The resurgent Rebels return to Vaught Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss., this weekend to take on the high scoring Texas A&M Aggies as the Rebels end their tour of the Lone Star state on the 2012 schedule. This is the third Texas-based team Ole Miss will face in 2012 with UTEP and the University of Texas games already in the books.
Coming off what amounts to a moral victory in a league that doesn’t believe in any such thing, the Rebels held with the No. 1 team in the nation in Alabama for most of the first half before caving to defensive pressure and turnovers. The Rebels need to help themselves in big games instead of self-inflicting wounds as with Texas and Alabama.
Now in the meat of the SEC schedule, all games are “big games.” The Aggies may be new to the league, but are more than capable of finishing in the top half of the SEC standings.
Are the Rebels ready to be a top-half team? I believe this game will give us the answer.
Saturday’s game will only be the fifth time the two teams have faced off, with the Aggies winning all four previous games, the most recent of which was in 1980.
Scouting the Aggies
Looking over the first five games, there are not many weaknesses on this team. Looking over the schedule in the preseason, we circled Florida and Arkansas as big losses for this College Station team, but they have more than responded to the level of competition so far.
Granted, Florida was the first ever SEC game at Kyle Field, complete with ESPN’s College GameDay and all the home fans' emotion. Arkansas is, well, not the team we thought they were. But don’t let that take away from the performance of the team, especially the performance of redshirt freshman Johnny “Football” Manziel.
Manziel was destined to have a big day against an Arkansas team with more than 99 problems, but he didn’t just have a big day. He had a record-breaking day, stamping his name in the record books for single game total offense of 557 yards, above Ole Miss legend Archie Manning’s 540.
The Aggies freshman phenom certainly creates some problems with his feet, but the greatest concern to Ole Miss is his passing proficiency, currently fourth in the SEC. Ole Miss continues to make changes to shore up a small and shallow defensive unit, which performed over their talent level last week in Tuscaloosa.
Ole Miss will also have to keep an eye on Aggie Damontre Moore, a junior defensive end that leads the SEC in sacks. A&M defense is mid-to-below SEC standards, and Ole Miss' offense will need to capitalize on that.
Installing the Game Plan
Ole Miss has not faced a dynamic QB like Manziel this year. However, Ole Miss does have a few on campus they have been practicing against in Randall Mackey, Barry Brunetti and now, starter Bo Wallace, all of whom are capable runners and passers.
Likewise, Texas A&M is prepared and practiced against the up-tempo style offenses under coach Kevin Sumlin, which is similar to Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze’s offense.
What will make the difference in this game is if Ole Miss can protect the football and stop the big plays Johnny Manziel will no doubt attempt. Ole Miss has fallen to 12th in the league in turnover margin.
In the Florida-TAMU game, once the Gators played consistently and filled up the defensive gaps, Johnny football wasn’t nearly as effective. But in the first half, as Florida got sloppy and began to chase, the game was on the verge of getting out of hand.
Hugh Freeze is not happy with the performance of starting Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace, who he felt gave up some easy interceptions to Alabama last week. He was so unhappy that he opened the starting job up to the backups this week in practice.
I think Bo Wallace has gotten the message and will be much more consistent and dependable this week. I do not expect a change at starting QB, but you can expect Brunetti to continue to get some snaps.
The only obvious advantage Ole Miss has is in the passing game. In order for Ole Miss to be successful Saturday, they have to take advantage of the A&M secondary and pass to set up the run. Wallace must be stingy with the ball and march up and down the field on those long drives like he did against Alabama, without the turnovers.
Sometimes, the only difference between two teams that seem to match up closely in a lot of ways, like the Rebels and the Aggies do, is their frame of mind. The Rebels are coming off a hard-fought road loss at Alabama, while Texas A&M had a breezy track meet against the Razorbacks at home.
Will the Rebels have anything left in the tank? Will Bo Wallace settle down and become the leader Hugh Freeze is looking for? Tune in to ESPNU at 6 p.m. Central time Saturday night to find out. If nothing else, you may get to see a combined 160 plays out of these young offensive-minded head coaches.