TUSCALOOSA — To hear Nick Saban tell it, every opponent presents an even greater challenge than the previous one.
But when it comes to Saturday’s Southeastern Conference opener at Ole Miss, it’s not just another weekly talking point — it’s reality.
Especially when it comes to the Rebels’ loaded offense, which features arguably one of the deepest and most talented receiving corps in the nation.
"Oh yeah, they have a trio of receivers — A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, and DaMarkus Lodge — these are three NFL caliber guys,” Tide junior safety Deionte Thompson said Monday. “They stretch the field at any time and they have a good quarterback to go along with that trio, so that's something we're going to have to be prepared for.
“We're going to have to do a very good job of preparing for them this week.”
Led by the 6-foot-1 senior Brown and the 6-4 sophomore Metcalf — both of whom are listed at 230 pounds — Ole Miss has a dynamic and physical pair of outside receivers that can both stretch defenses vertically and make difficult catches in traffic, with the body control to do something with the ball once it’s in their hands.
Add a reliable veteran presence in 6-2 senior DaMarkus Lodge, who missed last weekend’s 76-41 victory over Southern Illinois with a concussion but is “probable” against Alabama (2-0), there aren’t many secondaries out there with the personnel to matchup man-for-man.
And with senior gunslinger Jordan Ta’amu efficiently distributing the ball with an SEC-leading 784 passing yards and seven touchdowns this season, the Rebels pass catchers will have plenty of opportunities against Alabama’s rebuilt defensive backfield.
“I think we like the way we match up right now, and it’s just doing the things that we need to do for Saturday to execute,” Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo said Monday.
Last week, Brown led the Rebels (2-0) with eight catches for 158 yards and two scores, while Metcalf pulled in seven catches for 93 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown late in the third quarter that sparked a 34-0 closing run in the 76-41 blowout of Southern Illinois.
“They're playing as well offensively as anybody in the country,” Saban said. “They've got a lot of weapons.”
Among those weapons is Ole Miss sophomore Braylon Sanders, who made his first career start Saturday in place of an injured Lodge (concussion) and pulled down a career-high 133 receiving yards and a touchdown on four catches, while freshman Elijah Moore added a 50-yard touchdown and senior Alex Weber produced a highlight-reel catch that earned him the top spot on Saturday night’s SportsCenter Top 10 plays.
“It was fun to see Elijah Moore get his first touchdown, and a guy like Alex Weber, who has worked hard and been here a long time, being the No. 1 play on SportsCenter on his first ever catch,” second-year Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke said Monday. “It's good to see, obviously A.J., D.K., and Lodge get all the publicity, but (now that) some of the others getting some, that's really good."
Through the first two games this season, Brown leads the SEC averaging 7.5 receptions a game and ranks second in the league and eighth nationally averaging 125.5 receiving yards a game. Meanwhile, Sanders ranks third in the conference averaging both 96.5 receiving yards per game and 24.13 yards a reception.
With Ole Miss’ traditionally-explosive offense coming off its most points (76) and most total yards (646) since 2015, Alabama’s coaches and players understand the arduous task awaiting them Saturday in Oxford.
“I think the RPOs (run-pass options) make it important that the DBs understand that there’s not really just running plays, there are almost passing plays on every running play,” Saban said. “So they have to guard the receivers all the time. You have to be able to play really well on the perimeter.”
Which is why proper technique is vital, especially when fending off a physically capable receiving corps like the Rebels.
“Eventually you have to cover. Eventually you have to play the ball. Eventually you have to affect the quarterback,” Saban said. “I think you have to play good team defense all the way around if you’re going to play well against this quality quarterback, this quality group of receivers and their ability to create balance by running the ball. This is very, very challenging for all the guys on the back end, for sure.”
That won’t include freshman cornerback Jaylen Armour-Davis, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in pregame warm-ups last Saturday, Saban confirmed Monday.
Not that anybody within Alabama’s secondary is making any excuses, no matter the competition.
"No, we just have to come out and play to the standard,” Thompson said. “There's a standard that has been created here. DBs play a certain way and we have to play to that standard.”