7:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Ole Miss -3
If someone had told you back in August that Ole Miss versus LSU would be one of the most pivotal matchups in determining the SEC West, you may have thought that the Tigers would be on the verge of a spot in this year’s inaugural College Football Playoff. However, the shoe is on the other foot ladies and gentlemen, for it is the third-ranked Rebels (7-0, 4-0 in SEC) who are undefeated heading into this crucial clash of division rivals. The rise of Mississippi has been a miraculous one this season, as Hugh Freeze has his team poised for one of those four Playoff Spots, particularly if they emerge from the ridiculously competitive Western Division unscathed. One more win would give this program more wins than they’ve had at any point since 2009, and as many victories as they managed a year ago. Behind a dominant, playmaking defense, Ole Miss has gradually advanced through their schedule, sporting impressive victories over the likes of then third-ranked Alabama (23-17) and then fourteenth-ranked Texas A&M (35-20). Last week, they continued to keep the ball rolling with an easy 34-3 drubbing of Tennessee at Vaught-Hemingway stadium, but now a trip to Baton Rouge is looming, as they look to knock off LSU for the second year in a row. Last October, Freeze’s charges upset the sixth-ranked Tigers in a 27-24 battle, decided by a 41-yard Andrew Ritter Field Goal with two seconds remaining. The hosts rung up a a whopping 525 yards of offense on a typically staunch defense, including 346 through the air courtesy of Quarterback Bo Wallace.
As we alluded to earlier, Mississippi owes a great degree of their success to the collective play of their defense, which has been simply dominant throughout the campaign. Freeze has done a tremendous job of recruiting in his three years on the job, slowly building a unit that can match up with any of the conference’s stellar defenses of years past. So let’s take a moment to run down the numbers, shall we? First and foremost, the Rebels are only yielding a mere 9.2 points per game, the fewest in the country, on 290.6 total yards of offense per game. Opposing Quarterbacks are completing 59.3% of their attempts for an average of 193.4 yards through the air, while opponents have seen their rushing attacks all but snuffed out at 97.1 yards on 2.9 yards per carry. Three times this year, they’ve relegated the opposition to fewer than 200 yards, including last week’s demolition of the Volunteers, whom managed zero rushing yards against them last week. That’s right, folks, zero. However, the biggest factor in their continued success has been their penchant for forcing turnovers; the “Landsharks”, as the defense refers to themselves, has forced a healthy 20 turnovers this season, including fifteen interceptions, including three returned for touchdowns. Senior Cornerback Senquez Golson has been a bona fide ballhawk, reeling seven interceptions himself, bringing his career total to thirteen. With the exception of a one-takeaway effort against Vanderbilt, Ole Miss has generated at least two turnovers in every contest, including four on three different occasions. This was key in last year’s victory over the Tigers, whom they picked off three times en route to victory.
With that said, the prevailing question is whether or not Mississippi will get enough out of their offense to continue this magical run. To be completely honest, Freeze’s offense has been unspectacular for much of the campaign, benefiting greatly from the play of their compatriots on the opposite side of the ball. Through seven games, the Rebels have averaged 31.0 points on 432.7 yards of total offense, including 282.0 through the air, and another 150.7 on the ground. After averaging 496.3 yards through the first four games on the slate, that number has dropped precipitously to 348.0 yards over the past three outings. Part of the issue has been penalties; they were flagged 24 times for 195 yards alone over the course of two meetings with Boise State and Memphis. The other factor has been turnovers; early in the season, Wallace and Co. were giving the ball away wholesale, committing ten turnovers, six of which were interceptions. However, Freeze has seen improvement on both fronts of late, as his offense has been flagged just seven times over the last three games, and has not turned it over in two weeks. The development of his Quarterback has coincided with that, as Wallace has taken many steps towards becoming a better passer this season. The Senior has completed 65.6% of his attempts for 271.3 yards per game (9.1 yards/attempt), seventeen touchdowns and six interceptions, while rushing for two more. The knock on Wallace in the past was that his decision-making simply wasn’t consistent, as he threw 27 interceptions in his first two years under center. Over the last three games, it would be hard to fathom a point in his career in which he had played any better; Against Alabama, Texas &M, and Tennessee, Wallace has thrown six scores with no picks.
