Game Week: Ole MissIt is easy to forget, in light of the happy outcome, that our second biggest deficit of the entire 2012 season came at the hands of Ole Miss. We trailed 23-6 in the second half, and it would have been worse but for some fairly heroic defensive play in the red zone. Ole Miss settled for five field goal attempts (making four) last season while picking up 24 first downs and over 450 yards. Most of their playmakers are back – we open against a very formidable offense.
On the bright side, last year we shut down the Ole Miss running game – and their coaching staff seemed unwilling to accept that fact late into the night. To the tune of 40 rushes for 96 yards. The passing game was a different story. Bo Wallace threw for over 400 yards and four different Ole Miss receivers caught five or more balls. While we kept our eye on Donte Moncrief and Vince Sanders, Ja-Mes Logan did most of the damage with eight catches for 160 yards. Our veteran secondary will be tested early Thursday night. Notably, like us, Ole Miss will be missing a key receiver, Sanders, who is out with an injury.
Last year our defense suffered through a turnover drought for much of the campaign. I am very high on our returning D – but forcing turnovers was a real weakness in 2012. We recovered only 7 fumbles all year – and despite multiple INTs versus UT and NC State, we managed only five picks against our other eleven opponents. To aid in creating turnovers we have to pressure the QB – last year in Oxford we got to Bo Wallace, but he is mobile and we let him escape too often. Our pressure on the passer will play a big role in this game. Walker May, Kyle Woestmann, and Caleb Azubike need to make plays early and often. At the same time, with a focus on pressuring the QB, there is also a vulnerability to the scrambling QB, and to the screen pass. Our D also has to stay home and stop the big play. This was another early season malady in 2012.
Last season while we opened with South Carolina on national television, Ole Miss was working out the kinks against Central Arkansas. It will be an advantage that our players have experienced opening the season in the national spotlight. At the same time, it would have been nice to give our new starting QB and RB a tune-up game to get in sync before they were thrown into a crucial conference tilt.
While Ole Miss has the edge in experience at offensive "skill positions," it bears mention that last year we opened the season with experience at QB, RB and receiver. We still struggled on offense in our opener with SC, partly due to jitters (especially in the red zone), partly because SC was good, but mostly because of inconsistent line play. This year our O-line should be solid and dependable from the beginning. Although we are replacing draft pick Ryan Seymour, we have established players all the way across the front. This should make Austyn Carta-Samuels, Wesley Tate, and Brian Kimbrow's lives much easier. Versus Ole Miss in 2012, Jordan Rodgers and Jordan Matthews starred – and Austyn Carta-Samuels is likely going to need to shine in the opener for us to win. His arm is highly touted, but he will also need to use his brain and legs Thursday to avoid mistakes and the Ole Miss blitz. We had trouble running in Oxford last November – Zac was hurt early. Tate stepped in to provide valuable pass protection, but had less than three yards per carry. Brian Kimbrow was far more elusive on the ground and I look for him to have a key role in Thursday's opener. Similarly, if screens are going to work, Tate may make some major impact sliding out of pass protection.
Chris Boyd caught five balls, including a TD, versus Ole Miss last year. Ole Miss is thin in the secondary to start this season and Boyd's absence hurts us a lot – both because a new starting QB needs all the help he can get, and because Boyd's absence will make it easier for Ole Miss to double our biggest threat, Matthews. Jonathan Krause, who has been a fearless return-man and a major playmaker in the past, steps into Boyd's shoes. A number of young receivers have gotten major hype. With Ole Miss challenged in the secondary and focusing on Matthews, it is very possible someone unexpected will emerge as a key safety valve – keep your eyes on true freshman Jordan Cunningham in this regard. We have vowed to get our tight ends into the game plan too.
This is a game that promises to be very close. A defensive or special teams TD could make the difference. So could a kick. We have a very experienced kicker in Carey Spear. Last year our special teams improved markedly. This year a brand new punter will be introduced. While we wait to see how our punting game unfolds, Ole Miss introduces a newbie themselves at placekicker in Andrew Ritter.
