Life Without Denzel Nkemdiche: Ole Miss Rebels vs. Texas Longhorns

Acey RobertsCorrespondent IISeptember 12, 2013

Nov 3, 2012; Athens, GA, USA; Mississippi Rebels linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche (4) in the game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium. Georgia won 37-10. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

The Rebels of Mississippi enter the 2013 Texas matchup with a head of steam, winning the first two games on the schedule that included a rare opening SEC road game in Nashville against Vanderbilt, 39-34, and taking care of business against Southeast Missouri State in Oxford, 31-13.

Three straight wins in a row to start the season would be the first three-win start to begin the season since 1989 and would be the first win over Texas since a 1958 Cotton Bowl.

Texas enters the game after possibly the worst road loss in school history, dropping the BYU game 40-21 in Provo, Utah after giving up over 500 yards on the ground. 

The BYU loss reverberated through the Texas program as head coach Mack Brown demoted defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and reinstalled former DC Greg Robinson in the position.

BYU has a respected defense but was missing its top cornerbacks, and Texas offensive coordinator Major Applewhite and QB David Ash never seemed to be able to take advantage of this weakness.


The Showdown in Austin, Texas

Looking ahead to Saturday in Austin, Texas, the Longhorns return with a new focus, a new defensive coordinator and hopefully a better level of effort against Ole Miss.

Ole Miss comes to Austin as a pass-first team that won't be able to overpower Texas in the running game. In some ways this game matches strength against strength, as the fast-paced Ole Miss spread offense faces the talented and deep secondary of Texas.

The difference in the game will come down to the availability of Texas QB David Ash. 

If he is available after his head injury against BYU, Texas may be able to learn from the mistakes in Provo and take advantage of a weak Ole Miss secondary. If the backup Case McCoy is forced to start, you may likely see the end of the Mack Brown era in Austin.


The Ole Miss vs. Texas Wild Card

The only piece missing that may prevent a big Ole Miss upset at Texas this weekend is the injury to sophomore linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche. 

Nkemdiche led this Ole Miss defense in total tackles and tackles for loss in 2012. Not only did he lead this defense on the field, but he also led this team vocally—he became the face of the program during a late-season surge that saw the Rebels win some big games in December. He represented the Rebels appropriately as an undersized freshman that just played way above his talent level.

Losing Nkemdiche in Week 1 due to a torn Meniscus not only leaves a hole in the middle of the field, but more importantly, Ole Miss loses an on-the-field leader, a vocal guy who won't let players hang their heads and will force them to get ready for the next play.

How big of a loss will Nkemdiche be to this team?

It could easily mean the difference in the game, as the Longhorns will try to use a fast-paced approach themselves and find some mismatches against the Ole Miss defense. 

One advantage Nkemdiche has is his ability to play the "husky" position, which is a hybrid linebacker/safety position and asks the weak-side linebacker to cover the middle of the field, often matching him up against much speedier flanker and slot receivers.

There is no one else on this Ole Miss defense that has the experience and the success at this position as Denzel Nkemdiche. 

True freshman Tony Conner will get some time here, though he is much more of a safety-position player; Serderius Bryant is the larger run-option linebacker, but is not as good in pass coverage.


The Difference-Maker

The game will hinge on Ole Miss' ability to cover Denzel Nkemdiche's loss at linebacker. If Ole Miss can power through this Texas offensive line with talented defensive lineman C.J. Johnson, Channing Ward and Nkemdiche's younger brother and phenom Robert Nkemdiche, the loss of Denzel won't hurt the Rebels as much.

If David Ash and Texas OC Applewhite can get in a rhythm, look for a bounce-back game for the Longhorns.