Meanwhile, after dropping their first two contests in the SEC, LSU (6-2, 2-2 in SEC) has rebounded to win back-to-back games as Les Miles and Co. continue to climb out of an early hole. Some would consider the fact that the Tigers are 6-2 at this point given the fact that they’ve had to replace so many key players a minor miracle. Consider this; during the Spring, Miles saw Quarterback Zach Mettenberger (3,082 yards), Tailback Jeremy Hill (1,401 yards), and Receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry (2,310 yards) all selected in the NFL Draft, leaving the offense without it’s leading passer, rusher, and top two receivers from 2013. That’s 34 touchdowns, folks, leaving Miles and Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron with a dearth of firepower on that side of the ball. Further complicating matters is the Quarterback Controversy that has lingered through half the season; with eight games in the books, neither Anthony Jennings or Freshman Brandon Harris has cemented his place as the starter. Thankfully, the defense has stiffened up considerably over the last two weeks, limiting Florida and Kentucky to a combined 523 yards, which was 43 less than they allowed against Auburn three weeks ago in a 41-7 debacle.
With that said, the coaching staff must be elated that the defense has grown so much this season, given how young and inexperienced they were in 2013. Over the past few years, few units in College Football have been hit harder by the NFL Draft than the Tigers’ defense, and it showed last season; LSU allowed 22.0 points on 340.7 total yards, but has thus far exhibited marked improvement across the board, relegating the opposition to 15.1 points on 318.8 total yards, including a stellar 156.3 against the pass. The biggest difference is that these Tigers have been far more adept at forcing turnovers than their previous incarnations; in 2013, the defense forced nineteen turnovers, eleven of which were interceptions, but with half of the season completed they have already managed to produce sixteen turnovers, including eight interceptions. Overshadowed by their more-heralded counterparts in Oxford, LSU has racked up two or more takeaways in five games, including three in their 30-27 victory at Florida two weeks ago. Defensive Backs Tre’Davious White and Rickey Jefferson have hauled in two picks apiece a year after struggling as Freshmen, benefiting from the pressure created by the Front Seven, which has produced sixteen sacks by ten different players. However, as nasty as this group has been against the pass, they’ve been susceptible to the run this season, ceding 162.5 yards on the ground with opponents picking up 4.5 yards per carry.
Now all Miles needs is that growth to extend under Center, where neither the aforementioned Jennings or Harris has distinguished themselves. Of the pair, the more experienced Jennings has received the majority of the snaps, yet has proven unspectacular in his opportunities. The Sophomore has completed just 50.0% of his passes for an average of just 131.0 yards per game (8.2 yards/attempt), with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. In SEC play he has yet complete better than 50.0% of his passes in a game, and against the likes of New Mexico State, was pulled in favor of Harris after tossing a pair of interceptions. And speaking of Harris, it may be wise for Miles to incorporate the youngster more often, if not on a permanent basis. When given the chance, the Freshman has played better than his predecessor, completing 25-of-35 attempts (56.3%) for 452 yards (10.0 yards/attempt), six touchdowns and two interceptions, and unlike Jennings, he has proven to be adept at making plays with his legs, with 152 rushing yards on 25 carries, and three more scores. However, you can expect whomever starts to hand the ball off frequently, for LSU has been much more reliant on the running game than last season. Through eight games, the Tigers have averaged 220.9 yards on 48 carries, racking up 4.6 yards per rush, taking advantage of a seasoned Offensive Line, and plethora of talent in the back field. Top recruit Leonard Fournette has gotten better with each passing week, rushing for 544 yards and seven touchdowns on a healthy 5.0 yards per carry, while incumbents Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee have netted 343 and 353 yards respectively.