When No. 9 Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 SEC) rolls into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium Saturday night to take on the Ole Miss Rebels (3-2, 1-2 SEC), a recently maligned Rebel defense will try and corral a Johnny Manziel-led Aggies offense producing in excess of 49 points (No. 4 in nation) and 585 yards of offense per game (No. 3 nationally).
Further, Hugh Freeze and Co. will look to avenge an extremely disappointing 30-27 home loss to Kevin Sumlin's club last October in which A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel's late-game heroics made up for six A&M turnovers.
Assuming a sputtering Ole Miss offense finally gets out of neutral and starts playing like it did earlier in the year, the Rebels should have a chance at the upset bid as long as the defense is able to shore up a few issues this week in practice.
Play Stronger Run Defense
The four times A&M was held to 165 or fewer yards rushing in 2012 (excluding the Sam Houston State game), the results were two losses (Florida, LSU) and a narrow five-point win (Alabama).
In A&M's lone loss of 2013, Alabama held the Aggies to 164 yards rushing.
As much trouble as Manizel is causing on the ground (62.8 YPG), running backs Ben Malena (60.6 YPG), Tre Carson (45.8 YPG) and Trey Williams (40.7 YPG) are providing run defenses added trouble this fall.
So far this season, the Aggies rank No. 21 in the nation in terms of rushing offense (221.4 YPG).
Entering this weekend's contest, Ole Miss is allowing opponents to rush for 175.8 YPG. Over the past two weeks, the Rebels have given up 254 rushing yards to Alabama and 282 yards on the ground to Auburn—figures that must decrease dramatically for the Rebels to have a shot at the upset.
It won't be enough for the Rebels to just slow Manziel on the ground; they'll also have to keep players like Malena, Carson and Williams in check throughout the night.
Contain Johnny Football
Understanding that really no team in college football can "shut down" the dual-threat QB, Ole Miss coaches will try and piece together a defensive game plan to simply try and limit big plays from the talented sophomore on Saturday night.
That being said, the Rebs have ample work to do this week after Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall ran wild on them this past weekend. While Marshall and Manziel cause damage on the ground in different ways (Marshall more so on designed runs, Manziel more so on scrambles), they're both very mobile quarterbacks capable of making defenses pay dearly for mistakes.
Not only must a better game plan be put in place against Johnny Football, but Ole Miss players must also be mentally prepared to put the plan into action from the first moment Manziel touches the ball.
As for the A&M offense as a whole this season, it has once again been prolific to say the least.
|Opponent||A&M Rushing Yards||A&M Passing Yards||A&M Total Points|
|Sam Houston State||214||500||65|
While Manziel's 297.8 YPG passing and 62.8 YPG rushing have been impressive, wide receiver Mike Evans' 138.2 YPG receiving and RB Ben Malena's 60.6 YPG on the ground have added insult to injury for opposing defenses this season.
To try and slow the fast-break, anything-goes offensive circus that Manziel orchestrates, the Ole Miss defense must limit the number of times Manziel is able to elude defenders and take off running.
Hold A&M to Around 30
As gaudy as the numbers are that the A&M offense is putting up ahead of the Ole Miss game, the Aggies' offensive output is nearly identical right now to what it was this time last year. In its first four contests of 2012, A&M averaged 48.25 PPG. Over the same period this season, it's averaging 49.2 PPG.
In terms of how the Ole Miss defense was performing prior to taking on Texas A&M in 2012, the Rebels defense was allowing opponents 27.2 PPG. This year, the Rebels enter the A&M game actually allowing opponents two points fewer per outing (25.2 PPG).
Remember how many points the Aggies scored last year in Oxford?
That's right: 30.
If the Rebels can hold the Aggies to around 30 or less again this year, they'll have a fighter's chance to seek revenge on their SEC West foe and pull off one of the biggest upsets of the young season.
Force Turnovers, Turn Them Into Points
Granted A&M did cough the ball up six times in last year's game, and it should go without saying that Ole Miss defenders like linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche and free safety Cody Prewitt will once again have to create turnovers to give the Rebels a chance against the Aggies this time around.
While the Rebels forced Manziel to throw two interceptions and the A&M offense to put the ball on the turf four times last season, Ole Miss didn't do a very good job of creating points off of turnovers last year against Texas A&M.
To have a shot against the Aggies, the Rebels must be able to convert turnovers into points this time.
Play Better 3rd-Down Defense
Taking it even further, Manziel has gone 17-of-22 for 324 yards on third-down attempts in 2013 through the air. As for rushing on third down, the sophomore has carried the ball 13 times for a total of 63 yards this fall.
Simply forcing A&M into third downs won't be enough to corral the Texas A&M offense. Instead, Ole Miss must keep the Aggies well below their nearly 60 percent third-down-conversion percentage.
Putting It All Together
Despite the two-game SEC skid to wrap up a brutal opening stretch—comprised of four road games in their first five contests—the Rebels really aren't that far away from being a very solid football team.
Minus QB Bo Wallace's pick-six on the Plains, the Rebels would have only fallen 23-22.
Minus two big scoring plays in Tuscaloosa, Ole Miss would have only fallen 11-0 to the Crimson Tide.
A loss is a loss, no doubt about it, but despite a lately stagnant offense and suspect run defense in recent contests, Freeze's club truly isn't far from being a major player in the SEC West this season.
Manziel and Co. obviously present major challenges for the Rebels this weekend. That being said, if the offense can get back in sync at home and the defense corrects some obvious mistakes ahead of this weekend's SEC West showdown, you just never know what might happen.
The key for the Rebels will be to contain Manziel the best they can all night and hope to create some turnovers. While he won't return to Jerry Hollingsworth Field having forgotten how he led his club to victory last season, he likely also won't forget how much trouble the Ole Miss defense gave him.
Don't sleep on these Ole Miss Rebels; they'll be playing with a big chip on their shoulders Saturday.