We (finally) conclude this preview of MSU’s 2013 schedule with the Egg Bowl, that annual battle for in-state supremacy. With both teams coming off winning seasons, this year’s rumble has a little more flavor to it, especially in the eyes of ESPN, which has put the game back on Thanksgiving night for the first time in a decade.
Will one or both of these teams be looking for a sixth win and bowl eligibility when this game kicks off? Given how tough both schedules are, that’s quite possible. The Rebels’ win last year got them bowl-eligible, and so that can add drama to the spectacle. But even better, I believe, would be both teams having winning records coming into this game. That’s what really makes a rivalry fun: Two good teams going at it in a close-fought battle for four quarters.
So let’s take a look at this year’s Ole Miss squad.
Ole Miss Rebels (Nov. 28, in Starkville)
• Conference: SEC
• 2012 record: 7-6 (3-5, 5th Western Division)
• Coach: Hugh Freeze (7-6, one season)
• Returning starters: 16 (8 offense, 7 defense, 1 specialist)
• Last meeting: Ole Miss, 41-24 (Nov. 24, 2012, in Oxford)
• On the Web: OleMissSports.com
Freeze has quickly returned this program to respectability, but the question now is whether he can sustain success. The signing class he just pulled in suggests that winning in the long term is viable, but most of those guys won’t get extensive playing time until later in their careers. So Ole Miss will have to again win this year with a lot of Houston Nutt recruits.
A big plus is experience. And it’s always important to have experience at quarterback, which is where Bo Wallace comes in. The highly recruited juco transfer had a solid debut last year, throwing for 2,994 yards, 22 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. That INT total is what’s stuck in Freeze’s craw, and he’s been harping on Wallace’s need to make better decisions. It’s an area Wallace has struggled with at times in preseason camp, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can figure it out.
An easy decision for Wallace is trying to find receiver Donte Moncrief. The junior returns as one of the SEC’s top ball-catchers, having caught 66 passes for 979 yards and 10 TDs last year. He lit up MSU, hauling in seven passes for a career-high 173 yards and three touchdowns. He gives Ole Miss a great big-play threat, but who are the other passing game options?
No. 2 receiver Vincent Sanders (39 catches, 504 yards, four TDs) is out for the next several weeks due to a broken collarbone he suffered early in camp. Ja-Mes Logan, a senior, returns after a productive 2012 in which he had 43 catches for 490 yards and a score. Ole Miss also has returning experience in Korvic Neat, and highly touted freshman Laquon Treadwell could see the field.
The rushing attack is led by senior Jeff Scott, who recorded 900 yards and six touchdowns last season. Behind him is a lot of youth, so the 5-foot-7, 170-pounder needs to stay healthy. He’s running behind an offensive line that returns four starters and should be improved from last season. In fact, Phil Steele ranks the Ole Miss front five as the sixth-best O-line in the SEC. As my colleague Parrish Alford noted on my radio show today, the linemen are trying to become acclimated to the tempo offense Freeze favors.
I mentioned freshmen earlier. While most freshmen have to wait their turn, it’s no secret Ole Miss is going to count heavily on defensive end Robert Nkemdiche from Game 1. The consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2013 class, Nkemdiche is expected to be a starter and start wreaking havoc immediately. Won’t be easy, even for someone of his talents. Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina got on the field as a freshman, too, but it took him a while to develop a well-rounded game. How quickly Nkemdiche adapts to the SEC will be an intriguing story line this fall.
Ole Miss has good talent across the front. C.J. Johnson plays the other end spot and has bounced back from a broken leg he suffered in the spring. Last year he had 55 tackles, 8.0 tackles-for-loss and 6.5 sacks. Isaac Gross and highly rated juco transfer Lavon Hooks highlight the interior D-line.
The linebackers are led by Denzel Nkemdiche, who didn’t get as much recruiting hype as his brother but has turned into one of the league’s better players at his position. He earned second-team All-SEC honors last year as a freshman, making a team-high 82 tackles to go with 13.0 TFLs, 3.0 sacks and three interceptions. Senior Mike Marry is the other linebacker in the Rebels’ 4-2-5 scheme, and look for D.T. Shackelford to be a factor.
The secondary has three returning starters, including cornerback Charles Sawyer, who had a team-best eight pass breakups last season. Ole Miss allowed 246.5 passing yards per game and ranked ninth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. The Rebels ranked second in sacks with 38, and with the younger Nkemdiche on the field, that total could go even higher this fall. Ole Miss was sixth against the run (129.3 ypg).
This could end up being a solid defensive unit. If so, and if the offense continues to move forward, Ole Miss could be in a very good place come Nov. 28. That’s assuming it can navigate a schedule that includes an opener at Vanderbilt and consecutive games against Texas, Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and LSU. Freeze has his work cut out for him.