It's safe to say this Saturday's matchup between Ole Miss and Memphis—two programs that are close in proximity but not perception—won't be quite like anything in the last 60 editions of the rivalry.
At 5-1 on the season, Ole Miss will be fighting for its College Football Playoff life in the Liberty Bowl. Undefeated Memphis will be amped up and ready to play the spoiler role in its hunt for a lucrative New Year's Six bowl bid.
The Rebels are currently No. 12 in the USA Today Amway Coaches Poll. That's just a mere 10 spots ahead of Memphis, which can say it's been ranked in back-to-back weeks for the first time in school history, per Bryan Moss of TigerSportsReport.com.
Ole Miss undoubtedly has a talent edge over its upcoming opponent from the American Athletic Conference, the early-season king of the "Group of Five" leagues. Odds Shark is listing the Rebels as 10.5-point road favorites for a reason.
But Memphis will have a clear advantage in momentum, as it has the Football Bowl Subdivision's third-longest active winning streak at 12 straight victories.
"I'm pretty sure we're going to get their best game. They're going to get our best game," Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell said, per Tom Schad of the Commercial Appeal. "They're undefeated, and that brings confidence. We know they'll give us their best shot, and they'll take our best shot, and we'll see who's standing at the end."
What the Tigers can throw at Ole Miss—a team it only trailed 7-3 heading into the fourth quarter of last season's matchup in Oxford—should put the Rebels on a reasonable level of upset alert.
Memphis' success so far this season starts with junior quarterback Paxton Lynch, a 6'7" signal-caller who is in the middle of a red-hot start to 2015.
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze spoke about the matchup, per Phil Stukenborg of the Commercial Appeal:
[Memphis] is a quality, quality football team. They are playing with great confidence and have what a lot of us desire in a really sound, good quarterback. He's one of the better ones I've seen on film.
He takes care of the ball. He puts it where it needs to go. He can make all the throws. He's a very, very talented kid with good players around him.
Last season, Lynch struggled mightily against the Ole Miss defense, completing only 13 of his 31 pass attempts for 81 yards and an interception.
But since then, Lynch has been one of the most efficient passers in all of college football. He threw 17 touchdowns to just six interceptions—all of those picks coming in just two games—to lead the Tigers to a 10-3 finish in 2014.
This season, Lynch is ranked third nationally behind Baylor star Seth Russell and Western Kentucky veteran Brandon Doughty in passer rating. He also ranks second in yards per attempt and fifth in completion percentage for qualified passers.
Since his short day of work in an opening-day blowout over Southwest Missouri State, Lynch has thrown for at least two touchdowns and 300 yards in every single game.
His play has caught the attention of ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., who put him on his most recent NFL draft Big Board:
Lynch has good size with room to fill out, and not just a strong arm, but the ability to get the ball out quickly. He has the height to see the whole field quickly without creating space, and he throws well on the move when he does need that space.
It sounds trite, but the talent for the position is so clear, and the decision-making has been very good.
With Lynch's surge toward the top of the national leaderboards and seven returning starters around him, Memphis' passing attack is much improved compared to the one Ole Miss faced in Week 4 of 2014.
|Memphis Passing Offense Heading into Ole Miss Matchups|
|Statistic||2014 (3 Games)||2015 (5 Games)|
|Yards per Game||255.3||335.0 (12th in FBS)|
|Yards per Attempt||7.5||10.7 (2nd)|
|QB Rating||141.75||186.82 (3rd)|
|Completion Percentage||66.1||72.0 (2nd)|
The "Landsharks" aren't at full strength right now, and the secondary will have the special spotlight after allowing more than 270 passing yards in both of its road games this season.
Davis Potter of the Oxford Eagle wrote about Ole Miss' defensive issues:
Stopping teams through the air has been the Rebels’ problem on defense, and they’ll face Lynch and company with middle linebacker Terry Caldwell making just his second start and free safety C.J. Hampton making his second career start for a defense that’s had to reshuffle with C.J. Johnson and Tony Conner out.
On the other side of the matchup, the Ole Miss offense was able to get back on track last Saturday in a blowout win against New Mexico State.
While they boast an undefeated record, the Tigers are far from defensive stalwarts. They currently rank 122nd—that's seventh-worst—in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game.
The momentum Chad Kelly regained with the likes of Laquon Treadwell and the rest of the Rebels' dynamic playmakers should push this attack to a big day at the Liberty Bowl.
However, Ole Miss can't be careless through the air. Although it gave up a ton of passing yards to Cincinnati in a wild weeknight shootout, Memphis had three interceptions in that game and another one against USF two weeks ago.
Memphis has done a much better job of taking care of the ball since fumbling it three times in a rout of Kansas, and keep in mind that Lynch hasn't thrown a pick all season.
If the game becomes a shootout, Memphis already has experience in that area, although its back-to-back high-scoring wins earlier this season came against Group of Five powers Bowling Green and Cincinnati instead of an SEC-caliber program.
But more importantly, the Tigers are well-versed in having to come back from deficits, which will help them out tremendously against Ole Miss.
Memphis has trailed at halftime in each of its last three wins, and it's safe to say it hasn't played its best football yet this season—even with the undefeated record.
Tigers head coach Justin Fuente discussed his team with the Associated Press (h/t the Tennessean):
I do like the fact that our kids have not panicked when they’ve been behind. They haven’t hung their heads. They’ve just continued to play and find a way out of those holes. ... In the same respect, I don’t like the way we’ve played early. I feel like we’ve been a little bit out of our minds. We’ve made some uncharacteristic mistakes.
If the Tigers can play sharply after an important bye week, then Lynch and his offense should come out firing early behind a rowdy Memphis crowd.
If the Rebels pull ahead with their talent advantage, the Tigers won't be completely out of it because of their recent experience with comebacks.
Either way, the trip up the road to Memphis won't be an easy nonconference victory for the Rebels—and they sound well aware of the challenge ahead of them.
"We're ready to play," Ole Miss senior defensive back Mike Hilton said, per Schad. "They're an undefeated team, so they're trying to make a statement against us. And everybody knows how big the rivalry is between us. So it's going to be a fun one. We're ready for Saturday."
Unless otherwise noted, statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com.
Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.