Week 5 of the 2021 college football season is filled with intriguing and high-profile matchups in the SEC, with none bigger than Ole Miss meeting Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide are No. 1 in the nation, but the Rebels have their sights set on an upset after last year's shootout in Oxford. In addition to two high-scoring offenses and elite quarterbacks squaring off, there's also the storyline of former Alabama assistant Lane Kiffin returning to Tuscaloosa. Alabama coach Nick Saban is 23-0 against former assistants, but Kiffin has the firepower to make this one interesting on Saturday.
Alabama began its national title defense with a convincing 44-13 win over Miami in Atlanta, followed by an easy 48-14 victory over FCS Mercer. The Crimson Tide needed a goal-line stand on a two-point conversion and a couple of timely plays on offense to escape Gainesville with a 31-29 win over Florida on Sept. 18. But after the close call with the Gators, Saban's squad crushed Southern Miss 63-14 to move to 4-0. With a significant amount of personnel and coaching turnover from the 2020 team, it's no surprise Alabama isn't quite firing on all cylinders. However, with the amount of talent and potential this team has, the two-point win in Gainesville might speed up that development, especially as Saban pushes his program to match the standard.
Alabama sits atop the SEC West pecking order, but Ole Miss hopes to change that under Kiffin. The Rebels showed marked improvement last year and continued that trajectory so far in '21. Ole Miss handled Louisville 43-24 in the opener, defeated FCS Austin Peay 54-17 in Week 2, and cruised to a 61-21 win over Tulane on Sept. 18. A high-powered offense led by quarterback Matt Corral is the catalyst for the improvement in Oxford, but after ranking as one of the worst in the SEC last fall, the Ole Miss defense appears to be significantly improved. That combination makes Kiffin's team a dangerous threat to the rest of the West Division.
Alabama holds a 56-10-2 series edge over Ole Miss. The Crimson Tide have won five in a row over the Rebels and scored at least 48 points in each of those victories. Ole Miss has just two all-time victories in games played in Tuscaloosa.
Ole Miss at Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Alabama -15.5
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
The Rebels bring the SEC's No. 1 offense to Tuscaloosa this Saturday, averaging 7.7 yards per play and 52.7 points a contest. Quarterback Matt Corral — perhaps the top player at his position in college football through the first month of the season — is the catalyst for Kiffin's attack. Through three games, Corral has passed for 1,006 yards and nine touchdowns and added 158 yards and five scores on the ground. He's completed the most passes of 20-plus yards of any quarterback in the SEC (20) and ranks second in the conference in yards per attempt (10.5).
Corral has a plethora of talented playmakers on the outside to test an Alabama secondary ranked eighth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. Dontario Drummond (20 catches), Jonathan Mingo (15), and Braylon Sanders (eight) headline the top targets, but Kiffin and coordinator Jeff Lebby will get the running backs involved in the passing game, as well as tight end Chase Rogers and converted quarterback John Rhys Plumlee. Although the Crimson Tide's pass defense doesn't stand out on paper — a ranking likely skewed by the limited sample size — no team has thrown for more than 195 yards against this group, and the secondary is limiting teams to 6.7 yards per attempt.
Alabama's defense has allowed 481 rushing yards this year, with 244 coming in the win at Florida. Was the Crimson Tide's defensive performance in that game a sign of flaws or simply a one-game blip? Ole Miss should push that theory, as Jerrion Ealy (188 yards), Henry Parrish Jr. (176), and Snoop Conner (125) give Kiffin a trio of backs capable of testing the Alabama defensive front.
Slowing the Kiffin offense with Corral at the helm has been a major challenge over the last two years, but there's a common denominator in the team's five losses last year. Corral tossed 14 picks in 2020, all coming in losses, including five against LSU and six versus Arkansas. How Alabama chooses to defend Corral is a storyline to watch early on. The Crimson Tide should deploy linebacker Will Anderson on pressures to speed up Corral's reads, but the defense will also have to bend a little to prevent big plays.
When Alabama Has the Ball
New faces in key spots headlined Alabama's preseason outlook on offense for 2021. Bill O'Brien replaced Steve Sarkisian as the play-caller, three new starters stepped into roles up front, Bryce Young assumed the quarterback job from Mac Jones, and the offense needed new playmakers to step up to replace Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith, and Jaylen Waddle. Despite all of that turnover, and as expected, the Crimson Tide still boast one of the nation's top offenses. Alabama is averaging 7.1 yards per play and 46.5 points a game. However, going into Saturday's showdown versus Ole Miss, this unit is still capable of reaching another gear.
Young has torched Alabama's four opponents for 1,126 yards and 15 touchdowns, connecting on 72.1 percent of his throws and tossing just one pick. The sophomore is already among the top quarterbacks in the nation. A scary thought for the rest of the SEC too: He will only get better with more snaps. Young doesn't lack for options outside, as Jameson Williams (24.9 yards per catch) and John Metchie III are two big-time difference makers, with tight end Jahleel Billingsley (six) starting to emerge after a slow start. Also, freshmen JoJo Earle and Agiye Haill figure to be more of a factor as the season progresses.
While the Alabama passing game isn't a concern, O'Brien and Saban are still trying to get the ground attack sorted out. After averaging five yards a carry last fall, the Crimson Tide's rushing offense has dipped to 4.6, and the team didn't muster more than 158 yards on the ground in games versus Miami, Mercer, and Florida. Was an output of 211 versus Southern Miss last week a sign of things to come? Finding the right mix and play up front is crucial to help Alabama's entire offense take the production up a notch. Running back Brian Robinson Jr. is expected to return after missing last week due to injury, but O'Brien will rotate a couple of backs into the game, including Jase McClellan, Roydell Williams, and Trey Sanders.
Improving the defense had to be a priority if Ole Miss wanted to challenge for the SEC West title in 2021. So far, the early returns are good. The Rebels are allowing 4.8 yards per play, down from 6.7 in 2020. Also, this group is limiting teams to 3.6 yards per rush (down from 5.3) and 20.7 points a contest (down from 38.3). While the signs are encouraging for Kiffin, this defense has yet to be tested by an offense like Alabama's.
This should be the most intriguing game of the Week 5 slate. Can Ole Miss slay the Goliath of the SEC in Alabama? Were the flaws showed in the Crimson Tide's win over Florida a sign of things to come or simply a one-game blip in this team's march to the CFB Playoff? Has Saban and his staff corrected some of the defensive and offensive concerns from the SEC opener in Gainesville? The guess here is both offenses land their share of punches, and Young and Corral will produce as expected. However, in a game where a couple of defensive stops are likely to decide the outcome, you have to give an edge to Alabama's group.
Prediction: Alabama 45, Ole Miss 31
Podcast: Complete Week 5 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread