Ole Miss opens Southeastern Conference play against Vanderbilt Saturday. Raise your hand if you've heard that one before.
Another year, another meeting between the schools, a rivalry dating back as far as 1894, and known for its tightly-contested games.
Vanderbilt expects to beat Ole Miss. Ole Miss expects to beat Vanderbilt. In 2011, with the Rebels off to a 1-1 start and the Commodores a 2-0 start, the stakes have arguably never been higher.
Because both teams are looking to rebound from disastrous seasons a year ago. Both teams are chasing a much-needed bowl bid. Both teams need a win for confidence, for momentum. Saturday is just the beginning.
For Ole Miss, the game is the second real opportunity to get back to the winning ways of 2008 and 2009, to remember the feeling. You know, when the Rebels won nine games in back-to-back seasons en route to consecutive Cotton Bowls wins.
Ole Miss has to beat Vanderbilt to realistically like its chances for a winning season or at least a .500, bowl-worthy season.
Ole Miss lost its season opener to BYU 14-13, a game the Rebels believe they should have won. And, really, they should have. They led 13-0 heading into the fourth quarter, only to suffer another late-game collapse. Those kinds of collapses have become all too regular in a year's time. Then came a 42-24 win over Southern Illinois. But the final score should have been far more lopsided. Ole Miss led 21-0 after the game's first six minutes. Then the Rebels coasted, allowing a much lesser to team to claw its way back into the game.
If there was ever a time for a feel-good, get-‘em-going win, Saturday is it. Ole Miss returns home to face a reeling Georgia team a week later. Then it's off to Fresno State for another critical, winnable game. However, those games matter more if the Rebels arrive back from Nashville with a win. Spirits would be high, both in the locker room (the players, coaches, etc.) and throughout the fan base.
Ole Miss needs a win to rally behind. Will it be against Vanderbilt, a school the Rebels have lost to four times in the last six meetings? It needs to be.
Ole Miss Player to Watch
Ole Miss star running back Brandon Bolden, who suffered a slight fracture in his ankle/foot in the loss to BYU, was a limited participant in practices this week. Bolden won't start Saturday, but head coach Houston Nutt was optimistic Thursday that Bolden will be able to play some. Some Brandon Bolden is better than no Brandon Bolden. So, for another week, sophomore running back Jeff Scott will be under the microscope. The status of secondary rusher Enrique Davis is in doubt. He, too, was limited in practices this week. His playing status is more uncertain than Bolden's. Scott deserves to start anyway after his four-touchdown performance in the 42-24 win over Southern Illinois. Ole Miss has struggled mightily to run the football through the first two games of the season, though it doesn't help much that Bolden and Davis have both been shelved. Scott is the most dynamic play-maker Ole Miss has offensively. He provides an instant spark, and with an offensive line struggling to clear holes, his ability to make something out of nothing with his speed is needed. Plus, Ole Miss has to be cautious with its treatment of Bolden. Can't rush him back, otherwise he runs the risk of worsening his injury.
2011 Stats: CAR: 21 / YDS: 135 / TD: 3 / AVG: 6.4 / REC: 2 / YDS: 25
Vanderbilt Player to Watch
Like Ole Miss, Vanderbilt is banged up in the offensive backfield. Arguably its best offensive player, running back Warren Norman, has yet to play this season, though Commodore head coach James Franklin said following the team's comeback win over Connecticut that Norman could have played. Whether or not Norman plays against Ole Miss is significant. He, along with fellow running back Zac Stacy, shredded a porous Ole Miss defense in a 31-17 win last season, the two combining for 157 yards between them. Norman accounted for 111 yards on 15 carries, including a back-breaking 80-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Stacy is currently the team's leading rusher with 93 yards gained on 18 carries. True freshman Jerron Seymour is right behind him with 12 carries for 85 yards, in what seems to be a time-share at running back. However, if Norman is available, he's the guy. Quarterback Larry Smith is a sporadic passer. Vanderbilt relies on its ground game. And when Warren Norman is in uniform, the Commodores offer a formidable ground game that could provide headaches for Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, whose unit took a step backwards last week against Southern Illinois. The Rebels allowed 400 yards of total offense and 223 yards on the ground against the Salukis, an FCS opponent.
