'Every year is new:' Ole Miss brings new coaches and new mindset into Alabama rivalry
OXFORD — The last three years of the Ole Miss-Alabama rivalry have been as one-sided as one-sided gets.
Alabama (2-0) has won the last three games by a combined score of 187-41. That works out to an average score of 62-14. The Crimson Tide have outgained the Rebels 1,702 yards to 927 yards and have done so on just eight more offensive snaps. Last year was the closest the game had been in years and Ole Miss (1-1) still needed a last-second touchdown to lose by 28 points.
Things might be different now, though. The Matt Luke regime that led Ole Miss in the last three games is out. Replacing Luke is former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who watched firsthand as Ole Miss won two of the three matchups in the rivalry while he worked in Tuscaloosa.
Shifting the mindset of his players away from being the victims of three-straight blowouts to being the aggressors in an upset bid is one of the toughest tasks Kiffin will face Saturday.
"Every year is new. Every year is different," Kiffin said Monday. "But we've got to play better. We've got to limit explosive plays and keep the ball in front of us."
Limiting those explosive plays will be an arduous task. On one side of the ball, Ole Miss is allowing the most yards per game of any team in the FBS. On the other side, Alabama has the No. 3 scoring offense in the FBS and hasn't had to push for points in the fourth quarter of either of its games.
Kiffin said he thinks this might be the best Alabama team Nick Saban has ever coached, particularly with how talented the roster is at every position. On offense, that means a quarterback who leads the FBS in yards per attempt and passer efficiency rating, a running back who leads the SEC in rushing touchdowns and three receivers averaging more than 75 yards per game.
For subscribers:Ole Miss beat Kentucky in spite of its defense. Can the defense be fixed?
"They're like a track team back there," Ole Miss cornerback Deanne Leonard said. "They're fast. They're agile. They can really do it all."
Leonard and his teammates in the secondary probably have the toughest matchup of all. Kiffin joked Monday that he only thought Alabama had two game-breaking wide receivers who can run past everybody on the field. Turns out there are three.
There's DeVonta Smith, who Ole Miss fans might remember from the five touchdowns he caught against the Rebels last season. There's Jaylen Waddle, who is second to Ole Miss' Elijah Moore in receiving yards per game among SEC players this year and is a projected first round NFL Draft pick. And now there's John Metchie III, a deep threat who has averaged more than 30 yards per catch this season.
Throw in running back Najee Harris and his five touchdowns in two weeks and this matchup is a nightmare for an Ole Miss defense that has already allowed a 400-yard passing performance against Florida and a 400-yard rushing performance against Kentucky.
Leonard identified tackling in space, pursuit angles and keeping contain at the line of scrimmage as three areas the defense needs to improve most. Kiffin said he and his staff will have to mix formations and coverages to keep Alabama off-balance.
Comeback kings:How Ole Miss played from behind and pulled off overtime win over Kentucky
The physical and strategic challenges are obvious. But don't overlook the mental ones. Ole Miss does have a new coaching staff and a new philosophy. But most of the players from last year's 59-31 loss are back for this year. A number of Ole Miss seniors have been on the field or sidelines for blowout losses against Alabama three years in a row.
It's easy to take the mentality that Ole Miss has been overmatched in the past and will be overmatched again.
That's not Moore's thought process.
"They put their pads on just like we do," Moore said. "We've just got to be ready. They've got good coaches and good schemes. But we've got good coaches and good schemes too. We're just going to have to see. Of course we want to win. Winning is the ultimate goal. We don't want to go in thinking about the past. We just look forward to the future."
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or email@example.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.