One of the more interesting games this weekend matches consensus No. 25 Ole Miss against Texas.
The finale of a two-year home and away series, the Rebels look to avenge an embarrassing 66-31 loss to the Longhorns last year in front of the home crowd. It was only the third game for first-year Rebel head coach Hugh Freeze, but it was a crushing defeat nonetheless.
Undoubtedly, Ole Miss coaches and players have had this one circled now for over a year.
Last weekend, the Rebels (2-0, 1-0 SEC) jumped out to a convincing 31-0 lead over Southeast Missouri at the half but were shut out 13-0 by the Redhawks in the second half. The week prior at Vanderbilt, Ole Miss got out to a 10-0 lead before allowing the Commodores to put up 21 unanswered points before the half. Playing four "full" quarters of football will be crucial for the Rebels Saturday night in Texas.
As for Mack Brown's Longhorn club (1-1, 0-0 Big 12), they were upended on the road at BYU this past weekend. Not only did Texas allow a program-high 550 rushing yards to the Cougars, but the 'Horns also allowed BYU to put up 24 unanswered points after leading 14-10. By the end of the contest, the Cougars had racked up 679 yards of offense on Manny Diaz's defense.
That's a stunning figure, and one that ultimately cost Diaz his job as defensive coordinator.
Saturday night in the Lone Star State, two teams in two different places mentally will clash.
Can Ole Miss serve up payback for last year's crushing loss to Texas, and actually put together a full game for the first time in 2013?
What mental and emotional state will the Longhorn team be in when taking the field Saturday?
How will new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson fare against a high-powered Ole Miss offense?
Can Texas, only 4-12 against Top 25 teams since 2010, claim the series outright?
There's a lot at stake for both clubs in this contest, and it should be one of the better matchups of the entire weekend. Both offenses thrive on big plays, so the defense that bends but doesn't break may be the difference in determining the winner.
Take a look through this slideshow for all you need to know before kickoff.
When: Saturday, Sept. 14; 7 p.m. CT
Where: Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, Austin, Texas
TV: Longhorn Network (CBS for many in Mississippi)
Satellite Radio: Sirius 117; XM 202
Spread: Texas (-4.5), per VegasInsider.com Consensus
Run, Rebels, Run
Two games into the season, Ole Miss is averaging 239 rushing yards per game. In comparison, the Texas rush defense is giving up an average of 327 yards on the ground to opponents. If Rebel running backs I'Tavius Mathers, Jaylen Walton, Mark Dodson and Kailo Moore can find some early success in Austin, a well-rested RB Jeff Scott could provide much-needed fresh legs late in the ballgame.
Moreover, reserve quarterback Barry Brunetti (who rushed for 111 yards last week) could prove to be a crucial piece of the puzzle if he can hang onto the ball when running this weekend. Keep an eye on Brunetti.
The Ole Miss offense was vanilla against Vandy and SEMO, but Freeze will likely open up the playbook early Saturday night to try and produce some big plays. Expect to see the Wild Rebel.
Play Four "Full" Quarters of Football
If the Rebels find themselves on top early this weekend, they absolutely cannot let up (even for a moment). The Longhorns are stocked with playmakers, capable of scoring on any given down.
Despite posting early leads against both Vandy (10-0) and SEMO (31-0), Ole Miss got far too complacent and allowed both clubs to mount significant, unanswered point production. With a 10-0 lead in Nashville, the Rebels allowed Vandy to storm back with 21 unanswered points. A week later, the Redhawks went on a 13-0 scoring drive in the second half.
If opportunity knocks this weekend, Ole Miss must go for the throat and play a complete game.
Slow Down the Run; Make Them Beat You Through the Air
Last year in Oxford, QB David Ash lit up the Ole Miss secondary for a career-high 326 yards and four touchdowns. This year, he's already averaging 297 yards through the air each game. However, he got banged up in Provo last weekend. Nobody is quite sure if he'll play or how he'll play.
As for the Texas rushing attack, a 245.5 yard per game average puts them at No. 22 in the country. Fortunately, Ole Miss is only allowing 109.5 yards per game on the ground. Something has to give when these two forces meet in Austin. If Ole Miss focuses on stopping the run first, it'll force a banged-up Ash (or whomever else is under center) to beat it through the air.
The Longhorns will move the ball against the Rebels, but Ole Miss must limit big plays.
