Tide vs. Rebels not as significant as 2009
By MICHAEL CASAGRANDE
Special to the Ledger-Enquirer
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A year ago, this was a matchup that was billed as the defacto SEC West title game.
Mississippi was the preseason darling and everyone’s best bet to knock Alabama off the throne and steal its ticket to the SEC title game.
That didn’t happen. The Crimson Tide handed the Rebels their second loss of the season in October, and the rest of the story is pretty well known.
Now, the two are set for the 2010 renewal of the rivalry, but they face different circumstances. Eighth-ranked Alabama (6-1, 2-1 SEC) is looking to restart a winning streak after having its string of 19 snapped a week ago in South Carolina, while Mississippi (3-2, 1-1) is coming off a bye week and renewed optimism following a pair of embarrassing losses that opened the year.
Jacksonville State, a Football Championship Subdivision member, isn’t supposed to leave Oxford with a win. Neither is SEC bottom feeder Vanderbilt.
So when the Rebels needed a spark, the power came from the retooled offense that found its footing in its most recent two outings. Scoring a combined 97 points against Fresno State and Kentucky, new quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is finding his way after transferring from Oregon during the summer.
“I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress,” Mississippi coach Houston Nutt said. “I wish we could start over today. We have gotten better. We got back to fundamentals and got back to doing the little things right. You can never take that for granted.
“… I think that the chemistry between Masoli and the team has always been there. He is a guy we haven’t had to worry about. He has earned his way in with hard work and tremendous attitude. He wants to please and fit in. He is a playmaker.”
A far cry from the tall pocket passer Jevan Snead that carried the burden last season, Masoli is smaller, faster and much more of a threat to take off.
To prepare for that, Alabama speedy true freshman Blake Sims played the role of the new Rebels quarterback on the scout team.
“(Sims) broke me down (Tuesday) once or twice,” linebacker Nico Johnson said. “Having athletes like Blake makes a real big difference. Having a scout team to carry out that role in practice, it should be easier in the game. We should be used to it by the game time.”
Ball security has been an issue for the Rebels, who rank last in the SEC in turnover margin (-3) while the Tide leads the way (+7). Masoli’s last outing against Kentucky was his first at Mississippi without an interception.
It was also his only sub-100-yard passing day of the year. On the ground, he has three triple-figure games, including his past two with 228 yards on 19 carries against Fresno State and 108 on 23 attempts against the Wildcats.
The Rebels also have the SEC’s third-leading rusher in Brandon Bolden, who averages 103.6 yards per game.
“He’s a good runner and a good-sized guy,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Bolden. “He’s got good instincts and vision as a runner … and has a relentless competitive attitude.”