By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD — After a month of offensive ineptitude, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt has finally found some playmakers.
Randall Mackey emerged as the starting quarterback after an encouraging performance in the team’s 38-28 victory over Fresno State on Oct. 1.
The backfield duo of Jeff Scott and Brandon Bolden was impressive as well, accounting for 181 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
Even with all those improvements, Ole Miss (2-3, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) will be a massive underdog when it hosts No. 2 Alabama (6-0, 3-0) on Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“I always try to be as honest as I can with our guys,” Nutt said. “I thought last week we got better as a football team. From Fresno State on we got better. That is what is important. Everyone has a responsibility to get better. Whether you are playing against the Green Bay Packers or Alabama, there is not much difference. You have to play extremely hard and eliminate mistakes.”
Though the Rebels chances at beating Alabama remain slim, the outlook is more promising than in late September, when the program was reeling from lopsided losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia. Nutt’s job security was a constant topic of speculation.
The road victory over Fresno State couldn’t have come at a better time, just before an off week that allowed the team time to evaluate and regroup. It quieted the constant negativity swirling around the program and also provided extra days to prepare for Alabama, which has crushed SEC opponents Arkansas, Florida and Vanderbilt by a combined score of 110-24.
Sobering numbers for sure. But it also puts the Rebels in a no-pressure situation.
“We are underdogs, but we feel like it would be a good game to get our season back and to become a better team,” Ole Miss cornerback Wesley Pendleton said. “We know Alabama is real good, maybe the best team in the country, and we have a lot of respect for them but we’re just going to try and play hard and come out with the win.”
The Rebels’ recent offensive awakening gives some hope.
Mackey replaced Zack Stoudt at quarterback against Fresno State and the move worked. In his first career start, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound junior completed 8 of 18 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown.
The former junior college All-American at East Mississippi Community College redshirted last season while learning the game behind senior Jeremiah Masoli, who accounted for 2,583 yards of total offense last season.
The two are quite similar in style: Both are short for quarterbacks, but overcome the height disadvantage with the ability to move outside the pocket and make plays while running or throwing.
Mackey appeared to have won the starting job in preseason camp, but was arrested for disorderly conduct after a fight at a downtown Oxford bar in late August and suspended for the season opener against BYU. Now he’s earned his way back into the starting lineup.
“Randall Mackey, he sees stuff that a lot of quarterbacks don’t see,” Ole Miss receiver Ja-Mes Logan said. “It amazes me because he’s so short, but that just shows you the path he has come.”
Mackey looked comfortable against Fresno State, but is smart enough to know that Alabama’s defense won’t be nearly as forgiving. The Crimson Tide are first in the SEC in scoring defense (7.0 points per game), first in rushing defense (39.8 yards per game) and second in pass defense (151.5 yards per game).
Mackey said film study hasn’t revealed many weaknesses.
“They give teams pretty much nothing, so you have to earn everything you can,” Mackey said.
Though Ole Miss appears to be overmatched, Alabama coach Nick Saban is wary of the Rebels.
He has a good reason. Nutt has pulled off his share of stunners during 14 years in the SEC. The 53-year-old coach has five career victories over Top 5 teams.
Saban said the Fresno State game was proof that the Rebels were improving.
“We’ve had some really tough games with these guys over the years,” Saban said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Houston Nutt and the kind of coach that he is and the way he utilizes the personnel that he has.”
AP Sports Writer John Zenor contributed to this story.