For the first time in 11 years, both LSU and Ole Miss square off as ranked teams. For the first time in FIFTY-THREE years, Ole Miss is the higher-ranked team. 2014 everybody!
The third-ranked Rebels come into Baton Rouge for what is, to date, the biggest game of the year for LSU (how weird does it seem in hindsight that Mississippi State came to Baton Rouge unranked?). Aside from the record and the ranking, I'm just going to be frank and tell you that Ole Miss has the better football team this year. They've got veterans at the right positions playing at really high levels. These two teams both play their best games, it will be entertaining as hell, but Ole Miss wins, probably somewhere around that point spread -- touchdown or less.
Will Ole Miss overlook this one? Doubtful. The Rebels have been the pesky Chihuahua on LSU's pant leg for the better part of a decade. Hugh Freeze got a banged up, undermanned team sky high to pull the humiliating upset in Oxford last fall, and he was talking about this game the second Ole Miss finished off Tennessee. The Rebels are feeling their oats and they'll take pleasure in rubbing LSU's nose in this if they have the chance.
Shortest preview ever, Billy?
There are a number of matchups in this game that are favorable for the Tigers, and if teams always played their best in the big games, well college football would be a whole lot of boring.
So let's see how this one shakes out...
What to Watch For on Saturday
What's interesting about these two teams is that these teams aren't as far apart as you might think in some areas. LSU's been finding something of an identity on offense being run heavy with a limited, managed passing game with a defense that just might be starting to come together. Ole Miss is certainly much better on defense, but the offense has been trending down a bit. The Rebels are averaging just a tenth of a yard more per play compared to the Tigers, and Freeze has begun to scale back his hurry up, no-huddle spread offense into more of a deliberate style that strings plays together, limits risk and lets the defense win the game.
LSU has done the better job of making big plays with 46 over 20 yards compared to 35 for Ole Miss, and of course the Tigers average 70 more per game on the ground (220 yards to 151), but the Rebels are converting third downs at a 44.4-percent clip to LSU's 38.5. LSU's also been more efficient in the red zone, scoring 90 percent of the time to Ole Miss' 84, with a touchdown rate of 73 percent compared to 64 for the Rebs.
But that defense. Damn y'all.
With nine starters and a bunch of key backups returning, Ole Miss' defense was expected to be really good, but to date it's completely surpassed all expectations and is in the midst of a historic run. They've allowed all of six touchdowns on the year, and have scored four themselves on turnover returns.
The Rebels run a very aggressive three-safety 4-2-5 defense and are a great example of what I talk about when I say that taking the fight to an offense isn't about blitzing and man coverage on every snap. The Rebels are a predominantly zone-based team that plays a lot of cover-three, relying on the front four to gum things up against the run and disrupt the passer. But holy hell do they swarm to the ball. They're really not a big group -- no big 300-pounders up front, undersized linebackers and a pair of sub-5-10 corners, but the speed just jumps off the page.
Former super-duper-star recruit Robert Nkemdiche sets the tone for the defensive front from the three-technique tackle spot. The big numbers haven't been there for him (just 17 tackles and 3.5 for loss), but Nkemdiche has been an explosive player that has done a fantastic job of disrupting blocking schemes and helping that back seven fly to the ball. Ole Miss is at its best against spread teams that like to run east and west. The safeties and linebackers get to the flats incredibly quick and the corners usually aren't far behind.
They've generally played coverage fairly loose -- the better to fly up and make the tackle quickly -- but that's going to be an interesting matchup here. LSU's receivers have struggled versus the jam in recent weeks, and Kentucky broke a tendency to try their hand at it. I wonder if the Rebels try to match that, or just stick with what's worked for them. The main vulnerability to the coverage has been in the intermediate sideline areas on out and comeback routes. That's something that Anthony Jennings has thrown well at times off of play-action bootlegs.
Down the field, the safeties like to play deep -- something that bit Zach Mettenberger on the ass hard last year. Recognizing his tendency to lock on Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, the Rebels swarmed the deep middle and jumped on a couple of deep throws. That can't happen this time around, and it likely won't, as Jennings tends to throw the sideline routes more, and if he's done one thing well it's avoid turnovers. But LSU will need to keep the middle of the field crowded to help open up those one-on-one opportunities on the sidelines, and use the running game to keep those safeties eyes in the backfield. If the Tigers can make a play or two early in that area, watch for some of the double-move routes down the field that we saw last week against Kentucky.
The cornerbacks have played really well this year, especially Senquez Golson. But they're still of the shorter variety versus guys like Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre, who are capable of really getting up there for the ball. Ole Miss will bring their corners when they do blitz, and that's something that Jennings has struggled to identify at times.
