the past. We’re certainly going to have to have a great week of preparation to be able to play well in this game.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson