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LSU vs. Ole Miss: What to watch for

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Well, here we go.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The end is never pretty in college football. Coaching is a fleeting profession.

In my lifetime, I can think of one coach in the legendary, or even very good category, that went out on top: Tom Osbourne. His final Nebraska team went undefeated, stomped Peyton Manning's Tennessee team in the Orange Bowl and split the national title with Michigan.

The rest could all be filed somewhere under U, whether it was just ugly, or merely unceremonious:

  • Bobby Bowden limped through his final couple years at Florida State, slowly having his duties taken by assistants and boosters, until it was all just handed to Jimbo Fisher.

  • Steve Spurrier just up and decided he didn't want to coach at Florida anymore, and left for the NFL.

  • Pete Carroll ran out the back door on USC before the NCAA could come knocking on the front.

  • Jim Tressell was forced out of Ohio State in the spring following an NCAA scandal.

  • Urban Meyer went 7-5 his last year at Florida, decided he didn't feel like rebuilding and found and excuse to sit out until the next big-time job came open.

  • Mack Brown had his program try to hire Nick Saban behind his back and eventually got the hint and retired after a multi-year downturn.

  • Nick Saban announced that he was leaving LSU on Christmas morning after his team had already left for their bowl game without him.

Are we watching the end of Les Miles at LSU? We'll begin to find out on Saturday.

What to Watch for on Saturday

To Pass Go, Or Not

Is Les Miles on the hot seat? No.

Does Les Miles need to win this game? Yes.

Things haven't reached a tipping point yet, but LSU has found itself in a skid that it needs to steer out of. These next two games will be variables in the "if A [result] than B [coaching change]"equation. Win them, and LSU is 9-2 with a chance to play in either the Capital One or Sugar Bowls, and this team will have shown that it's ready to stand up and play for its head coach when challenged. And with his back against the wall, Les Miles found a way to keep coaching.

It's not the first time we've been to the brink. It's also not the first time Ole Miss was involved. After the 2009 game, I'll admit to thinking that Miles' days were numbered. He'd need to come back with something big. And he did -- LSU gutted its way by Bobby Petrino, Ryan Mallett and Arkansas that next week, closed with a strong recruiting class and rebounded with 11 wins that next season, setting the stage for 2011.

I know this much: change is coming to this program in one way or another. How much is the question that we will begin to answer on Saturday.

Fullback to It

It's a cliché to say that the program needs to get back to the basics, but that just so happens to be true this week, really.

Yes, after years of LSU fans praying for a "more open" and spread-out offense, LSU fans should want to see more fullbacks and tight ends this weekend. Last year, the Tigers did just that against Ole Miss' speedy, but undersized defense, rushing for 264 yards and wearing them down in the fourth-quarter for a 13-play, 95-yard game winning drive that featured 12 consecutive runs, such as this:

Kenny Hilliard Ole Miss

and this

Leonard Facemask Rip

Yes, the Ole Miss rushing defense has been pretty solid this season, allowing just 128 yards and 3.4 per carry in conference games. But the two best rushing teams to date, Arkansas and Alabama, each went for more than 160 yards and over the 4 yards per carry mark, on 39 and 42 attempts.

That's the gamble of Dave Womack's 4-2-5 style. You'll get frustrated with running into numbers before his safeties will get tired of making tackles. But that's a gamble that LSU has to take and has had success with in the past against other teams that play this style of defense. Quite frankly, the 4-2-5 is designed to stop the attack LSU tried to use last week against Arkansas.

What's more, the Rebels will likely be without their leading tackler, linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, who is battling an unknown medical issue in an intensive care unit. Not to mention star safety Tony Conner, who has battled injuries all season.

I know that some of LSU's playcalling decisions last week were influenced by the injuries to tight end Dillon Gordon and fullback John David Moore, but they're simply going to need Colin Jeter and Bry'Kiethon Mouton to step up. Go right at the Rebels, feed the best player on the field in Leonard Fournette, and use that to set up play-action and misdirection.

Another key will be schedule. As friend-of-the-blog Marcus Rodrigue detailed this week in the Advocate, LSU is just 9-of-25 on third down in the last two games, largely because the average distance of those conversion situations has been 9.7 yards. I've been critical of Robert Nkemdiche's production versus hype at Ole Miss, but there is one thing he does really well and that's explode up the field. To say nothing of defensive end Marquis Haynes' 8.5 sacks. The Tigers need to avoid obvious, long-yardage passing situations as often as possible against this defense.

The Rebels also primarily use cover-three in the secondary, so crossing routes off of play-action will be important, as well as 4-verticals and other seamers. This is a defense that really eats up short passes in the flats.

Swag Status?

It's been said a lot this week that Ole Miss (and Texas A&M) give LSU good matchups to get back on track. And while I agree with that on offense for the reasons outlined above, I'm not so sure about that on defense.

Ole Miss has one of the most explosive offenses in the conference, with the league's best group of wide receivers and a quarterback that has fit into what Hugh Freeze wants to do on offense incredibly well. The Ole Miss spread wants to take what a defense will give via packaged run/short pass plays -- where the QB has the option to hand off, keep or throw a bubble screen, stick or shallow crossing route and then use that to set up the defense for big plays via some motions, fakes and double moves.

Movement and fakes that can mess with assignments in zone coverage have been what have led to a lot of LSU's coverage bust issues this season. And Jalen Mills' return has cleaned some of those up, but the safety play of Rickey Jefferson and Jamal Adams has still been an issue with fits, angles, etc...

The top four wide receivers for the Rebels are all going to play on Sundays: Laquon Treadwell has blossomed into a true No. 1 guy with a complete game, Quincy Adeboyejo and Cody Core are outstanding deep threats, and tight end Evan Engram is probably the one true matchup nightmare receiver in this conference in terms of size/speed combination.

LSU's has the corners to matchup with them moderately well, but they're going to want to try and bracket the field as much as possible with some cover-two. And Ole Miss' inability to consistently run the ball should allow Kevin Steele that luxury. Jaylen Walton is a fast back and can be dangerous if he finds a seam, but he's not going to consistently pick up the 4-5 yards Ole Miss needs.

Kelly, for his part, reminds me of an enhanced version of Bo Wallace. He's a decent athlete that can move around and pick up yardage as need be, he has just a bit of a gambler streak (and the right amount of white trash bravado to be the perfect ironic Ole Miss hero). But the key difference from Wallace is that he has a big arm to push the ball down the field.

The defense's best shot will be exactly what worked last year. Win the line of scrimmage, get hands in Kelly's face and force him to throw underneath into traffic. If they can frustrate him, he might put some passes up for grabs.

Of course, if LSU can pound out some drives on offense, eat clock and put the ball in the endzone themselves, that will add even more pressure to the Rebel offense and take more of it off the Tiger defense.

Do NOT Expect

Satisfaction

It's been really hard for me to focus on the particulars of the game this week with all the uncertainty in the air. So I can only imagine what it's like in the Football Ops complex right now.

I am sure that there's no outcome in this that will completely satisfy LSU fans. Tigers, win, especially with a power-focused gameplan, and the crowd that has never gotten over the BCS title game, or, as PodKatt puts it:

have their hopes dashed. Lose, and the specter of some degree of coaching change will only continue to gain power and solidify. It will mean LSU will not have won a game in nearly a calendar month. It will mean that Les Miles really is coaching for his job next week.

Ole Miss fans don't seem to know what to expect here either, and a loss on their end will likely put Hugh Freeze under the first pressure to make change that he's ever experienced at Oxford. Two teams on the edge. I guess we'll see who pushes harder.