The 15th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels head into Bryant-Denny Stadium this weekend for a matchup with the No.2 Alabama Crimson Tide. According to ESPN’s pregame matchup quality metric, the game is projected to be the fourth-best regular season game of the past five seasons.
While the parameters for what makes this a top game of 2015 are granular, it isn’t short on narrative.
Behind then-quarterback Bo Wallace, the Rebels upset the Crimson Tide last season, 23-17, to snap a 10-game losing streak to their in-conference rival. In the long history of this rivalry — they first met in 1894 — the Rebels have never won two straight. Not only does the team have an opportunity to change that Saturday in Tuscaloosa, the Rebels are favored to do so.
ESPN’s Football Power Index, which measures a team to predict future performance, gives the Rebels a 56 percent chance of winning. Although the algorithm hasn’t favored an away team in Bryant-Denny Stadium in nearly a decade, it’s hard to argue against the Rebels currently.
Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze was projected to lead the nation’s top defense this season; offensively, they were believed to be outside the top 25. Through two weeks, it has been quite the opposite: The Rebels have racked up 149 points, the most any FBS team has amassed in the first two games of a season since 1937, per ESPN, and rank eighth in defensive efficiency. Competition, admittedly, has been razor-thin—the team has bludgeoned Tennessee-Martin and Fresno State by an average margin of 62.5 points.
Behind yet another otherworldly recruiting class, Alabama ranks seventh in offensive efficiency and 20th in defensive efficiency thus far. With the departure of T.J. Yeldon came the emergence of Derrick Henry, who has six rushing touchdowns and 243 rushing yards through week two. The team has already beheaded a ranked opponent (Wisconsin), and hasn’t lost in the first three weeks of the regular season since 2003.
For Alabama, this matchup will be decided on the ground.
Since Coach Nick Saban arrived, in 2007, the team is 72-6 when they run for better than four yards per carry. For context: Ole Miss is currently allowing 3.1 yards per rush attempt, and held Alabama to 3.8 yards per rush in 2014—nearly 1.5 yards lower than their season average (5.1).
Conversely, for Ole Miss, what happens in the air will ultimately decide the game’s outcome. Since 2010, the Rebels are 2-16 when they throw for fewer than 200 yards against Southeastern Conference opponents. Four of those losses are to Saban, and since 2000 the Rebels have put up less than 200 passing yards eight times against Alabama, losing by an average of 16.1 points per contest.
The preliminary edge has to be given to the Rebels on account of how explosive their offense has been. Offensive coordinator Dan Werner’s offensive firepower is averaging precisely one point per play, which leads all FBS teams. Alabama ranks No. 33 in the metric, averaging 0.48 points per play.
Alabama neither has an offensive or defensive advantage, but history would suggest that Saban’s squad will hardly fall easily: the Rebels have walked away victorious in Tuscaloosa once in 27 all-time meetings. Ole Miss has never walked into a primetime matchup with Chad Kelly — who leads the nation in Total Quarterback Rating (94.3) by a wide margin, and is completing 72.5 percent of his passes, which ranks 10th among quarterbacks who have attempted at least 40 passes. Nor has the team walked into the matchup touting an SEC-leading 276.5 yards per game on the ground to balance the load.
It’s hardly plausible to argue that Ole Miss can continue to produce the ostentatious figures they’ve showcased this season, particularly on Saturday. Alabama is a formidable opponent because the Tide is almost always a formidable opponent and have won 76.3 percent of their home games since 1990. But the Rebels are heading into Alabama with enough steam to remove the wrinkles of every collared shirt in Bryant-Denny Stadium, and the Crimson Tide haven’t faced a holistically potent team like this since Ohio State. The Rebels could make history Saturday, and likely will.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.