Win the Turnover Battle, (Likely) Win the Day
The Rebels simply must win the turnover battle Saturday in order to have a shot. Under Mack Brown, Texas is 91-6 all time when winning turnover margin. Last year in Oxford, Wallace tossed three picks. As for the Longhorns, they failed to cough the ball up a single time on the ground or through the air.
Don't Allow Big Plays, Make Big Plays
Texas already has five plays of 50-plus yards in 2013, and Ole Miss knows all too well the big-play capability of the Longhorns. In last year's game, the Rebels yielded multiple big plays to Texas.
Instead of allowing big plays this time around, Hugh Freeze needs to dig into his bag of offensive tricks and return the favor. Feeling even more comfortable in a no-huddle, fast-break style of offense in Freeze's second season, opening up the playbook should produce opportunities for big coring plays.
Watch out for true freshman RB Kailo Moore. He's one of the speediest kids in the SEC.
Forget About BYU
In the same way the Rebels must try and forget about last year's Texas game, the Longhorns simply have to forget about the BYU game and move on. It was a horrific loss to Longhorns everywhere, and one that may well cost Mack Brown his job later this year if things don't get turned around.
Nevertheless, the past is the past. Game film was watched, a defensive coaching change was made and now it's time to right the ship. If Texas comes out with a lack of focus, things could get ugly.
Rattle Rebel QB Bo Wallace
Texas put a lot of pressure of Wallace last fall in Oxford, forcing him to throw three interceptions in the contest. While he went on to throw a total of 17 picks and be sacked a total of 28 times last season, the Rebel quarterback has yet to toss an INT in 2013.
As dynamic and explosive as the Ole Miss offense has become under Hugh Freeze, it's imperative that newly assigned defensive coordinator Greg Robinson try and force Wallace into making poor decisions.
The worst thing the Texas D can do is allow Wallace to get comfortable early.
Under Brown, Texas is 91-6 all time when winning the turnover margin. A maligned Longhorn defense must create opportunities for the Texas offense to score off of turnovers.
Rush for Over 200 Yards
A daunting statistic for you stat fiends out there, under Brown, the 'Horns are 77-2 when rushing for 200 yards or more in a game.
It may be a tough task, though, because the Rebels are only allowing 109.5 rushing yards per game through the first two weeks (third best in the SEC).
While QB David Ash has compiled 125 rushing yards on 24 carries this year, it's been "running back by committee" for most part behind him. RB Johnathan Gray has 188 yards on 19 carries, RB Jalen Overstreet has 89 yards on 10 carries, and RB Joe Bergeron has 82 yards on 11 carries.
If Ash can find success through the air early in the game, opportunities should open up on the ground.
Hope QB David Ash Returns Healthy
The Rebel pass defense has allowed an average of 229.5 yards per contest thus far in 2013. On the other hand, the Texas passing attack is averaging 334.5 yards per outing this fall. So far this year, Ash has racked up 594 passing yards, six score and only two interceptions.
Last year in Oxford, he lit up the Ole Miss secondary by going 19-of-23 for 326 yards and four touchdowns. It was an impressive performance, and one he'll need to have again this season.
However, will Ash even play after sustaining injuries (shoulder/head) in the second half against BYU last week? Will he be able to go the entire game?
The options behind Ash are either Case McCoy or freshman Tyrone Swoopes.
Most Longhorn fans wouldn't want to see the game left in McCoy's hands (in the event Ash couldn't play); instead they'd like to see what the 6'4", 245-pound freshman Swoopes could do for the Texas O.
Swoopes is an athletic, talented young player who could ignite the offense, but at the same time he doesn't have any real game experience just yet.
Bottom line: A healthy Ash would be huge for Texas on Saturday.
QB Bo Wallace
The decisionmaking of Wallace will be a huge factor in whether or not Ole Miss beats Texas.
Through two games, he's thrown for 471 yards, two scores and zero interceptions. On the ground, he's punched in two more scores. When hurried or put in a tough spot, Wallace has thrown the ball away or gone down instead of forcing passes into traffic.
He'll need to do the same this weekend in Austin: play smart football.
TE Evan Engram
Mixed in among the Rebels' greatest recruiting class in program history, true freshman TE Evan Engram has played like a seasoned veteran in his first two contests. Not only has he made some terrific catches, but he actually leads Ole Miss in receiving yards through two games (seven catches for 131 yards).
The Rebels haven't seen significant production at the tight end spot in years, and odds are coaches didn't really have great expectations from the position in 2013. However, that's all changed.
At 6'3'', 217 pounds, the Powder Springs, Ga., native adds another dimension to the Rebel offense.
