September 26, 2012 8:57:25 AM
OXFORD -- The University of Mississippi football team's defense is undersized, inexperienced, and doesn't have much depth.
The No. 1 University of Alabama Crimson Tide has a punishing, effective offense that has steamrolled every team it has faced this season.
The mismatch that presents is obvious. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said his team's job is to ignore it.
"We are who we are," Freeze said. "We have to get our kids to play above and beyond what we've played before to be competitive in this game. They'll be excited about it. It can be a David versus Goliath deal. Why not go and have fun with it?
"We have nothing to lose."
Ole Miss (3-1, 0-0 Southeastern Conference) is trying to snap a 14-game SEC losing streak when it travels to face Alabama (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Crimson Tide has won 25 of the past 27 meetings in the series, including eight straight.
The Rebels probably have to play a perfect game to end the losing streak.
But a solid start to the season -- including an improved defensive performance in a 39-0 rout of Tulane last week -- give the Rebels hope that they can make the game competitive.
Ole Miss forced four turnovers against the Green Wave and held them to just 159 total yards in the lopsided victory. It was much-needed good news after the Rebels gave up 66 points and 676 total yards in a loss to Texas on Sept. 15.
There's a huge gap in talent between Tulane and Texas, but Ole Miss players say the progression was real.
"We saw improvement with our execution and our eyes (against Tulane) -- we saw a big jump with that really," Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche said. "No matter what team you play, if you don't have your eyes right they're going to give up big plays."
Nkemdiche, a 5-foot-11, 203-pound freshman, is typical of this Ole Miss defense. He's raw and probably could use a year or two in the weight room before facing SEC competition, but he's fearless, competitive and the best option the Rebels have given the circumstances.
Freeze said he can live with a few mistakes as long as there's effort.
Alabama coach Nick Saban was quick to praise Freeze, saying the Rebels were "a much, much, much improved team." Most of his compliments were given to Freeze's no-huddle offense, but he also was impressed with the team's defensive speed.
"They forced a bunch of turnovers last week," Saban said. "This is a team that's completely different."
Saban's offense will present a straightforward challenge on Saturday.
The Crimson Tide has the bigger, faster players. Running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon -- who have combined for 486 yards and six touchdowns -- will try to run over the Rebels. Quarterback A.J. McCarron -- who has thrown 10 touchdowns and no interceptions -- will be aiming for receivers like Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones, who will try to run past the Rebels.
There will be very few secrets.
"No tricks or anything like that," Ole Miss cornerback Charles Sawyer said. "If it's a run it's a run and if it's a pass then it's a pass. That's how they play."
And Alabama is very good at it, outscoring opponents 168-21 so far this season.
Freeze said it's a daunting challenge for this team, but one he relishes.
"You always want to prove that you can do a job," Freeze said. "I've said since I got here, one of the things that motivates me the most is wanting to be able to deliver for the Ole Miss people."
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