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The rundown of elite quarterbacks Alabama has faced under Nick Saban includes five Heisman Trophy winners — Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow — and many of the top passers in recent Football Bowl Subdivision history, including Deshaun Watson, Kyle Trask, Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence.
Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral is in that class, Saban said.
“He’s very elusive, he can extend plays, he’s a very accurate passer. He can make plays with his feet. He’s as talented as anyone we’ve seen run or pass in a long time.”
Subplots abound leading into Saturday’s meeting of No. 1 Alabama and the No. 12 Rebels (3:30 ET, CBS), which has the potential to trigger a rippling impact across the competition for the SEC and the College Football Playoff, the chase for the Heisman Trophy and even the jockeying for the high-profile Power Five coaching positions currently open or expected to open in the next two months.
It’s the matchup of immovable Alabama, owners of the longest active winning streak in the FBS at 18 games, and irresistible Ole Miss, which has the skill, talent and offensive ingenuity to disrupt the status quo in the SEC and become the Cinderella story of the 2021 season.
“I don’t know that we’re intimidated,” said Ole Miss linebacker Chance Campbell. “We have a ton of respect for what they do. They’re dangerous, so we understand that and know that.”
An Alabama win would entrench the Tide’s place atop the SEC West and the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll at a moment when many of the leading preseason contenders for the playoff have either lost, such as Ohio State and Clemson, or failed to play up to expectations, as in the case of Oklahoma.
But a loss would dramatically change the entire landscape of that debate, placing Ole Miss in the driver’s seat in the West, making Georgia the clear favorite for an undefeated season and breathing new life into a postseason chase recently dominated by a predictable shortlist of behemoth programs.
A year ago, the Rebels went blow for blow with the Tide before losing 63-48, one of two games during Alabama’s unbeaten season that remained in doubt into the fourth quarter. As in last season’s shootout, Saturday’s meeting will be defined in large part by quarterback play.
A five-star recruit who began to blossom during the pandemic season, Corral has flourished through three games as the driving force behind the nation’s top offense in scoring and yards per game. With nine touchdowns and zero interceptions, Corral has staked an early lead in the race for the Heisman.
Close behind is Alabama first-year starter Bryce Young, who has been a soothing presence for an offense that has undergone uncharacteristic struggles running the football in the transition to a largely new cast of starting and supporting players.
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The idea that Corral and the offense could ignite a monumental upset is rooted in the concept that Ole Miss has clearly improved, particularly on defense, while Alabama is not up to the same standard as last season’s juggernaut, even if the Crimson Tide remain the dominant force in the SEC and beyond.
“Any time you go play a No. 1 team, especially there, you’re going to have to prepare really well, you’re going to have to play really well, you’re going to have to get some breaks go your way to have those type of upsets,” said Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin. “That’s why they rarely happen. You have to have a lot go right.”
History is not on the Rebels’ side. Saban is 23-0 against his former assistant coaches — including Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher and Kiffin himself, to name a few — with an average margin of victory of 25.3 points. In only three of those games, each time against Smart and Georgia, has the Crimson Tide trailed in the second half.
“Even when people know how his place works, he’s still undefeated, which is amazing,” said Kiffin. “It’s not like it’s just the school. It’s one person. He’s been able to maintain it through tons of different players, tons of different coaches. More coaching turnover than I bet anyone has ever had.”
With the exception of Smart, who spent more than a decade under Saban at multiple stops, no assistant coach has had a more profound impact on Alabama’s past and present than Kiffin, who as offensive coordinator from 2014-16 helped orchestrate the program’s shift from pure physicality to the explosively creative scheme that has bred Heisman winners, first-round skill talent and another run of national championships.
“I learned a lot of offensive football from him,” Saban said. “It’s a very well-orchestrated offense but it’s also not only well-conceived but it’s also very well implemented in a game to take advantage of what the defense is doing.”
Kiffin’s three-year stint as an Alabama assistant helped rebuild a reputation tarnished by his one-and-done stint at Tennessee and an uneven stretch at Southern California, which disintegrated on a tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport less than one month into his fourth season.
Beating the Crimson Tide might take this reclamation project full circle, making it increasingly plausible that Kiffin would become a contender for the opening at USC.
“Like I told the players, there’s only one ranking that ever matters,” Kiffin said. “That’s your final ranking. All the other stuff means nothing. It’s like being ahead in three rounds in a heavyweight fight where you’re going 12 rounds. It doesn’t mean anything. We have a long ways to go and a lot of work to do and a lot of things to work on.”
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg