Well, here we are on the picturesque campus of the University of Mississippi.
Walking through The Grove at 8 a.m. Mississippi time, which is only a long block away from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, you first see lots and lots of trees with one Ole Miss canopy/tent jammed next to another. In fact, not a great deal of space to walk between these places where the Rebel fans have conducted their tailgate rituals for more years than I can remember. But, truth be told, it’s nothing more special than all the magnificent trees that shade Dawg fans on the beautiful UGA campus … especially in the North Campus area.
But, campus dressings aside, I believe we have a little football game here this afternoon and as I look down on the playing surface of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, where the host Ole Miss Rebels will confront the Georgia Bulldogs at 11 a.m. Oxford time, I’m thinking this is a most difficult football game to get a handle on.
Yes, Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs have delivered their new head coach a 3-0 record in this still young 2016 campaign and, yes, Hugh Freeze’s Rebels stand just 1-2 on the season. So why, pray tell, are the Johnny Rebels a solid 7-point favorite over the University of Georgia?
Pretty simple. While the Bulldogs’ wins thus far have come over the likes of North Carolina, little Nicholls State and the Missouri Tigers, Ole Miss’ two defeats came at the hands of top-ranked Alabama (48-43) and then 4th-ranked Florida State (45-34) … games in which the Rebels twice let a three-touchdown lead get away.
Due to those Ole Miss defeats against the Tide and Seminoles, the Johnny Rebs are taking a No. 23 national ranking into today’s contest while Smart’s unbeaten Dawgs are sporting a No. 12 ranking in the Associated Press poll while holding down a No. 11 spot in the coaches’ poll.
But truth also be told, all that stuff hardly means anything as to whom the eventual winner of this game will be. For Georgia, there are two primary questions the Bulldogs must answer if they are to fly back to Athens with their season record still unblemished at 4-0. That would be (1) Can Georgia rediscover its running game, one that compiled 289 yards on the ground in the opening win over North Carolina but then was all but nonexistent in narrow wins over Nicholls and Missouri? All-America candidate Nick Chubb has been limited to 80 and 63 yards the last two outings after storming to 222 yards in his comeback debut in the Georgia Dome. Bulldogs’ O-line, can you provide any space at all today against the Marquis Haynes-led Rebels’ Land-Shark defense? It goes without saying that good running space for Chubb and the elusive Sony Michel will make life easier this afternoon for freshman quarterback Jacob Eason.
And (2), can the Georgia defensive unit get any pressure whatsoever on Ole Miss’ prolific senior quarterback, Chad Kelly, and thereby keep Kelly from inflicting considerable pain on the Bulldogs’ secondary, which has quite the challenge to start with in shadowing the Rebels’ tall receiving corps? Yes indeed, if Mr. Kelly has all day to stand in the pocket without harassment from Georgia’s defensive ends and outside linebackers, he will literally pick the Dogs apart.
Of course, while running the football with aplomb and defending Kelly and his receivers will be paramount to a Georgia victory, the Bulldogs’ special teams will also have to display considerable improvement, if indeed there is to be a UGA upset of Ole Miss. There can be no more missed field goals from 38 and 23 yards away and there can be no more Bulldogs crashing into the opposing punt returners before he has a chance to catch the ball.
My prediction? … I just think Ole Miss is backed into a corner after the ‘Bama defeat, the Rebels knowing a second SEC loss could all but bounce them out of the rugged SEC West Division race. And while Georgia was able to escape Columbia, Mo. despite allowing Tiger QB Drew Lock to pass for 376 yards, I don’t think the Bulldogs can beat the Rebels if Kelly puts up similar passing yards. Back at the beginning of this week on our Bulldawg Illustrated podcast, I called this one, 38-28, Ole Miss. That sounds about right.
Of course, would love to be dead wrong on this call and, as always, Go Dawgs!!