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Ole Miss Stars Must Align One Final Time at Home in Magnolia Bowl

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I am paid to write about Ole Miss Sports. I have watched almost every down of Ole Miss Rebel football for as long as I can remember. In the offseason, I scour the internet for recruiting news, rumors from spring practice, any sort of hint as to how this team will perform in the fall. Just like you, faithful Rebel fan, I know this team inside and out.

I still have no idea what will happen when LSU comes to town, and neither do you.

This isn’t for lack of football smarts. This isn’t due to unfamiliarity with the team. It’s like being asked to guess whether Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde is going to show up on any given Saturday—I can’t find any rhyme or reason to it.

You were there when Ole Miss gave up the final 2 of 53 points that let Arkansas take the win in Vaught-Hemingway. You watched as a traditionally run-heavy offense ran the same play action sweep over and over again, torching the Rebs’ finally-healthy defense to the tune of 442 yards and 6 touchdowns through the air. You watched soft coverage all night, and you lost track of the number of one-on-one battles Rebs lost.

But you were also there when Ole Miss held Texas A&M, one of the more prolific offenses in the conference, to under 200 total yards. You saw the Aggies tack on one measly field goal in the second quarter while all-everything DT Robert Nkemdiche sat on the bench. In retrospect, it’s baffling.

So far be it from me to guess which defense shows up next week in an effort to shut down one of the best rushing attacks in the country, led by star RB Leonard Fournette. But I can tell you this: the matchup between the Landsharks and the Tiger offense will be the key to the game.

I say this for a couple of reasons. First, we are currently witnessing one of the best single seasons any Ole Miss quarterback has ever put together. Chad Kelly was widely regarded as a mystery upon his arrival in Oxford; many pegged the quarterback position as the one glaring deficiency on an otherwise-loaded roster. Turns out, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Kelly has had his way with opposing defenses this year, alternately slinging the ball to a talented fleet of wide receivers and getting hard-earned yards on the ground, en route to a 1st-Team-All-SEC-caliber performance. Take into account the shoddy offensive line play against Florida and Memphis, and his successes are all the more impressive. With a healthy supporting cast, I expect Kelly to get his due vs. a talented Tiger defense.

Second, it became evident in their loss to Alabama (their only blemish on the season at press time) that LSU is a one-dimensional offense. When you’ve got arguably the most talented running back since Adrian Peterson on the roster, you’re right to get him his touches. But when Fournette gets shut down, as he did vs. the Tide, to whom can the Tigers turn? LSU quarterback Brandon Harris has shown proficiency with the deep pass this year, but other aspects of the passing game have yet to get off the ground. As ‘Bama showed, if you’re able to stop Fournette, LSU doesn’t have a lot of answers—they didn’t even substitute another back but for a single play.

I do suspect, even with the disappointing way this “dream season” has played out, that Ole Miss will be able to muster up some fight when LSU and Mississippi State come calling. Regardless of the records, these are always the two most important games on Ole Miss’s schedule. But, as evidenced in the loss to Arkansas, all the heart and grit in the world can’t make up for poor execution. The Magnolia Bowl won’t be decided by who wants it more—it will be decided by which team is able to exert their will on the other.

There’s no question that the talent is still there for the Rebs, but it will be interesting to see if this coaching staff (and Rebel Nation) will be able to coax another masterful performance from some of the best talent Ole Miss has ever had on campus. It’s likely the last time that names like Tunsil, Treadwell, and Nkemdiche will be called over the Vaught-Hemingway PA.

Here’s hoping they’re able to put it all together, one last time.

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