Commentary by HottyToddy.com contributor Seph Anderson
Couched between crucial SEC West road games at Texas A&M and rival LSU, Ole Miss’ matchup with Butch Jones’ 3-3 (0-2 SEC) Vols could prove tricky if the Rebels don’t capitalize when opportunity knocks. For these aren’t the Vols from the late Phil Fulmer era, Lane Kiffin debacle or Derek Dooley experiment. No, the 2014 Vols are an up-and-coming bunch, full of talent, just waiting for their chance.
They’re eerily reminiscent to the product Hugh Freeze put on the field in 2013, minus the depth. And that’s dangerous to a newly-ranked No. 3 Ole Miss Rebel club contending for much more than a warm weather bowl game as the second half of the season gets underway.
Having come up three points short at Georgia and a mere one point shy in Neyland Stadium against rival Florida earlier this year, with their only other loss coming at Oklahoma, Jones brings a hungry bunch into Vaught-Hemingway Saturday night.
If the Rebels are to make the ascension to 7-0 this weekend for only the second-time ever, the biggest thing they’ll need to accomplish will be to expose and exploit the youth of the Volunteer offense.
Plain and simple.
And youthful they are, as the only school in the nation with five true freshmen starters on offense. Moreover, the Vols are also the only team in America to not return a starter along the offensive line.
First-year starters against the depth and domination that has been the Rebel defensive front this fall?
There’s your biggest mismatch of the game, folks.
And having only scored 10 points against the Sooners and 9 points against the Gators, there’s little reason to believe an Ole Miss defense ranked No. 2 nationally in scoring defense (11.8 ppg) and interceptions (12) won’t be able to create havoc in the Big Orange backfield for QB Justin Worley and Co. The O-Line will become futile after the first half against the Rebels’ deep defensive front rotation.
As for Worley, his road completion percentage is 55.7% compared to 67.6% at home this season. Further, while he has zero interceptions in the first half of play this year, he’s tossed five picks to only six touchdowns after the half in 2014. Lining up across from a defense that’s been downright menacing to opposing offenses, the Ole Miss defense should be able to bring out the worst in Worley.
Look for the turnover streak to move to 30-consecutive games for Ole Miss, while the Land Shark D keeps the Vols under 20 points on the night.
But what about the Ole Miss offense against the Tennessee defense?
Just how long can QB Bo Wallace, having shown a propensity to make mistakes earlier in the year, go without tossing an interception in SEC play? Come Saturday, he’ll be facing a club that’s created a turnover in 12 of its last 13 games and forced multiple turnovers in four straight contests.
Believe it or not, Tennessee has one of the best pass defenses in the nation, allowing only 162.2 yards per game (No. 8). Even better, the Vols have proven to be stellar in third-down defense, having only given up first downs 23.7% of the time in 2014 (No. 5). At Oklahoma, the unit held the Sooners offense to its lowest third-down complete percentage since 2009 (21.4%). Not bad.
All of this being said, it’ll be imperative that Wallace play “smart” football when he takes the field Saturday night. If not, the Volunteer D is capable of making him pay for his mistakes and keeping its team in the contest. The Tennessee D has proven to be stingy at times and is turning into quite the solid unit.
Whether or not the Vols can hang around with the Rebels long enough to make things interesting in the fourth quarter rests on how well the Big Orange D can do at forcing Wallace into mistakes. If it can create a turnover or two, then things could be interesting in the second half. However, if the Rebel offense starts rolling early it should roll all night.
Make no mistake about it, the Volunteers won’t be intimidated when they take the field Saturday night. They’ve already played at Oklahoma and at Georgia this year. However, Butch Jones is a paltry 1-7 versus ranked opponents as head Vol and 0-8 when his defense allows 30 or more points in a game.
Unfortunately, Tennessee enters a hornet’s nest Saturday night against a team playing not only for a spot in the SEC Championship Game, but also for a spot in the college football playoff field.
I expect “SEC Bo” to shine again, despite throwing one to the other team in the first half. Behind a balanced offensive attack and another knockout performance from the nation’s top defense, the Rebels put this one away as they head into the break (with Freeze 15-2 when leading at half). Look for the Vol D to take its chances with blitz packages and pressure early in this one, and when that happens expect Wallace to make them pay with deep balls to one of his many receiving weapons.
Final Score: Ole Miss 41 – Tennessee 16
Seph Anderson, Ole Miss alum, staff member and fervent Rebel, covers timely Ole Miss & SEC news.
He resides with his wife and their two young girls in Oxford, MS and serves at the Academic Advisor for the Early Entry Pharmacy Program.