Can Ole Miss beat Alabama again? Crimson Tide players downplaying grudge match
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — These Alabama players don’t have a lot of experience in redemption games against teams that beat them the previous season.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide didn’t handle the last one against the only team to beat them the last two seasons, losing to Mississippi last season in a turnover-filled shootout. Now, Alabama is trying to change its approach going into Saturday’s visit to the 19th-ranked Rebels.
Alabama players are bypassing the grudge match talk, and mostly downplaying the added motivation of the latest rematch Saturday. Coach Nick Saban said last year’s team was anxious going into this game, and it showed.
The result was a five-turnover performance, including two fumbled kick returns, in a 43-37 loss.
“I feel like we put too much pressure, too much emphasis on revenge and all that stuff, so we are definitely not focusing on anything like that this year,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said Monday. “We are just focusing on playing well.”
The Tide (2-0) has rebounded from both losses to win out heading into the playoffs, including last season’s run to the national title. No Saban team has ever lost to the same opponent three straight times.
Alabama veterans have unhappy memories from their last trip to Oxford, Mississippi, which ended with Rebels fans storming the field to celebrate the upset. The 2015 meeting included Chad Kelly’s bobble and essentially blind 66-yard touchdown pass that bounced off defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick’s helmet and into the arms of Quincy Adeboyejo.
Kelly and the Rebels also made a number of big plays that didn’t require a fortuitous bounce but Alabama players still left Bryant-Denny Stadium feeling like they beat themselves.
It’s not an experience they’re accustomed to these days. Most Tide players are sticking with the party line that it’s just another SEC West game and doesn’t offer extra motivation with the back to back losses. Though Allen did say it lingered more than others in the offseason.
“Of course, that’s the only game we lost so definitely that’s the one we’re going to focus the most on,” he said. “We definitely need to clean up our game.”
One similarity to the last meeting is Alabama’s uncertain quarterback situation.
Saban benched Jake Coker — who started every other game — in favor of Cooper Bateman against Ole Miss last season. Freshman Jalen Hurts has split time with redshirt freshman Blake Barnett in the first two games, both lopsided wins. But Hurts started against Western Kentucky and passed for 287 yards, drawing praise for his poise and leadership since his arrival in January from teammates.
Saban isn’t saying if that was enough to give Hurts a stranglehold on the starting job.
In the meantime, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze isn’t claiming to have a secret formula for beating Alabama. He said playing the Tide early is one equalizing factor when injuries sometimes haven’t taken a toll on depth, where ‘Bama typically has the advantage. Believing you can match their physical play is another factor.
“I think it is a combination of the confidence that has been set through playing them the four years we have been here and playing them early is advantageous,” Freeze said.
Kelly said really believing you can win is important.
“That’s really the key, having that mindset that you can accomplish anything, that you can go in any atmosphere and win regardless of the situation,” the quarterback said. “As long as you have a great mindset going in and execute, that’s what it comes down to, execution.”
It certainly did last season. Ole Miss executed, Alabama oftentimes didn’t.
AP Sports Writer David Brandt contributed to this report.
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