The Ole Miss football frenzy will reach a fever pitch 8:15 p.m. CT Thursday evening, when Hugh Freeze's Rebels (and possibly the entire town of Oxford, Mississippi) invade Vanderbilt Stadium for the nightcap of ESPN's Thursday Night Football season opener.
It's a contest that's loomed large ever since Commodore wide receiver Chris Boyd pulled in a late fourth-quarter, come-from-behind, game-winning 26-yard touchdown strike last season at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The game still haunts Rebel fans.
As if good ol' revenge weren't motivation enough already, reclaiming the Golden Egg for the first time in three years, going bowling for the first time since the 2010 Cotton Bowl, and signing ESPN's No. 5 recruiting class for 2013 have pumped a level of excitement and hope into the program. That's quite honestly been missing since a guy named Eli was tossing passes in Oxford.
Make no mistake about it, folks. This one's of epic proportions for Ole Miss.
One Big Game for Rebel Nation
With a win, the momentum keeps on rolling. Assuming the Rebels take care of business at home the next weekend against Southeast Missouri State (SEMO), Ole Miss would be 2-0 traveling to Texas.
A win at Vandy would be a springboard to what could ultimately turn into a very special season.
A loss wouldn't minimize any of the positive things that have taken place since the Vandy loss in 2012. However, leaving Music City in defeat would make the immediate road ahead an uphill battle, as the Rebs travel to Texas, Alabama and Auburn to round out the first five of the season.
Furthermore, it wouldn't exactly build confidence in the minds of the epic 2013 recruiting class.
Enough of the hype, though.
Anyone familiar with the transformation Freeze has underway at Ole Miss understands what a win against a Commodore team that went 9-4 a year ago will mean for the upstart Rebels.
Rebs Look to Buck Trends
Ole Miss hasn't been as successful against Vandy of late. Despite the fact that the Rebels lead the all-time series 47-38-2 and are 22-6 at home against the Commodores, Ole Miss is 21-27-2 in road games versus their perennial Eastern Division foe.
Since 2005, the Rebels are only 1-3 in road games against the 'Dores. Furthermore, Vandy has won the past three games in the series and six of the last eight overall.
However, quite possibly the most important trend Ole Miss hopes to halt is giving up second-half leads.
In addition to letting the Vandy game slip away last year, the Rebels blew second-half leads against Texas A&M and LSU. If Freeze's squad wants to improve upon the surprising 7-6 campaign in 2012, finishing games in the fourth quarter will be absolutely vital.
If opportunity is knocking late Thursday evening, Ole Miss must close the deal. Period.
Big Moment for the Vanderbilt Program
As for James Franklin's squad, don't think for a minute that his kids won't be prepared to play their hearts out and persevere through the negative press of the awful rape case (generated by the alleged actions of only a few 'Dores).
For a guy (Franklin) who does things right and has won quickly at one of America's greatest academic institutions, it's extremely unfortunate that only a handful of young men have cast a cloud of suspicion around a program that's doing things the right way.
Despite everything that's happened, don't forget it was just last season that Vanderbilt went to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history, won more games in SEC play than any Vanderbilt club since 1935 and reeled off seven straight wins to end the season, finishing with a 38-24 win over N.C. State in the Music City Bowl.
Win, lose or draw Thursday, for the first time since the troubling rape allegations surfaced, Franklin's club finally gets to focus its attention on an actual ballgame (in front of the home crowd, nonetheless).
Vandy Hope to Fill Voids
The Commodores return 17 starters in 2013, but they did lose some significant contributors from last year's squad. While there are several losses along the defensive front, the departures of quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy and offensive guards Josh Jelesky and Ryan Seymour will likely be felt early in the season.
NFL-ready WR Jordan Matthews will be on the field against Ole Miss, having racked up a season-high 153 receiving yards last year against the Rebels. But Boyd won't be. Having been indicted as a part of the case, he's suspended indefinitely.
It's a hefty loss for the Commodore offense. Boyd was responsible for five scores and 774 yards receiving on 50 receptions in 2012.
Without Boyd's services in the season opener, Vandy must to look to an inexperienced group of receivers to create opportunities for redshirt senior QB Austyn Carta-Samuels. Further, the team depth-chart now lists only two starting wide receiver positions.
The Tennessean's Jeff Lockridge wrote,
That void (Boyd) will be filled by fullback Fitz Lassing or H-back Kris Kentera, depending on which set Vanderbilt uses to start a game. Freshman Jordan Cunningham and junior walk-on Trey Wilkins are the backups behind starting receivers Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause.
The Rebels will have their eye on the veteran Matthews, but they should also keep tabs on Cunningham. The 6'1'', 175-pound true freshman ranked as ESPN's No. 13 wide receiver prospect in 2013, and he'll be looking for every opportunity to upstage the nation's top wide receiver recruit, Ole Miss' Laquon Treadwell.
With the defensive attention expected to be thrown at Rebel standout WR Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss fans may soon be chanting "Feed Treadwell," in addition to "Feed Moncrief."
