1. Wins against teams like Alabama and LSU make Ole Miss look good but losses to Memphis and maybe even Arkansas might make outsiders question their strength. What are two or three major differences you see between the team in those losses and wins?
The season came in waves this year, with great things happening early, in the middle of the season, and then at the very end. Bad things happened in pockets between each. I think the biggest difference in Ole Miss' wins and their losses was the play of the defense. I'm willing to say now that Florida was simply a recipe for disaster early. Laremy Tunsil, the projected number one pick, didn't play in the game. The offense gave the ball to Florida three times early. It just wasn't their day. Against Memphis and Arkansas, however, the defense simply could not stop them. We saw long, sustained drives over and over again where the opponents would get into third and 5ish situations and just pick up the first down every time. Granted, Paxton Lynch of Memphis is projected to be drafted in the first round and Brandon Allen was probably the second or third best quarterback in the SEC this year. Still, it was really frustrating to watch.
2. Even without Nkemdiche, the Rebel D-Line is very talented. Who are some players that Cowboy fans should keep an eye on in the trenches?
Well, in passing situations the Cowboys will need to pay close attention to Marquis Haynes. The true sophomore has 9.5 sacks on the season after a true freshman year that saw him accumulate 7.5 on his way to Freshman All-American honors. He's just a freakish athlete who won lots of track state championships in high school (including, among others, the 100 meter dash and long jump) and is 6'3" 220. He will definitely get around tackles several times, but he's not excellent in run support.The player who will have the most pressure placed upon him is redshirt freshman Breeland Speaks, a 6'3" 313 pound defensive tackle who has to replace Nkemdiche. At times this season Speaks has been exceptional. He has great burst off the ball and is regularly double-teamed. He's young and wasn't ready to contribute last season (when he redshirted), but this year couldn't have gone much better for a player sitting behind a first rounder.The other defensive end, Fadol Brown, is 6'4" 280 and presents a real problem to tackles who are used to blocking smaller ends. He led he defensive line in tackles this season with 32 and moves much more quickly than you might expect given his size.
3. I wouldn't say the rushing games between these two teams are identical but they have similarities in the sense that no running back has more than 700 yards on the season. What's going on with that on the Rebel side?
Running the football certainly isn't the strong point of the offense, but it's not as bad as most Ole Miss fans thought it would be. Early in the year, the Rebels might as well have not attempted runs. They just didn't work. Laremy Tunsil was out, and the interior of the line was horrid. A shakeup to the offensive line and the addition of Tunsil made a huge difference. The team ended up with a 5.1 yard per carry average which isn't exceptional but certainly isn't bad. To put that in perspective for your readers, Oklahoma State had a 3.7 yard per carry average on the year. 1.4 yards per carry may not seem like a big difference, but it really is when the sample size is a whole year (especially in the SEC which doesn't play offense apparently). The biggest reason the Rebels didn't finish with a running back over 700 yards is that they spread the ball around a ton. With four players getting over 65 rushing attempts on the year, they never settled on a feature back. Jaylen Walton is the closest thing Ole Miss has to that, but he's really too small to get the workload most leading rushers get. Redshirt junior Akeem Judd, who most fans had written off, really turned it on in the second half of the season having fewer than 5 yards per carry in just one of his final five games. He isn't going to win many footraces, but he's a patient runner who lets things develop in front of him before committing to one direction. It works, somewhat surprisingly. Still, if Ole Miss has to rely on its rushing attack to beat Oklahoma State, I'm not all that confident.
4. Chad Kelly doesn't get enough credit - being in the SEC and being a very sound quarterback - what does he do well that many of these OSU fans don't know?
Yeah. I don't really understand why so many people can't recognize what he has done. Kelly broke Eli Manning's yardage record this year. He led Ole Miss to a 9-3 record and played relatively well in the games Ole Miss lost. He has a cannon arm and great deep accuracy. He turned the ball over some, but 12 interceptions isn't egregious when you throw 425 times in a season.I think the biggest surprise to Ole Miss fans is just how well he runs the football. Kelly isn't just an alright runner. He's a very, very good one. Kelly rushed for over 400 yards this year and didn't really start running much until Ole Miss' final three games. In those games (against Arkansas, LSU, and Mississippi State) he rushed 34 times for 265 yards and six touchdowns. It was as if the coaches said, "alright.... do your thing now" after holding him back so he didn't get hurt early.He's really, really good, and barely anyone talks about him.
5. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this team on each side of the ball?
I've covered a lot of this already, but here's the basic answer.
OffenseStrength: Entire passing offense (Receivers, pass blocking, QB)Weakness: Rushing attack
DefenseStrengths: Stopping the run, disrupting the line of scrimmageWeakness: struggles with stopping the pass against great quarterbacks
Let me use this time to heap praises on the Ole Miss receivers. Laquon Treadwell is fantastic, but it goes beyond that (much like OSU's corps). Damore'ea Stringfellow is huge and talented. Quincy Adeboyejo can blow the roof off a defense. Defenses lose Cody Core in the zone. Tight End Evan Engram is big and fast. Ole Miss is redshirting two top ten receivers (nationally) this year.
6. The Rebels allowed more than 30 four times this year and were 1-3 in those games. OSU has scored more than 30 in 10 straight games. Do you think this defense can hold OSU under 30 or does this game get put on the shoulders of Kelly?
If Rudolph plays a lot, I think OSU will score more than 30. If not, I think the defense should be able to contain the Cowboys enough to keep them below that marker. Like I said, they're good at stopping the run, and that's J.W. Walsh's primary attack. The defensive line should, in theory, make that very difficult.If it turns into a shootout, then it becomes a question of which team wins the turnover battle. Ole Miss hasn't turned the ball over in its past three games. If that changes, they could definitely lose this one.
7. Finally, what is your prediction for this game?
Surprisingly, this is the first time I've been asked this question. Generally around this time, everyone I know wants to hear a prediction.
As you said in your answer to my prediction question, there's a lot that's unknown right now. Will Mason Rudolph play? Will he be back to 100% or a statue for the defensive line to hit over and over again? It's tough to give an exact prediction without knowing who will be touching the ball every play for Oklahoma State. If both teams are at their best, I think Ole Miss probably wins this one in a close game. If Rudolph is out, I think the Rebels win by 14+. If the Ole Miss defense can't stop Mason Rudolph, the Cowboys could run away with it. So, I'll still make a prediction even having said all this.
Ole Miss by 4.