2010 Stats: CAR: 77 / YDS: 459 / TD: 4 / AVG: 6.0 / REC: 11 / YDS: 110
1: Will the offensive line finally live up to expectations?
Time to step up.
The Ole Miss offensive line hasn't lived up to expectations through two games. No, the unit, long considered to be Ole Miss' strength, has struggled to get going in the season's early stages, allowing Rebel running backs to gain just 3.2 yards per carry so far. That, my friends, won't cut it. Not even close.
Ole Miss had its first 100-yard rushing performance of the season last week against Southern Illinois. The Rebels managed 179 yards on the ground in 40 attempts, good for a 4.0 yards-per-run average. An improvement, sure, but against Vanderbilt and its defensive line, the starting five up front have to be better.
An encouraging sign came in the final scoring drive vs. Southern Illinois. Ole Miss lined up and ran the same running play seven times, capped by junior running back Devin Thomas' three-yard score.
Senior offensive lineman Bradley Sowell, a team captain, was animated on the sidelines prior to the score, chastising his teammates for its inability to push around an inferior opponent with any kind of consistency.
The line responded. Sowell and company looked the part of a mauling offensive line on the drive, and showed why many believe the group can be dominant by season's end. But that dominance must begin this week. The Commodores rank fourth in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing just 86 yards per game. Overall, they're fifth in total defense, and are first in the conference in sacks.
2: Will Zack Stoudt respond in his second career start?
Dual-threat quarterbacks Barry Brunetti and Randall Mackey were all the rage during fall practices in August. A three-man quarterback race had been trimmed to two, it seemed, with junior Zack Stoudt the odd man out.
However, a month later, Ole Miss is well into its season, and Stoudt is set for his second consecutive start. He's earned it. Mackey missed the season opener due to suspension and Brunetti never found his footing in his only start. When Stoudt stepped in late in the second quarter against BYU, he performed, leading Ole Miss to its first scoring drive.
He followed a week later with another solid performance. Well, minus his second fumble in as many games. Still, the junior college transfer has done enough to warrant some leeway as Ole Miss presses on.
Stoudt was 11 of 18 for 118 yards and his first touchdown pass a week ago, and on the season, he is 24 of 43 for 258 yards, good for a 55.8 completion percentage.
Not to be forgotten is Mackey, who made his first appearance against Southern Illinois and completed his only pass for 18 yards. He also rushed six times for 36 yards. Mackey is the No. 2 guy now. A developing storyline to watch Saturday is the leash given to Stoudt. Mackey is a threat as a runner. He is also an accurate passer, but lacks the arm strength of Stoudt.
Regardless, the job is Stoudt's to lose. If he continues to perform, he'll be hard to remove from the game. If he doesn't, the uncertainty at quarterback will only continue. Ole Miss needs one quarterback to step up and take hold of the position. So far, Stoudt's been that guy.
3: Will the defense rebound?
As noted earlier, Ole Miss took a step backwards defensively in its first win of the season over Southern Illinois.
What should have been a blowout, a laugher, was anything but. Ole Miss led by 21 after the first six minutes of the game. The Rebels were outscored 24-14 in the next two quarters, as SIU pulled within 11 points at 35-24.
Disconcerting was the big plays allowed. SIU broke off plays of 74 yards, 31 yards and 57 yards, shades of last season, when disaster plays were all the norm. The Rebels allowed 223 rushing yards; this after they held BYU, a more formidable opponent, to less than 100 yards rushing a week prior.