He'll garner well-deserved attention from the Longhorn defense this weekend, but that's okay.
In the process, WRs Donte Moncrief, Ja-Mes Logan and Laquon Treadwell should see some good looks.
Further, the injured Vince Sanders was back on the practice field Tuesday for the Rebels. If Sanders is game-ready come Saturday night, he'll make the Ole Miss receiving corps even more lethal.
LB Serderius Bryant
Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche has been the heart and soul of the Rebels' "Landshark Defense" since coming into the scene in 2012. When he sustained a torn meniscus in the Vanderbilt game, it was a heavy blow to the Ole Miss team. After surgery, he's expected to be out another two-four weeks.
Who was going to step in and fill the shoes of Nkemdiche?
Enter LB Serderius Bryant.
Granted the competition wasn't stiff last week against SEMO, but a lot was expected of the 5'9'', 215-pound junior. He responded with a dominating performance, racking up game-high 15 tackles (eight solo) against the Redhawks.
Even more will be expected of Bryant on the road this weekend, but he should be ready.
Keep an eye on No. 14.
QB David Ash and Co.
Who will start at quarterback Saturday night for the Longhorns?
That's a good question.
Ash was banged up pretty good (shoulder/head) in the loss to BYU, and at least for now coaches haven't made a final decision on whether or not he'll play against the Rebels.
That being said, it's safe to assume Ash will at least get a go at things when the offense takes the field. Without him, coaches would be forced to decide between senior QB Case McCoy or freshman QB Tyrone Swoopes. While McCoy would likely get a shot at things first, Texas fans will hold their breaths for now.
While he's done some good things for the 'Horns over the years, he's no Ash.
As for the 6'5'', 229-pound freshman Swoopes, he was offered by just about every major program in the country out of high school. Ultimately choosing to ink with Texas, his biggest downside right now is simply his lack of college experience. Over time, he should turn into a great college quarterback.
I'll just say this, so goes Ash this weekend, so will go the Longhorns.
WRs Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley
Davis and Shipley have been two of the main beneficiaries of Ash's abilities this fall.
Having amassed 177 yards on 13 receptions (three touchdowns) so far this season, the senior Davis has racked up 114 yards and two scores last week at BYU. Also having hauled in 13 passes in the last two weeks, Shipley has been on the receiving end of 145 of Ash's 594 yards this year.
With RB/WR Daje Johnson (ankle) manning the sidelines this weekend against the Rebs, Davis and Shipley will once again be called upon to carry the load. Davis has fond memories of going up against the Ole Miss defense in 2012, as he posted 124 yards and a score on five receptions.
While these two receivers will be front and center, RB Malcolm Brown and TE John Harris will also figure prominently into the offensive attack. The speed Brown has put up 124 yards and a score on five receptions thus far, while Harris caught three balls for 89 yards and a score.
With Johnson unavailable this weekend against a stiff Rebel run defense, Davis and Shipley will need to make big-time plays in front of the home crowd Saturday evening.
Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson
Once considered one of the hot young defensive coordinators in college football, Manny Diaz was shown the door at Texas less than 24 hours after his defense allowed a program-high 550 yards rushing against the BYU Cougars.
After BYU's field day running the ball last week, the Longhorn D now ranks No. 121 out of 123 teams in rushing defense (allowing 327 rushing yards per contest). In terms of total defense, things aren't much better as Texas ranks No. 115 in the nation.
Think Mack Brown had an inkling Diaz wouldn't last long this fall?
I believe so. Why else would he have brought on famed college and professional defensive coordinator Greg Robinson as an Player Personnel Analyst just this past summer?
Robinson is a veteran defensive guru, and there's no doubt he'll bring a much-needed breath of fresh air to the Longhorn defense. That being said, how much can he really change in less than a week?
Taking on a complex, up-tempo offense like that of Ole Miss won't be a honeymoon by any means.
If Robinson's unit can put pressure on Wallace early in the game, they can get inside his head. If not, it could be deja-vu because the Rebel offense is much more dynamic than even BYU.
Texas must be careful not to overcommit because the Rebels are loaded with offensive weapons galore, each capable of scoring on any given play. It could become a game of pick your poison.
Don't expect Robinson to turn water into wine this weekend, but things can't get much worse.
To open his weekly press conference ahead of the big non-conference game this weekend, Hugh Freeze talked about the mindset of his club heading to Austin, per the team's website.
