It’s been a year in the making, but the big re-match is finally here. No, not the A&M/Bama game, though that’s certainly a huge one. I’m talking about the Ole Miss vs. Texas game, which takes place at Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium in Austin tonight.
One thing you need to know from the outset. The Longhorns are a little touchy when it comes to the prowess of the SEC, widely considered the nation’s premier conference. It doesn’t help matters that Texas’ long-time rivals, the Texas Aggies, bolted for the SEC and achieved immediate fame and notoriety.
So who could blame the Horns for being a little sensitive? One look at their promotional video this week (click here) and you will see (in the first 5 seconds) the Horns are indeed hoping to “show the SEC what Texas football is all about.” But after all, the SEC has won the last 7 national championships, so it’s understandable if the Burnt Orange Nation is a little defensive. Both Longhorn Head Coach Mack Brown and Oklahoma Head Coach Bob Stoops recently whined to the media that the Big 12 is every bit as good as the SEC—even better, if one compares the two leagues top to bottom.
To be fair, though, last year’s 66-31 victory over Ole Miss does give the Longhorns plenty of reasons to boast. However, it is important to remember Ole Miss is not the same team it was last year.
Rebel fans, on the other hand, can only hope the Texas defense is EXACTLY the same as it was last year, because it was a unit that gave up over 400+ yards per game. Or better yet, they should hope the Horns’ defense is the same as it was last week against BYU.
Rebels, on the other hand, are hoping the addition of some of the most talented freshmen in the nation, a solid year under a great strength and conditioning coach, and a season’s worth of familiarity with Coach Hugh Freeze’s system, will mean a different outcome when they take the field against the Horns this year. And if the thrilling, last-minute win against Vandy is any indication, you can bet this year’s Rebels will not blink when they take the field in Austin.
The Past is the Past
While the 25th ranked Rebels will be looking to put last year’s loss to the Horns behind them, the Horns will be looking to put last week’s loss to BYU behind them. In what can only be described as a debacle, the Horns gave up a total of 550 yards rushing to BYU, a new Texas record for futility. The disaster led to the firing of Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz, and it should be interesting to see how his replacement, Greg Robinson, fares at the helm. (Robinson’s last two years as defensive coordinator at Michigan left much to be desired—with his teams finishing No. 82 and No. 113 in total defense those years.)
Currently the Longhorns are ranked 117 out of 125 in the nation in total defense. That means only 8 teams in the entire country are worse, statistically speaking, than the Longhorns on defense. That’s a bitter bill for Texas, a team with a proud history, to swallow. You can bet they will be chomping at the bit to take on an SEC team and redeem themselves.
It is important to remember that regardless of their defensive woes, this year’s version of the Longhorns has something important going for it–experience. Rebel fans should keep in mind the Horns have 19 returning starters, which ties Texas with four other FBS schools for most returning starters. (Incidentally, Ole Miss began fall practice with 19 returning starters of its own, but has since lost several key players to injuries.)
Texas’ offensive line, though it struggled to stop even a 3-man rush at BYU, is big and has all five starters back. Defensively, six of the front seven have returned, as well as three starting members of the secondary.
Last year, Texas’ QB David Ash torched the Rebels, finishing 19-23 for 326 yards passing and 4 touchdowns. This year, however, Ash is questionable for the game against the Rebels, after suffering a head and shoulder injury against BYU. It will likely be a game-time decision whether or not he plays. If he does not play, Case McCoy will step in and take the snaps. McCoy is not the passer Ash is, but he does have skills running the ball. Regardless of which Longhorn QB plays, it will be critical for him to limit mistakes, make good decisions, and use the talented, experienced players who surround him—much the same game-plan the Rebels should have for QB Bo Wallace.
Must-win game for Texas
In order to quiet the critics, and perhaps take some heat off embattled Mack Brown, this game is a must-win for the Horns. If the defense can find a way to return to the form it enjoyed during the years it produced double-digit wins, the Longhorns stand a chance of reclaiming the Big 12 crown. However, Ole Miss will be a real test for them.
If the Horns allow the game against the Rebels to turn into a shootout, or if they cannot stop the run, they could be in trouble. Dual-threat QB Bo Wallace has cut down on the turnovers that plagued him early in last year’s season. Thus far through two games, he has not thrown a single interception.
Ole Miss offense ready to erupt
Wide receiver Donte Moncrief and tailback Jeff Scott look as formidable now as they were in 2012 when they combined for 239 yards of offense between the two of them against Texas. Moncrief hauled in a 67-yard TD pass last weekend in Oxford and is definitely looking for more. Scott’s electrifying 75-yard run against Vandy showed he is ready and able to put the team on his back if necessary.
It is important to note this year’s Rebels have almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to targets for Wallace’s passes. Talented Ja-Mes Logan is joined by two, true-freshmen stars, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and tight end Evan Engram. The freshmen duo has simply been remarkable, thus far. Treadwell, Moncrief, and Engram have a combined 370 receiving yards of the Rebels’ 543 yards in the first two games of the season. Rebel fans were happy to learn wide receiver Vince Sanders will return to the field this weekend, following a broken collarbone sustained on the first day of fall practice.
For the defense…..
The Texas secondary is supposedly the strongest part of its defense, so it should be a good matchup. Texas’ main goal in the offseason was to try and shore up their porous defense and reduce the 400+ yards per game they were allowing. If they can put away the hard-charging, never-say-die Rebels, the Horns will go a long way towards proving they have succeeded.
But after watching the Horns allow BYU sophomore quarterback Taysom Hill to rumble for more than 250 yards all by himself, one has to wonder what, exactly, the Horns worked on defensively in the off season? Keep in mind, Hill wore a knee brace and was coming off an ACL injury last season—yet he was literally unstoppable by the Texas defense. At one point, ESPN announcers calling the game exclaimed: “The Longhorn defense is just non-existent in the middle—no matter who is carrying the ball.”
Defensive Coordinator Robinson has had a mere six days to prepare his defense for the Ole Miss offense that has the ability to run and pass the ball.
As for the Ole Miss defense—it will have to step up in order to leave Austin with the win. Regardless of whether Ash or McCoy is taking snaps for the Longhorns Saturday night, and regardless of the fact they lost last weekend, the Longhorns will be ready to show they are still amongst the elite programs in the nation. And though they have lost wide receiver/running back Daje Johnson, the Horns still have plenty of talented players on the team.
The Rebels are without injured linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, the emotional leader of the team—as well as last year’s team leader in tackles, with 82; tackles for loss, with 13; and four forced fumbles and three interceptions. However, in the win last week, junior linebacker Serderius Bryant stepped in and had a great game, with a team-high 15 tackles, 8 of which were solo.
Battle in the Trenches
In all probability, it will come down to the battle in the trenches. The Longhorns were supposed to have one of the most skilled and experienced offensive lines in the country—yet they were manhandled by BYU. If they can find a way to rebound, protect the QB, and open the gaps for their three skilled running backs, they will be in the game.
Rankings and Records
The Rebels have not started out 3-0 since 1989, nor have they been nationally ranked since 2009. The Horns, on the other hand, have a meager 37-29 record against Top 25 teams in the Mack Brown era. And if the Rebels beat the Horns, well, it could be the end of the Mack Brown era.
My prediction Ole Miss covers the +3 spread and wins 37-28.