Game One: New Mexico State Aggies
Game Two: East Carolina Pirates
Game Three: Kentucky Wildcats
Game Four: Tennessee Volunteers
Coach: Hugh Freeze, 4th year (24-15)
2014 record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC), lost to Texas Christian in Peach Bowl
Last meeting: Mississippi 31, Florida 30 (2008)
All time series: Mississippi, 12-10
Streak: Mississippi 1
The skinny: Yes, I’m putting this in all caps on purpose: FINALLY, AFTER SEVEN LONG, TORTUROUS YEARS, THE FLORIDA GATORS GET THEIR SHOT AT REVENGE AGAINST OLE MISS. YOU KNOW, THE TEAM THAT RUINED FLORIDA’S PERFECT SEASON IN 2008 AND SPAWNED THE FAMOUS PROMISE FROM TIM TEBOW THAT LED UF TO A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP. WE WOULD HAVE BEEN UNDEFEATED FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE 1911 BUT THIS TEAM RUINED IT FOR US SO THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
Obviously, much has changed since then for both schools. Two years after pulling the gargantuan upset in the Swamp, Ole Miss fell into a bottomless abyss that Hugh Freeze has only just pulled the Rebels out of. Of course, Florida did too, thanks to Will Muschamp. So in a way, these teams are mirror images of each other, except that Mississippi is a year or two ahead of the Gators in the rebuilding process. Every year since 2012, Ole Miss has won more games than they won the previous year, and last year, they hit their peak. The Rebels were flying high in October with a 7-0 record, including a win over Alabama, but then suddenly stalled in the rarefied air at #3 in the polls, losing three straight SEC games. Somehow they recovered and beat Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. But then they totally collapsed, getting hammered 42-3 in the Peach Bowl by TCU and leaving a horrendous taste in their mouths. This might be Freeze’s last shot to do something special with that prized 2013 recruiting class featuring Robert Nkemdiche and LaQuon Treadwell, and he’s going to take full advantage of it.
Returning starters: 9
The departure of QB Bo Wallace will impact Mississippi either greatly or not at all, depending on which Rebels fan you ask. Nevertheless, Ole Miss will have to find a new starting quarterback. Clemson transfer (and troublemaker) Chad Kelly could be that guy, but first he’ll have to battle Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincaid. Kelly’s got a strong and accurate arm and some mobility to boot, so barring any more unpleasant incidents, he should be the starter. But he’s only thrown 17 passes in his career, so he still has a steep learning curve.
Whoever wins the job will have the luxury of throwing to a talented group of receivers that includes LaQuon Treadwell (aka MegaQuon), Cody Core, Quincy Adeboyejo and tight end Evan Engram. Treadwell was in the midst of a monster 2014 season and was on his way to the game winning touchdown when he was tackled from behind and broke his leg. Yet he still surpassed his previous year’s total in receiving yards despite not playing in the Rebels’ final three games. How he does coming back from that injury will go a long way in determining how Mississippi fares in 2015.
The running backs group is the question mark. Mississippi finished 10th in the SEC in rushing yards per game last year and 75th in FBS. They do return leading rusher Jaylen Walton, but he only tallied 586 yards last year. Behind him, Jordan Wilkins and Mark Dodson will compete for carries. The good news for Mississippi is that they return all five starters on the offensive line from a year ago, pending the NCAA’s investigation into star tackle Laremy Tunsil.
Offensive Grade: B. Kelly’s inexperience, plus the lack of a dependable running game, will make things interesting. But there’s enough firepower among the receivers to make this offense tick.
Returning starters: 8
Ole Miss employed the nation’s best scoring defense last year, and they return a lot of key pieces to that defense. It starts up front. The Rebels’ entire defensive line returns from last year, including All-American DE Robert Nkemdiche. So Florida’s offensive line may be in trouble, to say the least. Nkemdiche is absolutely nasty as a pass rusher, and his freakish athletic ability could free up fellow defensive linemen Fadol Brown, CJ Johnson, DJ Jones and Issac Gross to do some damage of their own.