We're excited to be 2-0 and to be going to Austin. It will be a great atmosphere, and they (Texas) will have a chip on their shoulder. Texas will be ready to prove that they are better than they performed last week. We understand what we'll get from them. We'll have to challenge our kids to see if we can raise our game and match Texas' level of intensity. It'll be a hostile environment, and we have to prepare for several in a row. But it'll be a good experience for us, and I know our kids and coaches are looking forward to it and we're ready to go.
During the press conference, Freeze also talked about the uneasy feeling of going up against new Texas defensive coordinator Greg Robinson.
It certainly is an uncomfortable feeling. We already had a shell of a game plan together based on what they had done last year and early this year. Is it still a good plan? I don't know. Greg Robinson has been in this a lot of years. He's been there so he probably knows their terminology. We've watched his stuff from other schools where he's been. It is quite a bit different than what they have been doing. We've got to be who we are and try and figure it out, particularly on third down and in the red zone. A coach that's been in it this long, he'll have his ideas on what he should do with the talent that he has there. It does present an uncomfortable feeling on if we truly have a solid game plan.
On the defensive side of the ball, Freeze talked about the importance of not giving up big plays this time around.
We've got to quit allowing the easy scores. We allowed two that resonate on my mind. We had one of those the other night. Hopefully we can stop the run, that'll be our goal going in. We were not able to do that last year against them. We've got to be able to stop the run and not give up the easy score. They have some weapons and a lot of speed. They can also certainly throw it over the top of you any time. Hopefully we get a couple turnovers and we don't give up the easy play.
At Mack Brown's weekly press conference, he talked about realistic expectations on what new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson can really change in less than a week.
Our schemes have been good. We just need to execute them better. We've been very inconsistent. At times Saturday night we made a play, the next play, the same play they run, then we don't make the next play. We have to be more consistent across the board. That's one thing Greg can do. He can make sure we're in the right places time after time.
Brown also took time to discuss the stellar play of WRs Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley, via the program's official website.
Jaxon Shipley and Mike played over 80-something plays Saturday night and played great. That's a disappointing thing about that game Saturday night. There's so many guys that played really well. You don't even talk about them because of the negatives. Those two guys were two that the offensive coaches pointed out played great. They fought, competed. Mike has a knack of jumping up and getting the deep ball. He's becoming one of the best in the country at doing that.
Ole Miss 38 - Texas 31
There you have it, I'm picking the Rebels to bring back the "W" from Austin this weekend.
First and foremost, it's crucial for Texas that QB David Ash is healthy and ready to do against the Rebs. If he's not, then things could get very interesting, very quickly.
Assuming Ash "is" under center Saturday night, he'll present the Rebel secondary with a real challenge. Ole Miss is well aware of what he's capable of doing, as he put up 326 yards and four touchdowns last year at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford.
Texas has talented receivers such as Mike Davis, Jaxon Shipley, John Harris (and even RB Malcolm Brown out of the backfield), and Ash will find ways to get the ball in their hands. It was the big play that killed Ole Miss against Texas in 2012, and that will be a major focus heading into the game defensively.
This time around, the Rebels will yield far fewer big plays. The Longhorns will put up some points, but nowhere near the 66 points they hung on Ole Miss last fall.
While Manny Diaz is out and Greg Robinson is in manning the defense this week, facing an offense as explosive as Ole Miss' is not what the doctor ordered for a maligned defense. In fact, it's just the opposite.
With RB I'Tavius Mathers expected to figure more prominently into the offense (ankle) and lighten the load on starter Jeff Scott, the Rebel rushing attack should turn into just that: an attack.
Not only will Scott and Mathers get chances to find holes, but so will RBs Jaylen Walton, Mark Dodson and Kailo Moore. Look for the Rebels to pound the rock early and often, opening up opportunities for a myriad of receiving weapons such as Donte Moncrief, Laquon Treadwell, Ja-Mes Logan, Evan Engram, Quincy Adeboyejo and Jordan Holder.
With the attention Moncrief, Treadwell, Logan and Engram are going to draw from Texas defenders, players like Adeboyejo and Holder could have big games.
Should the Rebels find a double-digit lead in the second half (and I expect they will), it's going to provide a true litmus test of whether or not they're finally ready to exorcise the demons of blown second half leads in 2012.
When the clock strikes all zeroes Saturday night, look for the Rebels to have outlasted the 'Horns.
The Longhorn D will look better, but not good enough to pull out the victory.
No. 25 Ole Miss moves to 3-0 (1-0 SEC) for the first time since 1989.