There were positives, however. Ole Miss had four interceptions. The last time Ole Miss had as many as four interceptions in a single game was in 2010 against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. Ole Miss has five interceptions after two games this year, after intercepting a total of six passes last season.
Obviously Vanderbilt is a far better opponent compared to Southern Illinois. And, let's face it; Ole Miss mailed it in midway through the game. But at the same time, that's the problem. Ole Miss has to finish games. It can't coast.
The Rebels were 4-8 overall and 1-7 in conference games last season. The defense was a big reason why, ranking near the bottom in most statistical categories.
The defensive line has to apply more pressure. Ole Miss has but two sacks on the season and only one of those sacks has come by a defensive lineman, hence the move of true freshman linebacker C.J. Johnson to defensive end. The secondary has been solid all year. The linebackers are thin, and leading tackler Mike Marry is questionable to play Saturday, leaving redshirt freshman Ralph Williams, true freshmen Keith Lewis and Serderius Bryant and junior Joel Kight as the principal players.
Coaches, players and fans alike couldn't have been happier with the play of the Ole Miss defense following the season opener. A game later, the defense is a mystery again, save for its secondary.
Vanderbilt, At a Glance: Head Coach: James Franklin / 2010 Record: 2-10 / Offensive Formation: Multiple / Defensive Formation: 4-3 / Starters Returning (O/D): 11/8 / Lettermen Returning: 56 / Lettermen Lost: 16
This Week in Quotes:
Defensive end Kentrell Lockett, on the importance of Saturday's game:
"It's really important. To get that first W in SEC play, to get that first win to possibly set you up for good things to happen when it comes to SEC championships and to get confidence going into the SEC to play the next SEC contender, getting Ws builds confidence for the rest of the season. Just build on it, and try to harp on that and let that momentum carry into the next SEC game."
Cornerback Marcus Temple, on Vanderbilt:
"They're a great team, a team that doesn't make many mistakes. In previous years, we made a lot of mistakes against them that we really can't afford to make. We've been talking about it starting (Sunday). We've really got to focus on our jobs. We can't really give up big plays. We've really got to be focused on our fundamentals and control our gaps. Whatever our responsibilities are on a certain play, that's what we have to do."
Secondary coach Keith Burns, on Vanderbilt's offense, notably quarterback Larry Smith:
"I approach them all like they're Tom Brady. If you don't, you're going to get stung. Just try to create that (mindset) with them, the way we show them the practice tape, the way we study, the way we go about our practice, the situations I put them in. The reality of it is these quarterbacks in the SEC are all good players or they wouldn't be here.
"I read where (Larry Smith) is close to getting in the top five in every category (the Commodores) have from a passing standpoint. We've got a great deal of respect for him and their receiving corps and what they're doing. Their quarterback coach I worked with at Kansas State, Ricky Rahne, and he's a good friend of mine. He's an outstanding football coach. I know he'll have his guys ready to play."
Head coach Houston Nutt, on the history of close games between Ole Miss and Vanderbilt:
"I think this, that they're always fresh early. They don't have near the injuries. If you look at October and November, it seems like they don't have depth a lot of teams do. They seem to get hurt more toward October and November. If you go back in history, this is the one game they think they're going to win, for whatever reason. It goes way back before I got here, just looking at the history of the scores. The scores are extremely close and Vanderbilt's won some games throughout the years.
"It's going to be a very intense first SEC game for both clubs. No question."
Defensive end Wayne Dorsey, on the significance of a win Saturday:
"It's the biggest game of the season. It doesn't really get bigger than this. It's the start of the SEC and just so, so critical. I think everybody is looking forward to this game, especially the ones that were here last year. We had a bad taste in our mouths when we came back in the locker room after we played."
Stoudt will make his second consecutive start against Vanderbilt. Through two games, he has been the most consistent quarterback on the roster, though Mackey only played sparingly against Southern Illinois, his first appearance this season. He could make a push sooner rather than later. But, at least for now, the job belongs to Stoudt, and he's acting like it.