The elephant in the room for the whole pre-season has been whether the scandal surrounding the team has been a distraction. I suspect this pent-up pressure will actually make hitting the field a major relief for the players. It is also a chance to divert the national media's fascination with our off-the-field issues and to re-emphasize football-related story lines. I expect, after learning a bit from last year's opener, we will be loose and ready to go. Ole Miss had a sloppy opener last year – trailing Central Arkansas at the half – and will probably learn from that experience as well.
Ole Miss is favored by 3, and the over/under was 53½ as of Tuesday. That's a lot of points given these quality defenses, but it is perhaps no coincidence these teams combined for exactly 53 points last November. We were favored to lose that one too. Intangible: we have beaten Ole Miss five of the last six times we have met. In fact, Ole Miss is 2-10 against the spread in our last dozen meetings. Bettors beware.
The Rest of the League
The start of any SEC football season is filled with a sweetly lethal dose of hope, anticipation and delusion. Even following the most disastrous of campaigns, a true fan can list a dozen reasons why the new season will be different – and better. A meaningful, big-time opener has its merits, but it can quickly bring the dreamer back to stark reality. For sheer psycho-traumatic effect, the 2004 Vandy opener stands out as a monument to high hopes that were completely dashed about twenty minutes after kick-off: the Ole Ball Coach picked us apart like a mean kid torturing a bug.
The beauty of an opening day tune-up game is that those pre-season hopes can be extended and even legitimized. It is easier to dream (or delude yourself) with a winning, undefeated record. Easier still if you have beaten Northeastern Vermont by 45. Once again this year, we do not have the luxury of a warm-up contest, but a number of our SEC brethren do.
Tennessee (Austin Peay), Mizzou (Murray State), and Texas A&M (Rice), all fall into this category. The lines in these games range from 50½, 38, to 26½, respectively. Florida (Toledo), Kentucky (WKU), and Arkansas (ULL) likely expected to be in this cakewalk category when their openers were scheduled. UK, however, lost to WKU last year and there is real pressure in Lexington to beat the Hilltoppers now; ULL won a bowl game last year, and Toledo's offense is alarmingly good. The SEC representative is favored in each of these games, but their coaches are probably wishing a more inviting cupcake had been paid off. Bama, SC and Auburn each face "name" opponents they are expected to beat by double-digits. Give Bama credit for trying to play an ACC power – but this is really not Virginia Tech's year. The Hokies are in for a really long night; we may actually see Nick Saban's softer side in the second half. Similarly, SC should handle UNC, but here it is a border state rivalry and SC could get caught looking ahead to Georgia in week 2. There is, at least, potential for a scare in this one. Auburn, meanwhile, attempts to put that endless 2012 nightmare behind it. Washington State is not a cupcake, but Mike Leach's team should be what the doctor ordered for Gus Malzahn.
The brave ones are LSU, Georgia and Mississippi State. Both Georgia and LSU have huge turnover on defense and lots of returners on offense. LSU's game with tough TCU will tell a lot about the upcoming season in Baton Rouge. Similarly, an opener that matches Georgia's rebuilding d with Tajh Boyd and Clemson is pretty risky. The over/under here is a whopping 72. Win or lose, Todd Grantham can't let his d get torched: their huge game with SC looms in Week 2. In Starkville, the "brave" ones may more accurately be dubbed the "unlucky" ones. Playing Bama, A&M, LSU, Ole Miss and SC was not enough – the Bulldogs also scheduled an out-of-conference opener that probably seemed reasonable at the time. Oklahoma State, however, has blossomed into an offensive juggernaut that is the favorite to win the Big 12. The Bulldogs are 12½ point underdogs. Everyone wants a piece of the SEC, and Mississippi State is doing some major rebuilding on defense. This is a tough match-up for conference pride.
And, by the way – not to get ahead of ourselves –next year's schedule is out and we open at home with Temple.