Game with Vandy offers Ole Miss springboard to a successful season
Don’t rush to judgment with this Ole Miss team; there are still seven games left this season.
The Rebels are sitting at 2-3 as they prepare to face Vanderbilt on Saturday. The two wins have come against South Alabama and Tennessee Martin, teams not exactly considered by some to be great competition. But keep this in mind; South Alabama beat Mississippi State just a year ago, and LSU lost to Troy two weeks ago.
Winning is never guaranteed–and as the old saying goes, ‘a win is a win.’
Now look, I’m not saying that this Rebel team is fantastic, but I’m also not going to say they are terrible. Ole Miss’ detractors will quickly point to the team’s three losses, so let’s take a quick look at the defeats to see what we can glean from them as we look to the final seven games of 2017–five of which are played in the friendly confines of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The Crimson Tide is the No. 1 team in the AP poll. Alabama will likely represent the West in the SEC Championship and is the current favorite to win the College Football Playoff in January.
Alabama has held five of its six opponents to fewer than 90 yards on the ground. Overall, the Crimson Tide is allowing 73.3 opponent rushing yards per game, which leads the FBS. Losing to Alabama is probably not the best measuring stick for any team—regardless of how lopsided the score.
The Tigers are arguably considered the third best team in the conference right now, behind Alabama and Georgia. They sit at No. 10 in the AP poll and second in the SEC West.
The Tigers have put up 40 or more points in three straight games, and their only loss this year was a close 14-6 defeat at the hands of No. 2 Clemson in week two of 2017.
Cal is a little bit of a different story. While the losses to Alabama and Auburn were to two of the top teams in the nation, the loss to the Golden Bears was not. Cal beat North Carolina, lost a close one to then-No. 5 ranked USC, and then was blown out by a mediocre Oregon team in week five.
Hold on just a minute, though. Lest anyone think the Golden Bears (4-3, 1-3 PAC 12) are horrible–witness what they did in a 37-3 blowout of No. 8 Washington State Friday night. The Cal defense forced seven turnovers and notched nine sacks in the win over Mike Leach’s team, a win that was Cal’s first over a top 10 team in 14 years.
Ole Miss was a seven-point favorite entering the game against Cal in week three, so that loss was not expected. But when the game is put into context, it may be a little easier to swallow. For starters, the Rebels traveled across the country for the game. The Mississippi-to-California trip is draining mentally and physically, yet despite the long flight and two-hour time difference, Ole Miss was in position late in the game to pull off a win.
Speaking of “late,” the kickoff didn’t take place until 9:30 p.m., Oxford time, so it was well after midnight before this one was decided. Making matters worse, Ole Miss lost star wide receiver A.J. Brown, who entered the game with 385 receiving yards from the first two weeks of the season, to a knee injury in the first quarter. He finished without a catch. Just as importantly, the Rebels also lost center Sean Rawlings to an ankle injury, creating havoc on the offensive line.
Rawlings’ backup, Eli Johnson, suffered a torn ACL the week before the Cal game and was lost for the year, leaving the Rebels to shuffle offensive linemen in order to make up for the absences. It showed, as Ole Miss committed 16 penalties for 113 yards, many of which were false start or delay of game infractions.
Regardless of all the strikes against them, the Rebels had a shot until a turnover with three minutes remaining sealed their fate.
The Cal loss was not good, but after watching the Golden Bears destroy the Cougars, perhaps it wasn’t as bad as first thought. And, frankly, it could have gone either way.
Lock the Vaught and beat Vandy
On Saturday, the Rebels return to Oxford for the first time in over a month. The crowd will be electric in Vaught-Hemingway, especially since it is homecoming. I expect Ole Miss to be fired up and ready to play in this critical SEC matchup.
Beginning with Saturday’s game, the Rebels have the opportunity to build momentum that could propel them to a successful season.
Vanderbilt will be a true test for this team, without a doubt, but the game against the Commodores is the first of three winnable games at home. Win all three, and the Rebels head to Lexington at 5-3 to play the Kentucky Wildcats–another winnable game. Ole Miss then returns home to play Louisiana and A&M, before traveling to Starkville to play State in the final game of the season.
The Commodores started off 3-0 this season with one of those wins coming in the form of a 14-7 victory over then-No. 18 ranked Kansas State in week three.
But the wheels came off for Derek Mason’s team in a 59-0 route at the hands of Alabama, followed by consecutive losses to Florida and Georgia. The Florida loss hurts, but Vandy’s other two defeats have come against the two best teams in the SEC right now.
The Rebels showed some life and resiliency in the second half of the Auburn game, outscoring the Tigers in the third and fourth quarters, 20-9. If they can build off of that success and carry it over to the game with the Commodores, expect big things from this team.
Keys to the Game
For the Rebels to defeat Vanderbilt, the defense is going to have to show some resemblance to the Landshark defenses of the past, and, as the leader of the defensive unit, senior Marquis Haynes must have a big day. Vandy is last in the SEC and 126th in the nation in total offense, so the opportunity is there for the Rebels’ defense to step up.
I expect the offense to put up big numbers, similar to what we saw earlier in the season, and I look for wide receiver A.J. Brown and quarterback Shea Patterson to return to their elite form.
Patterson leads the nation and is ranked 8th in the nation in passing yards. He and his receiving corps will be tested, however, by a very good Vandy secondary that ranks 4th in the nation in pass defense. If Ole Miss can protect Patterson, and if the tempo remains quick, the Rebels should score plenty of points.
Both teams are on a three-game losing streak entering Saturday’s contest, but if the offense can show they are as high-powered as we thought they were coming into this season, and if the defense makes some critical stops, the Rebels should celebrate a Homecoming victory.
Ole Miss and Vanderbilt will kick off at 2:30 p.m. (CT), and the game will be televised on the SEC Network. Taylor Zarzour will handle play-by-play duties for the SEC Network, while Andre Ware and Olivia Harlan will cover analyst and sideline duties, respectively.
Ole Miss leads the series 50-39-2. In Oxford, Ole Miss leads 23-6.
(Feature image credit: Dan Anderson, The Rebel Walk)
Justin Dial is a junior at Ole Miss pursuing a Journalism degree. He is from Olive Branch, MS and is an avid fan of college and
professional football, basketball and baseball. Justin covered Ole Miss
Sports for the Daily Mississippian for one year, and he also works in the
University of Mississippi Writing Center helping students with their
writing assignments. He spent his childhood going to Ole Miss football
games with his grandfather and grandmother (an Ole Miss graduate).
Currently, his favorite favorite athletes are LeBron James and Marc Gasol. In Justin’s free time he likes to play video games and listen to sports podcasts.