Aside from the bootleg game, watch for some of LSU's three-level concepts, with a slot receiver running an intermediate option route. And maybe some quick fades if the Rebels are crowding the box.
Let It Bo?
The other side of the ball sets up as a bit of a better matchup for LSU. Similar to Kentucky, the Rebels run a spread offense that uses a lot of packaged concepts, with Bo Wallace as the trigger man. The senior has, at the moment, overcome his somewhat...colorful...past, running this offense in a calm, collected manner that hasn't been flashy but has gotten the job done.
He's got a big, fast and physical group of receivers to get the ball to. Tight end Evan Engram is a tough matchup, and receiver Laquon Treadwell might as well be a tight end himself at 230 pounds. Cody Core gives them some speed after the catch and Vince Sanders (a member of the All-"that guy's still there?" Team) has been the go-to guy on third down. They favor a lot of slants, comebacks and stick routes that take advantage of Wallace's lack of a tremendous deep arm.
Wallace has some mobility, but he doesn't have a lot of help in the running game. Jaylen Walton and I'Tavius Mathers have some nice speed and can catch the ball, but Ole Miss hasn't been able to get them going very often. The problem there has been an inexperienced, and very thin offensive line that's allowed 50 tackles for loss on the season. Other than short-yardage quarterback Jeremy Liggins (remember him?), not a lot has worked on the ground for the Rebels. Although watch out for Walton on kick-off returns.
A lot has been made of "Good Bo" and "Bad Bo" this season, but the major reason Wallace has played better this year is that Freeze has pulled back on his reigns a bit. Bad Bo just doesn't have as many opportunities to come out, because frankly, the Rebels just aren't afraid to punt and let their defense take care of business.
The premium for LSU will be on finding a way to score and score early. Take advantage of that lack of a running game, tee off on Wallace when the opportunity presents itself and force third-down situations. Wallace is completing just 53 percent of his passes on that down, and his efficiency rating drops 40 points. He hasn't turned the ball over much but there's a chance for LSU to change that. LSU's corners should match up relatively well with the receivers. The rubber will meet the road with Jalen Mills, Rickey Jefferson, Ronald Martin and Jamal Adams over the slot, and the linebackers on Engram. And when Wallace does swing it out to Walton or Mathers, they need to make the tackle. Those two can accelerate quickly.
Do NOT Expect
The Flying Circus
Listening to local talk radio and sampling some fan opinion, I think there's a bit of a disconnect from the reality of just what kind of team LSU has right now. We'd all like to see this passing game develop a little more. And it's easy to look at a defense like Ole Miss and think "well LSU's simply going to HAVE to throw the ball more."
That's not the team you have. Anthony Jennings (or Brandon Harris) aren't going to wake up and complete 15-20 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns. Can they improve? Absolutely. But it's going to be incremental. Blindly throwing the ball more is just trying to hammer the round peg harder against a square hole that it doesn't fit into won't help the peg or the hole. LSU has got to do what it does well right now, and that's run the football. Stay ahead of the chains and avoid obvious passing downs. Force Ole Miss to commit those extra defenders, and create the most advantageous situations possible for the quarterbacks and receivers.
And there's a solid chance that might work against this defense. Yeah, Ole Miss has shut down a lot of running games this year, but this stat from our friend Cameron Roberson could be telling:
Against the two top-30 rushing offenses Ole Miss has faced, they've allowed 361 yards, 4.46 ypa. LSU is 30th in rushing offense.— Cameron Roberson (@LSUbeat) October 22, 2014
LSU needs to do what it does. Nothing fancy. Line up and go right at the Rebels. Power. Zone. Stretch. Don't use too much misdirection or anything slow-developing -- the Rebels' speed will shut that down. But make those smaller defenders increase their numbers at the line of scrimmage. Use Nkemdiche's "bull-in-a-china-shop" mentality against him by letting him fly up the field and take himself out of the play. Something I talked about back when LSU took on TCU to open 2013 -- the gamble of the 4-2-5 defense is that their numbers will wear out your power. They want you to spread the field and give in to their speed. Keep pounding, be patient, and three- and four-yard runs in the first quarter can turn into six-, seven- and eight-yard runs in the fourth.
LSU's going to need some breaks early. Turnovers, a special teams score, some positive field position, something. Grab a lead and keep stringing drives out. Hopefully a loud, boisterous and consistent Tiger Stadium crowd can keep up with the football team (this may be asking too much) through four quarters. Put the pressure of that No. 3 ranking, the undefeated season, the big chance to rub the Tigers' nose in it, ALL OF IT, squarely on Dr. Bo's shoulders. And let the chips all fall where they may.