The No. 4 Ole Miss Rebels (2-0) open up their SEC season against South Carolina (2-1, 0-1 SEC) on Thursday night during the primetime slot on ESPN.
Although South Carolina is unranked, many sources believe this will be a very close game. Vegas lines are currently at -3.5 (in favor of Ole Miss) and Scouts, Inc. has South Carolina winning 28-27.
Keys to Victory
So, how does Ole Miss pull through in a packed out environment at Columbia?
Well, first off, and foremost, the Rebels need to protect the football. In last year's loss against South Carolina, Ole Miss committed three turnovers and Dexter McCluster fumbled at the opposing six-yard line midway through the third quarter at a very crucial time for the Rebs that potentially could've put them up 28-17.
Another way Ole Miss can help their cause is productive offense, long drives that wear down the opposing defense. Ellis Johnson has hinted earlier this week that his defense may not be close to 100 percent. Even though Snead completed 65 percent of his passes and threw for over 240 yards over South Carolina last season, the Rebels need to get things started with Brandon Bolden early to set the tone and set up the play action for Snead to work with.
Defensively, I believe for the Rebels to compete to their fullest, the linebackers need to be very physical and show better form tackling. It'll be interesting to see how the secondary does for Ole Miss, finally seeing a productive SEC quality quarterback under center. The defensive line for Ole Miss is considered to be one of the top groups in the country led by juniors Jerrell Powe and Kentrell Lockett, with the addition of All-American Greg Hardy and Lawon Scott. The Rebels will have to get pressure to South Carolina gunslinger Stephen Garcia to aid the secondary and keep the South Carolina defense rattled.
On a short note, special teams needs to sharpen up as well. Justin Sparks had two very poor punts, one being 11 yards and the other 17, against Southeastern Louisiana. Houston Nutt said in the news conference that Sparks is the guy...for now. Also, dangerous punt returner Marshay Green muffed two punt returns against SELA, which he credits to not being fully focused. Ole Miss can not make those type of mistakes to win against South Carolina.
Moving Jean-Louis to Fullback?
Without starting fullback Andy Hartmann, the Rebels have gone to some unique lengths to replace him while he is out for the next two weeks.
Asked in a conference, Houston Nutt said, "Right now, Dan Hoffman, Derrick Davis, and Mark Jean-Louis. Those are the three guys we'll go with."
Houston Nutt also pointed out Jean-Louis's physical play as an indicator to put him at fullback.
"He's physical and he's tough. If he gets a head of steam, he can swallow some guys up. He's a big guy. He likes to hit people so that's a good advantage for us."
Mark Jean-Louis, at 6'2" 315 lbs., has been an offensive lineman for Ole Miss for the past four years. The question is whether Ole Miss plans to use him in regular sets or could he be used in a goalline situation similar to what Terrance Cody does for Alabama in the wishbone.
Asked if he had ever used a 315-lb. fullback, Houston Nutt responded, "No never have. We are thin. After Andy Hartmann, you are almost manufacturing fullbacks. You have to have a guy that is very physical. A tough guy that is going to run around, hit you and loves contact. He had a very good camp backing up Daverin Geralds and playing right guard."
'The Super Rebel' debut?
There has been speculation throughout the Ole Miss fanbase that Kent Austin may have added a new wrinkle to the already successful 'Wild Rebel' offense to add more speed. Two games down, still a no show. However, if Nutt and Austin were to bring it out, would they really do it against Memphis or SELA?
Also, could the 'Super Rebel' be a different formation, rather than the Single Wing the Wild Rebel operates from?
Jevan Snead during the offseason, when asked about a 'Super Rebel', made some interesting comments.
"I believe I'm not in the game anymore. I'm not sure, I think that's what I heard. We did a little bit of that in the spring."
Additional Game Notes
—Game will be aired by ESPN, gametime 6:30 p.m. (CT).
—Announcers: Chris Fowler (play-by-play), Craig James (analyst), Jesse Palmer (analyst), and Erin Andrews (sideline reporter).
—Ole Miss claims a 4-3 lead all-time in Columbia.
—Ole Miss currently has the top scoring offense in the SEC and third in the nation at 48.5 ppg.
—The last time Ole Miss started 3-0 was 1989.
Ole Miss not only needs another win, but they need a good showing in front of the nation on primetime to back up their No. 4 ranking.
South Carolina also needs a desperate win, and haven't defeated a top five team since 1981, being 1-31 overall against them.
Ole Miss, as stated earlier, will need the offensive line and Brandon Bolden to physically wear the depleted South Carolina defense. The offensive line will also need to pick up multiple blitzing packages delivered by South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.
As for the defense, it'll be interesting to see how Garcia reacts towards pressure. His efficiency rates takes a huge hit. Ole Miss will be able to get at least the most pressure South Carolina has seen, considering Greg Hardy will be back from nursing an ankle injury suffered against Memphis.
However, if the Rebs fail to pressure Garcia and let him have time to throw the ball, Ole Miss could be in for a bad night just like last year's 300-plus yard performance by Chris Smelley last year.
South Carolina should be able to hang around with Ole Miss for two or three quarters, considering the teams on paper and limited mistakes by either team, but then it is assumed Ole Miss's depth and better talent starts to show out. For Ole Miss, it's time to distinguish themselves as a contender or a pretender.
Final Prediction: (4) Ole Miss 31-South Carolina 20
Derek Stephens is the Ole Miss Featured Columnist. Please comment on the story below and he'll be glad to answer your questions or comment as well. To reach Derek, please send him a message through your Bleacher Report account.