Mitchell: Why Ole Miss Sinks Vandy
Quarterback Bo Wallace
Ole Miss vs. Vanderbilt is the biggest game of the 2013 opening weekend. Not just the biggest game of Thursday or the biggest game in the SEC. The biggest game...period.
By Russ Mitchell
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Ole Miss vs. Vanderbilt is the biggest game of the 2013 opening weekend. Not just the biggest game of Thursday or the biggest game in the SEC.
The biggest game…period.
It's bigger than LSU/TCU. Bigger than Alabama/Virginia Tech – which, while it won't be a blowout on par with Michigan last season, will hardly be entertaining other than for Bama diehards.
And Ole Miss should walk away with a big confidence-boosting win.
The Rebels played a large number of freshmen on both sides of the ball in 2012, and improved markedly as the season progressed. To that depth/experience Ole Miss now adds a number of highly talented players from a best-in-the-nation recruiting class.
Bo Wallace remains the most underrated quarterback in the SEC. In 2012, the junior had an impressive stat line against Vandy (31/49, 403 yards, 2 TDs (1 rushing) and zero INTs), and was just six yards shy of 3,000 total. That latter stat placed him fifth best in the conference in total passing yards, and fourth in both completions per game and completion percentage.
This on a team that was 0-8 in conference play the year prior.
Wallace has two bookend fifth year senior offensive tackles to protect his flank, and two of the SEC's most underrated skill players in senior tailback Jeff Scott and junior wide receiver Donte Moncrief. In terms of 2012 production, Scott is the seventh best returning tailback in the conference, and Moncrief the third best receiver.
What Ole Miss's defense lacked in size last year it made up for in speed…to great effect. The Rebels closed out 2012 ranked best in the SEC in tackles for loss, and second best in sacks.
This year most of those players return, and they're augmented by that stellar recruiting class, which included the nation's best overall prep player, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche. The true freshman has required two blockers in practice this August, and head coach Hugh Freeze said Wednesday that Nkemdiche well get at least 50 percent of the snaps vs. the Dores.
Even then, it's going to be a tight contest. Vandy has a defense that can slow down Ole Miss…particularly if it closes better than it did in last year's season opening loss to South Carolina.
A great defensive line lead by senior Walker May and two of the conference's best cornerbacks in seniors Andre Hal and Steven Clarke anchor one of the better defenses in Vanderbilt history.
It must be effective shutting down Ole Miss on first downs…something Vandy was successful at for much of the second half of last season's road win in Oxford. Freeze's own variety of high tempo offense is predicated on first down production. Keep an eye here.
However, it's not Vanderbilt's defense that gives one pause. The Dores' 2012 offense finished 80 in the nation, and must now replace the best tailback in school history (Zac Stacy) and two year quarterback Jordan Rodgers.
Welcome Austyn Carta-Samuels under center, and a triumvirate running back corps of Wesley Tate, Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour. Plus, head coach James Franklin has been doing some recruiting of his own, the spoils of which litter the roster.
However, the loss of senior wide receiver Chris Boyd to suspension is a far more serious blow than most observers realize. It means Ole Miss can double star wideout Jordan Matthews and unleash its aggressive defense on an inexperienced Vandy backfield…likely with devastating effect.
Ole Miss struggled to put away teams in 2012. Yes, they were beating TAMU. Same goes for Vandy and LSU. But the Rebels couldn't slam the door shut – a sign of an immature team. Have they grown enough this offseason to close out a tough conference opponent on the road?
The answer is yes. And one need look no further than the Vandy game last season for an example of the Rebels' game-over-game maturation.
Five minutes into that second half and the Rebels were actually beating Vandy 23-6. Yet their defense ultimately surrendered a touchdown with 56 seconds remaining to lose 27-26. A loss of this magnitude would crush most young teams – how did Ole Miss respond?
They went on the road to Death Valley and played LSU to the wire, leading the Tigers at the end of the first three quarters, and being tied 35-35 with 15 seconds left. That 35 points was the most LSU's talented defense allowed in all of 2012. Ten more than Clemson's dynamic offense in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Ole Miss is hardly your traditional young team. It has evolved from a group that was just excited to play this time last season into one that believed it could win. Now, if we're to accept commentary out of August camp, it's matured into a team that believes is should win.
Yes, Ole Miss was 3-5 in conference last year, but it finished with the fifth best offense and seventh best defense. More importantly, it got better as the season progressed and its young players matured, and the majority of said players are back for 2013.
Before the Boyd suspension, we were a lean to Vandy for Thursday's game.
However, after a steady August camp for Ole Miss versus some distractions and hiccups for Vanderbilt, and given the concerns hovering around Vandy's young offense and the fact this will be far from a traditional home field advantage, we're now leaning in favor of the Rebels in what should be a close, exciting contest to kick off the college football – and SEC – season.
Russ Mitchell is the Lead SEC Columnist for CFN and Campus Insiders. Follow him @russmitchellcfb