TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Our popcorn was ready, buttered and salted.
Our hopes were high, our expectations through the roof.
We told ourselves this was it, that Alabama finally faced a real challenger to its SEC Western Division dominance, that coach Nick Saban finally had a threat to his remarkable streak of never losing, in 23 tries, to a former assistant coach.
Lane Kiffin knew Saban’s weaknesses (remember last year’s 63–48 shootout in Oxford?). He knows what irks the man, what frazzles his usually stingy defense. Lane has the solution for the problem that has vexed all of college football for a decade now, right? He’s got the cure for the Alabama ailment, the potion for a miraculous upset.
He’s got a Heisman Trophy candidate of a quarterback, a vastly improved defense, a creative offensive mind and, to be frank, the cojones to beat the master.
The theater was readied. The popcorn popped. The soda cup filled. The lights lowered.
And then, right before our eyes, from high within the press box at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the screen flickered to life.
Alabama 42, Ole Miss 21.
What a dud.
Two thumbs down, way down. A stinker billed to be a blockbuster. A yawner hyped as a thriller.
The 2021 edition of Alabama–Ole Miss will be remembered more for its pregame ballyhooing than its true theater experience. Take for instance Kiffin’s on-field interview seconds before kickoff, when he quipped to CBS cameras, “Get your popcorn ready,” before slinging his headset toward the production crew.
The coach served up some popcorn all right—stale, burnt and chewy.
His team failed to convert three of a whopping five fourth down attempts in the first half, three from his own territory—eccentric decisions that reeked of desperation and a lack of trust in his defense.
Maybe he was right. Bama ran for 210 yards, averaging over four yards a run. Ole Miss’s defense is a 3-2-6 scheme designed to stop the pass-happy spread that often drops eight defenders into coverage, Saban says. There was a pretty simple solution to that: run the dang ball.
“It felt like classic Alabama football, pound it,” said running back Brian Robinson Jr.
The Tide gashed the Rebels, scored the first 35 points of the game and led 42–7 before a pair of Ole Miss garbage time scores.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Or maybe it was?
This seems to happen every year or two. A Saban assistant fields a pesky upstart that is deemed as a challenger to the game’s greatest coach before the greatest coach proves his greatness.
Ask Kirby Smart and Jimbo Fisher. Ask Derek Dooley and Will Muschamp. Saban’s former assistants are now 0–24 against him.
However, this one feels different. Kiffin and Saban are notorious opposites. Their three-year marriage ended in a fiery blaze in 2016. Ever since, Kiffin has found ways to subtly skewer Saban, both on social media and during interviews. In between glowing compliments, he takes cracks at his old boss.
“You don’t poke the bear,” says one former Saban assistant. “Just don’t poke the bear.”
The bear doesn’t poke back. It bites.
If it wasn’t Bryce Young scrambling for an open receiver (21 of 27 for 241 yards), it was Robinson racing through gaping holes or pushing piles of Rebels (36 rushes for 171 yards). If it wasn’t a Will Anderson tackle for loss (he had 2.5 of them), it was a Henry To’oTo’o tackle (10 for the game).
And if it wasn’t an Ole Miss fourth-down attempt, it was one from the Tide. In fact, a situation that unfolded late in the second quarter really summed up the day here. From his own 31-yard line, Kiffin went for it on fourth-and-1. To’oTo’o stuffed a rush, Alabama took over and, five plays later, Saban himself attempted a fourth down from the 1-yard line on a goal-to-go situation. The Tide scored a touchdown.
Kiffin put his defense into difficult circumstances, to say the least. After the game, he described the fourth-down attempts as analytical decisions. He talked of “scared money” and Blackjack tables.
"I'm sure I got killed on going for it on fourth down,” he said. “That's analytics. When it doesn't work when you follow the book, it doesn't look good.”
It’s unclear from which book he’s reading (what book suggests going for it in your own 31?)
Let’s scan through those first-half fourth-down attempts:
• Fourth and 3 from UA 35: converted
• Fourth and 3 from UA 18: converted
• Fourth and 1 from UA 6: failed
• Fourth and 2 from OM 47: failed
• Fourth and 1 from OM 31: failed
Said Kiffin of the fourth downs: “You can punt it away and it just takes longer for them to score.”
The first three of those fourth-down attempts came on Ole Miss’s 16-play, 59-yard opening drive—one that ended in a turnover on downs at the Alabama 6 and gave us the only real positive flashes of the Rebels' offense.
The thrilling opening scene further heightened expectations for this Hollywood script. But alas, it was all downhill from there. In fact, Mississippi's next four drives produced 15 snaps and 31 yards. The Rebels' previous Heisman hopeful of a quarterback, Matt Corral, finished the game with as many fumbles (one) as he had touchdown passes, and he failed to pass for at least 280 yards for the first time this season (he had 213 Saturday).
Corral had little time to throw.
“We got dominated up front,” Kiffin deadpanned.
Alabama’s romping victory fell in line with the theme of college football’s first Saturday in October: Order has been restored.
Arkansas and Ole Miss, undefeated upstarts, were crushed by what seems to be the nation’s two most elite teams, Georgia and Alabama. Ohio State found itself finally, crushing Rutgers, and Iowa rolled over undefeated Maryland. Oklahoma’s offense found the spark against Kansas State, and the Pac-12, of course, shot itself out of playoff contention (down went Oregon).
For the most part—Notre Dame aside—the College Football Playoff bluebloods roared to life for the first time in a single weekend this year.
Of course, Alabama has been roaring for quite some time. Saban and his Tide made this such a dud. So much for that thriller. So long to that popcorn.
Toward the end of the game, in fact, Big Al, the Tide’s elephant mascot, trolled Kiffin’s words with a wardrobe addition. He emerged from the tunnel with an oversized bucket hanging from his neck.
It was full of popcorn.