8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Florida State-6, Over/Under: 59
A wild kickoff weekend for College Football comes to it’s conclusion with a primetime matchup featuring top-eleven teams as the fourth-ranked Florida State Seminoles and the eleventh-ranked Ole Miss Rebels at the old Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida. After a chaotic offseason that was rife with controversy, Hugh Freeze and his charges must be relieved to get back to business, as they look to carry over the momentum of their 48-20 obliteration of Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl over to the current campaign. While many of their contemporaries in the SEC are breaking in new faces under Center, Mississippi doesn’t have that problem, as Chad Kelly returns for his Senior season, his second in Oxford since transferring from Clemson. In what is largely thought of as a defensive league, Kelly was a breath of fresh air, completing 65.1% of his passes for 4,042 yards, thirty-one touchdowns and thirteen interceptions, while also proving proficient with his legs, rushing for another 509 yards and ten more scores. More importantly, he developed a habit of showing up in the biggest of games; against eventual National Champion Alabama in Week Three, Kelly weathered the storm in Tuscaloosa, scoring a total of four touchdowns (three through the air), while committing no turnovers in a shocking 43-37 victory. He also capped his first season with the Rebels in style, completing 21-of-33 attempts for 302 yards and four touchdowns in the aforementioned Sugar Bowl drubbing of the Cowboys. However, there are plenty of question marks around him, as a sizable amount of the supporting cast has since departed. Gone is Laquon Treadwell and his eighty-two receptions for 1,115 yards and eleven touchdowns, along with reliable blindside protector Laremy Tunsil, both of which were selected in the First Round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Look for a pair of Receivers to step into greater roles in their Senior years, as Quincy Adeboyejo (38 catches, 603 yards, 7 TD) and Evan Engram (38 catches, 464 yards, 2 TD) will become Kelly’s preferred targets in the passing attack. Defensively, Freeze will also have plenty of contributors to replace, chief among them playmaking Defensive Lineman Robert Nkemdiche, yet another casualty of the Draft. However, there is still talent to be found, particularly in the case of Linebacker Demarquis Gates (team-high 76 tackles) and Edge Rusher Marquis Haynes, who led the team with ten sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss. Senior Cornerback Tony Bridges also figures to factor in heavily as well, fresh off a season in which the Senior intercepted three passes (returning one for a touchdown) and deflected nine more. With all that said, in order for Ole Miss to properly challenge in the SEC, and therefore make a statement tonight, they must take better care of the football; despite forcing a total of twenty-two turnovers defensively, the Rebels often squandered said gifts by turning the ball over twenty-three times themselves. On four occasions in 2015 they committed at least three turnovers (though going 3-1 in such games), but with a more experienced Kelly pulling the strings that minus-1 differential should improve. No doubt Freeze and his Staff are preaching ball security in this not so “neutral” site matchup against the always opportunistic Seminoles.
Meanwhile, Florida State once again has their sights set on the College Football Playoff, with a loaded roster oozing with talent, and a Heisman candidate residing in the Backfield. The feeling in Tallahassee is that the Seminoles underachieved last year, particularly given how the campaign ended with a thud in a 38-24 Peach Bowl loss to Houston. Remember, folks, this is a program just three years removed from winning a National Championship. Jimbo Fisher and his Staff have a number of returning starters on a defense that yielded just 17.5 points per game (9th Overall) on 336.9 total yards, including juts 191.6 through the air. Safety Derwin James return to headline this unit, totaling ninety-one tackles, 9.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks, while also deflecting four passes and forcing a pair fumbles, making him the prime candidate to replace Jalen Ramsey as the top playmaker in the Secondary. Defensive End Demarcus Walker emerged as a terror in the trenches a season ago, and should improve upon his team-best fourteen tackles for loss and nine sacks. However, all eyes will be on the opposite side of the ball where Dalvin Cook will carry the load offensively, at least in the short term as Fisher looks to figure out the Quarterback position. Cook was spectacular in 2015, rushing for 1,691 yards on a superb 7.4 yards per carry, while accounting for a whopping nineteen touchdowns. The Junior topped the 100-yard threshold on seven occasions last year, including four straight to close out the Regular season, before laying an egg against Houston with a paltry thirty-three yards on eighteen carries. An increased workload will likely put him in the Heisman conversation, and the reason for that workload is under Center where Deondre Francois will get the opportunity to lead the offense. A Redshirt Freshman, Francois ascended to the role of starter after Sean Maguire, a fifth-year Senior, suffered a fractured bone in his foot during the Preseason. It remains to be seen just how long of a leash that Fisher is willing to give this kid, given his lack of experience in the offense. Then again, the last time that Florida State decided to roll with a Redshirt Freshman at Quarterback, the world was introduced to some kid named Jameis Winston, who in turn won the Heisman and lead the Seminoles to their first National Title since 1999.