Alabama's remade defense gets its toughest test

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Don't let the disparity in rankings fool you. No. 1 Alabama isn't about to sleepwalk into unranked Ole Miss on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). Not given the teams' recent history, and especially not given the way these Rebels have been putting up points of late.

Hugh Freeze might be gone and the torn-down goalpost from that epic game in 2014 might be scattered in bits and pieces around Oxford, Mississippi, but what remains is the same high-flying passing game Freeze installed, which coach Matt Luke and offensive coordinator Phil Longo have taken to another level.

Jordan Ta'amu is the best quarterback you've probably never heard of, with 18 touchdowns and four interceptions in seven career starts. And if you don't know A.J. Brown by now, then you probably don't follow NFL draft rankings, which project the physical 6-foot-1, 230-pound target as possibly the best receiver available.

But it's not just Brown, whose 14 touchdown receptions since the start of last season ranks second among all Power 5 players. His fellow wideouts, DaMarkus Lodge and D.K. Metcalf, are problems, too. Since the start of last season, the trio has combined for nearly three times as many touchdown receptions (30) as Alabama has allowed overall (11).

If Alabama is going to repeat as the national champion, if it is going to have the kind of defense we've come to expect under coach Nick Saban, then this game will tell us a lot.

Now this is where you might be incredulously asking, "But what about last season when Alabama dominated Ole Miss, 66-3?"

That would be a fair point if it weren't missing the point altogether. Because Luke was in only his fifth game as interim head coach at the time, Ta'amu was the backup to Shea Patterson and the game was in Tuscaloosa. Oh, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama's Mr. Everything, All-World defensive back, was still patrolling the secondary.

Now, not only is Fitzpatrick gone but all four starters from last season's secondary are gone, as well. So, too, are its top two reserves, Hootie Jones and Tony Brown.

This is still a talented Alabama defense. No one is denying that. But its inexperience is undeniable, with just two players (defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs and outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings) back who started at least half of last season's games.

What's more, the defense has already been bitten by the injury bug, losing arguably its best pass-rusher, sophomore outside linebacker Terrell Lewis, to a torn ACL over the summer. Midway through camp, it was announced that Chris Allen -- another sophomore outside linebacker -- was likely lost for the season with a knee injury.

The attrition didn't show up in lopsided wins over Louisville and Arkansas State, of course, but those games were essentially tune-ups. As Saban put it Monday, "The real season is really starting now."

"With SEC play coming up, we've had some gifts given to us in the first couple of games, and I don't think that's going to happen."

Saban is talking about missed tackles, missed assignments and missed opportunities. The stat book didn't reflect it, but there were a few botched coverages in Saturday's win over Arkansas State. And the pass rush has been good (five sacks) but not great (LSU and Auburn have nine sacks each).

Do the same against Ole Miss, which has scored the second-most points (123) of any Power 5 team this season, and Ta'amu and those receivers will make you pay.

"These are three NFL-caliber guys," Alabama safety Deionte Thompson said of the Rebs' receivers. "They can 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."

Starting inside linebacker Dylan Moses, who was primarily a special-teams player the last time these teams met, made no bones about it.

"I feel like they do everything well," he said. "They have an explosive offense. Their quarterback has a great arm on him. They have two really great running backs. The offensive line is very good. They protect their quarterback.

"They have a lot of greatness. They could potentially beat us. They could really beat us if we don't handle our business."

With that said, Alabama is probably not in much danger of losing. Ole Miss can certainly score with the best of them, but conversely it can't stop anyone, as evidenced by the 41 points it allowed Southern Illinois last weekend. In other words: Las Vegas sportsbooks favor the Tide by three touchdowns for a reason.

But for a young defense with so many remaining questions, this game could provide an opportunity for some real answers.

"It'll be a great test for us," Moses said.

Taking a cue from their coach, defensive players say they're pleased but not satisfied with their progress to this point.

Thompson, aware of the challenges ahead, expressed confidence in the secondary. He said that he and his fellow new starters in the secondary-- Shyheim Carter, Trevon Diggs, Xavier McKinney and Saivion Smith -- have to "step up" and "play to the standard."

But that standard is admittedly high under Saban.

Defensive lineman Quinnen Williams described it as "the Bama way." And to play to that level meant focusing on the task at hand and figuring out past mistakes, he said.

But when asked how long it takes to become that caliber of defense, Williams couldn't pinpoint an exact time.

"I really don't know," Williams said. "[It takes] everybody buying in and everybody just creating the attitude and everybody doing everything they can do. It can be like this week, but it can be the championship game or the last game of the season. You really don't know. Everybody jells at different times and different moments."

The only thing that's certain right now is that they're not there yet.

But back in Oxford, where Alabama is 1-1 and has given up a combined 66 points in its past two visits, would be a good a place as any to jump-start that process. Against that quarterback and those receivers, this could be a statement game for a defense that still has a lot to prove.