Mississippi will get some good linebacker play, too. Denzel Nkemdiche looks to bounce back from injury at outside linebacker, while Christian Russell, DeMarquis Gates and CJ Johnson will compete for time at middle linebacker. The 4-2-5 defense Dave Wommack runs relies heavily on good linebacker play, which he got last year. If Denzel Nkemdiche can return from injury and get back to his top level, Ole Miss could again have a strength at linebacker.
But the real question is in the secondary. Two All-Americans (Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson) and the 13 interceptions they combined for will need to be replaced. Mississippi will return cornerback Mike Hilton and rover Trae Elston, plus nickelback Tony Conner. It will be up to CJ Hampton to step in at safety, while Kendarious Webster figures to get the first look at corner. Can the new guys step up?
Defensive Grade: B-. The Rebels will take a step back defensively in 2015. But there’s still a good reason to fear them, namely their defensive front. Particularly against a team like Florida, Mississippi should be good enough to dominate the trenches.
Mississippi wins if… Chad Kelly, or whoever their QB is, doesn’t make stupid mistakes and manages the game well. That means taking the checkdowns, throwing the ball away to avoid sacks and once or twice in the game make a big play with his arm. Florida understands his inexperience and will be looking to heat him up, and he cannot buckle under the pressure .
Florida wins if… they can make a Chad Kelly sack lunch. Ole Miss has a stout offensive line (again, pending the Tunsil investigation) but Florida boasts a nasty front seven. A chain is only as strong as the weakest link, and if the Gators can get past the line and get some shots on Kelly, they could rattle him and force mistakes. If Kelly is under constant pressure, Mississippi suddenly becomes vulnerable.
Three things to watch for:
1) Let’s see if Florida can go the whole game without getting burned deep by MegaQuon and co. The Gators’ secondary, for all its talent, was downright awful at times last year. Ironically, that’s also how Florida lost to Mississippi the last time they came to the Swamp, on a late bomb from Jevan Snead to Shay Hodge. There can be none of that this time around if Florida has any interest in winning this game. Vernon Hargreaves will have to lock down on Treadwell, and Keanu Neal and Brian Poole cannot let any Mississippi receivers get behind them. Period.
2) Just as the Florida secondary will be under a microscope, so will the Rebels’. By this game- the Gators’ fifth of the year- Will Grier (or Treon Harris) figures to be more in a groove, and thus we might see a more opened up offense. There’s no reason to hide anything anymore, because this is going to be a tough game for Florida. But even if Grier doesn’t get off to a flying start, the gloves are coming off in this game. What we see from the Florida offense against the Rebels will be a good indicator of what the rest of the season will look like offensively.
3) Florida’s offensive line is going to be tested by this stout Rebel front. They better be ready for it, let’s put it that way. No matter how good Will Grier really is, or how dangerous DeMarcus Robinson turns out to be, Florida’s offense will struggle if the offensive line doesn’t really step up. This unit will be tested against Tennessee, but this is the first game in which they might be clearly overmatched. It’s big boy time for the Florida big boys.
Mississippi overall grade: B+. If the Rebels can get quality quarterback play from Kelly (or whoever), they’ll again be a force in the SEC West race. The pieces are there around him for them to make a push for the College Football Playoff.
Overview: Mississippi at home is a snake whose venom affects the Gators in a particularly nasty way. Two of the most bizarre defeats in recent Florida history have come in the Swamp at the hands of these same Rebels, when Eli Manning and Jevan Snead guided their respective underdog Mississippi teams to 20-17 and 31-30 upsets. And this time around, Florida probably won’t even be the favorite.
Florida very well may come into this game 4-0. If they do, they’ll likely be 4-0 by virtue of two close calls against Kentucky and Tennessee. The Gators are a talented but very inexperienced squad on offense, while Mississippi boasts experience and depth and both sides of the ball. True, this game is in the Swamp, and the offense will probably be leagues better at this point in the season than it was in the first game with more reps in live game action in hand.
Florida has the defense needed to stave off the Rebels at home, and if the offense can stay out of its own way and hit some plays, they could very well win this game. But they won’t be 4-0 without surviving some really close calls, and being the beneficiaries of some good fortune. They can’t survive on luck forever. The Gators’ defense keeps them in the game the whole way through, but the young Florida offense will falter down the stretch and the Rebels’ annoying success in the Swamp will continue.
Projection: Mississippi 27, Florida 20