By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD — Through five games, it’s hard to know what to make of Ole Miss.
The Rebels have suffered two embarrassing home losses — one to Jacksonville State, a team from the Football Championship Subdivision, and another to Vanderbilt, which is usually a Southeastern Conference doormat.
But there’s also been two solid wins over Fresno State and Kentucky over the past three weeks.
Though far from a storybook first half of the season, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said he was encouraged that the Rebels were headed in the right direction.
“I wish we could start over today,” he said. “We’ve gotten better. We got back to fundamentals and got back to doing the little things right. You can never take that for granted.”
After an off week, Ole Miss (3-2, 1-1 SEC) will get a better idea if its recent resurgence is for real on Saturday, when it travels to face No. 8 Alabama (5-1, 2-1). The Tide lost 35-21 to South Carolina last weekend — ending their 19-game winning streak.
The game starts a brutal three-game stretch, typical of the beat-’em-up SEC. The Rebels travel to No. 12 Arkansas on Oct. 23 and return to host No. 7 Auburn on Oct. 30.
Just a few days ago, Alabama was the unbeatable behemoth of college football, but Saturday’s two-touchdown loss to South Carolina changed things, dropping the Tide eight spots from No. 1. Ole Miss defensive tackle Jerrell Powe said the Tide “got exposed.”
“They showed that they’re a one-dimensional team that can run the ball really well,” Powe said. “I think South Carolina did a good job of stopping the run and (Alabama) never got anything going.”
Powe’s rhetoric might be accurate, but Ole Miss has had a hard time stopping anybody on defense so far this season, much less Alabama’s powerhouse backfield of defending Heisman winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson.
The Rebels have the SEC’s worst defense, giving up 32.6 points per game.
Linebacker D.T. Shackelford said stopping Ingram and Richardson would have to be a group effort.
“They’re just real good backs, real strong runners, and we just have to make sure we get people to the ball,” he said. “That’s one thing I saw with South Carolina — you always saw burgundy jerseys around the ball.”
The off week gave Ole Miss some time to get back some of its injured defensive players — especially in the secondary. Cornerbacks Charles Sawyer, Jeremy McGee and Marcus Temple are all dealing with the effects of recent concussions, but could play against the Tide. Safeties Brishen Mathews (concussion) and Johnny Brown (knee) have also practice this week.
If the defense can improve, the Ole Miss offense has shown the ability to score points in hurry, scoring a league-high 37.6 points per game, including 55 and 42 in the back-to-back wins against Fresno State and Kentucky.
Transfer quarterback Jeremiah Masoli has learned the Rebels’ offense quickly, throwing for 823 yards and six touchdowns. He’s also the team’s second-leading rusher, with 262 yards and three touchdowns.
Alabama coach Nick Saban certainly wasn’t taking the Rebels for granted.
“Anytime you play Ole Miss it’s a tough game,” Saban said. “Anytime you play a Houston Nutt-coached team it’s a tough game. They bounced back with two quality wins. As Masoli has gotten more comfortable with their offense they have been very, very productive and one of the leading teams in the country in terms of scoring points.”