The Return of Bo Wallace
After sitting out spring drills as he recovered from shoulder surgery, Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace returns as the starter against the Commodores this week.
Without question, he's the centerpiece of Freeze's no huddle, fast-break offense. He'll need to return in top shape, as the options at backup QB are anything but ideal to begin the season.
Behind Wallace, the Rebels only have an inconsistent senior (Barry Brunetti) and one of two talented true freshman (Devante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan) as viable options at No. 2. The Brunetti experiment simply hasn't worked out the past couple of seasons, and throwing a true freshman against an SEC defense would be a tough call.
Again, it's crucial Wallace shakes off any cobwebs early and plays like he did late last year.
While injured WRs Vince Sanders and Korvic Neat will be unavailable for a few weeks, Wallace will have the opportunity to mix quality receivers like Cody Core, Quincy "Q" Adeboyejo and Jordan Holder into the receiving rotation. The faster Wallace can begin to get production out of these three, the faster receivers like Moncrief, Treadwell and Ja-Mes Logan will find more open space in enemy territory.
Freeze stated after the Thursday, August 21 practice (per OleMissSports.com),
I love his (Treadwell's) body. He is a big guy and you don't realize it until you're standing right beside him. I think that being able to move him, Donte (Moncrief) and Ja-Mes (Logan) around, particularly in the red zone, is going to pay dividends for us.
Play Keep-Away Better
As much as the Ole Miss offense improved under Wallace in 2012, Rebel quarterbacks still combined to toss a league-worst 18 picks. That's far too high for a team searching for eight, nine or 10 wins.
The Rebels' "landshark" defense did its part in 2012, pulling in 15 interceptions to tie with South Carolina for No. 5 in the SEC, but Wallace has to be smarter when he gets in trouble.
Special Teams, Play Special
Ole Miss special teams were rough last season. It's that cut and dry.
Behind the leadership of two redshirt seniors in 2013, kicker Andrew Ritter and punter Tyler Campbell, the kicking and punting games for the Rebels should be much improved.
There's no denying the ability of the Rebel offense to score on any given play. However, Ole Miss punt and kick return team production was anything but solid last year.
In 2012, the Rebels finished dead last in the SEC with a punt return average of 5.6 YPR, only No. 82 in kickoff return average (20.02 YPR). The lone bright spot was true freshman RB Jaylen Walton, whose 24.7 YPR average ranked No. 4 in the conference.
With another year under his belt, not to mention being complemented by a guy like DB Trae Elston or RB Kailo Moore, Walton should develop into an even better return man.
On punt returns, senior RB Jeff Scott should get the lion's share of the work in 2013.
A quality backfield rotation, including Walton, I'Tavius Mathers, Mark Dodson and Kailo Moore, should lessen the offensive workload on Scott, providing the Miami, Florida speedster with the fresh legs needed to be dangerous fielding punts.
Freshmen, Freshmen, Freshmen
The talk of national signing day this past February, several Rebel recruits will be on full display at Vanderbilt Stadium. Among the freshmen expected to play are DE Robert Nkemdiche, WR Laquon Treadwell, OT Laremy Tunsil, S Tony Conner, TE Evan Engram and RBs Mark Dodson and Kailo Moore.
How will they respond in their first college game, not to mention an SEC game on national TV?
While there will be hiccups at times, remember these are kids fresh out of high school. Several of these players have the potential to make game-changing plays as early as Thursday night in Music City.
Could a true freshman be the difference this week?
Difference in the Game: The Landshark Defense
Franklin's biggest worry against the Rebels has to be the inexperience of his receiving corps (largely created by Boyd's suspension), coupled with Carta-Samuels' first significant action under center since 2010.
However, replacing two players (QB Rodgers and RB Stacy) who combined to produce 26 touchdowns in 2012 is something that won't be overcome in the first game or two of the season. Franklin has recruited well in Nashville and he has guys ready to step up, but it's going to take a little time.
The Commodore defense will challenge Wallace in his return and look to create confusion for newcomers like Dodson, Treadwell, Adeboyejo and Moore. But the challenge the Vandy offense will face against defensive coordinator Dave Wommack's "Landshark" defense will be too much to overcome.
Behind the leadership of passionate LB Denzel Nkemdiche, look for the visitors to create a couple of costly turnovers against the home team and not-so-little brother Robert to make a statement in his college debut. The biggest unknown for the Rebels will be how CBs Charles Sawyer and Senquez Golson come back from injuries this summer.
If this were another November matchup, Vandy would look more crisp, with Carta-Samuels having had time to get back into the swing of "game" action.
However, it's the season opener in 2013.
The Rebels leave Music City 1-0, and Ole Miss fans contribute heavily to the downtown Nashville economy.
Ole Miss 37, Vandy 23
Come the end of the year, remember to look back at the Vanderbilt game when sizing up what kind of season Ole Miss had in 2013. Consider Vanderbilt the barometer for Ole Miss this season.