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Here’s what the Rebels will face in Louisville QB Malik Cunningham

Here’s what the Rebels will face in Louisville QB Malik Cunningham

OXFORD, Miss. — There are numerous similarities between the two field generals who are meeting this Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium when Louisville and Ole Miss square off in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic.

Louisville’s Malik Cunningham, in his fourth year with the Cardinals, is a very dangerous quarterback, a dual-threat guy who makes things happen. And if you’ve followed any of our “QB Film Room” articles on Matt Corral, you know how talented the Rebels’ signal-caller is. He’s the nation’s finest, in my opinion.

As a freshman in 2018 serving in a backup role, Cunningham led the team in rushing with 497 yards and notched five scores, including a 75-yard touchdown run against Kentucky.

As the full-time starter in 2019, Cunningham ran for 482 yards, the third-best total on the team, and had an ESPN Total QBR (83.9) that ranked second in the ACC only to Clemson’s defending national champion quarterback, Trevor Lawrence (87.3). No other ACC quarterback broke the 80.0 mark in 2019.

Cunningham had another stellar year in 2020, passing for a career-high 2,617 yards and 20 touchdowns while also having his best year rushing with 609 yards (4.6 average, and second-most on the team) with seven scores.

He is ranked No. 7 among returning Power 5 quarterbacks in Total QBR in 2021, yet finds himself excluded from many sportswriters’ and publications’ Top 3 All-ACC preseason teams.

Those nods generally went to UNC’s Sam Howell (a Heisman candidate QB who has yet to hit a QBR of 80 or higher in his two seasons), Boston College QB Phil Jurkovek (71.3 QBR in 2020), and Kenny Pickett of Pitt (11th in the ACC in 2020 with a 60.9 QBR), a real head scratcher.

Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin, however, recognizes the talent his Rebels will face Monday.

The disrespect shown this talented young man leading the Cardinals is likely easily understood in the Ole Miss camp — with some of the “experts’” reactions to the Number 1 returning quarterback in the land, Matt Corral. 

Matt returns as the nation’s leading quarterback in QBR with an 89.9 rating in 2020, third overall last year only to departed first-round draft picks Mac Jones and Justin Fields. He is only the fourth SEC quarterback in the history of the league to lead the country in total offense per game. Those other three picked up two Heisman Trophies and the third was a runner-up. They were all first or second-round NFL draft choices.

But even the great Joe Burrow wasn’t on any preseason All-SEC teams or even had a remote shot at the Heisman coming into his final season.

And at this time in 2012, a complete unknown named Johnny Manziel was sitting out a hurricane that postponed A&M’s opener against Louisiana Tech. Johnny Football then lost the university’s first-ever SEC games — both at home, mind you — before his historically mad dash to the finish line that NOBODY could have predicted. The point here is, we don’t know who’s about to do what, where or how.

As they say, the talking is about over and the true proving grounds begin. A new campaign will be underway for everyone in the country and all slates wiped clean.

Storylines for Monday’s game

This opener between the Rebels and the Cardinals has built-in storylines besides setting the tone for the coming season:

  • It’s the SEC against the ACC — in a matchup of two teams who have never before played one another
  • It’s a prime-time spectacle in the great city of Atlanta, Georgia and is the ONLY football game being played in the entire world on this day
  • The game showcases two extremely talented — yet somewhat disrespected — under-publicized quarterbacks in undeniably the best quarterback matchup of Week 1 (at least in this quarterback’s opinion), with each QB ready to take their place at the top of their respective boards
  • This game features two defenses determined to demonstrate their improvement from a year ago against two fast-break, feet-to-the-fire, no bathroom-breaks-allowed offenses. What a challenge!

This football game should be a ratings phenom as new stars are born and others confirmed. In this new age of NIL, every play holds maximum significance for America’s student-athletes. From an opportunity standpoint that now exists for each individual player, this season could very well be the best college football we’ve ever witnessed.

For the Rebels and Cardinals, it starts Monday night, September 6, Labor Day 2021. Oddsmakers have it 43-33 Ole Miss, or thereabouts. Get the popcorn ready!

Hotty Toddy! Are You Ready?!

(Feature image credit Malik Cunningham: Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

(Feature image credit Sam Williams: Josh McCoy, Ole Miss; Graphic: Nick Filipich, Rebel Walk)

About The Author

David Walker

David is the consummate true-freshman quarterback, first pioneering the position only a year after college freshmen were given varsity eligibility by the NCAA in 1972. In 1973, the left-handed all-state gunslinger from Sulphur, Louisiana started for the Texas A&M Aggies and earned the All-Southwest Conference Freshman of the Year award as selected by the league’s coaches. He was only 17, and still holds the NCAA record as the youngest starting quarterback in college football history. He wore No. 8 at A&M in honor of one of his football heroes, Archie Manning. In becoming the winningest quarterback ever at A&M, David was converted from a dual-threat QB to a triple option trailblazer. The two-time team captain led three record-breaking offenses that changed the direction of football at A&M forever, establishing once and for all the winning tradition that the Aggies had so-long desired. As a high school head coach in Houston in the late ‘80s, David stationed his quarterback in the shotgun formation, having him reading defenses and throwing hot routes at a time when such offensive schemes were frowned upon by traditional fans and coaches. One of his quarterbacks tossed 57 passes in a single game, which stood as the all-time Greater Houston Area record for many years.  As you can tell from his bona fides, David is extremely qualified as our expert on all things Quarterback at Ole Miss. Enjoy his exclusive analysis only here at The Rebel Walk!

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