I’m going with the Rebels in a close one this week.
It’s not that I think they are the better team right now necessarily. I think the two teams are very close, and there are some matchups that favor Ole Miss that I like in this game, though the Denzel Nkemdiche situation that has come to light muddies things up a bit there.
I grew up in Denham Springs, right outside of Baton Rouge, and LSU folks used to talk about Ole Miss as a fierce rival.
I always found that a little odd, because that was in the ’70s and early ’80s when LSU was winning most of the time in this series.
It’s been fun to watch the series have more meaning. It wasn’t fun for Ole Miss players to watch LSU fans storm the field after the Tigers beat the Rebels 10-7 in Baton Rouge last year, but it was clear how much that game meant to the LSU program.
It may mean even more to LSU coach Les Miles this year. Long-time Baton Rouge columnist Scott Rabalais wrote earlier this week that Miles could be coaching for his job in the Tigers’ last two games, at Ole Miss and at home against Texas A&M.
It’s not all about the Tigers’ current two-game losing streak, but that’s obviously part of it after a 7-0 start.
Part of the criticism of LSU right now is that the Tigers haven’t shown a lot of emotion. So expect that to change Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
As I’ve mentioned before, I often fail to give emotion its necessary due when trying to guess the winner in college football.
The emotion question is something both teams must answer this week, and Arkansas is a major part of the discussion.
LSU was unbeaten when it was dominated in Tuscaloosa but with one loss was still very much in the thick of things when lost soundly at home to Arkansas last week.
That was one week after the Razorbacks robbed from Ole Miss control of its own destiny with a 53-52 overtime win in Oxford. You may remember the lateral and the first down on a fourth-and-25.
I expect Ole Miss to be more emotionally ready and prepared than the Rebels were when they couldn’t handle last year’s disappointment, the close loss to Auburn and the Laquon Treadwell injury.
Playing at home will help, but it guarantees nothing as Arkansas can attest.
LSU may come out of the tunnel bouncing up and down, yelling and screaming, but manufactured emotion doesn’t last, and Hugh Freeze had an interesting point at his Monday presser about the difficult in moving on when you’ve lost and been dropped from the playoff committee’s top four. Freeze knows about that, and that’s what LSU is dealing with.
On the field, it’s a concern that the older Nkemdiche is listed as questionable by Freeze, and if RebelGrove.com’s account of Nkemdiche having been hospitalized for several days is correct, it’s hard to imagine him playing at all much less being a factor.
His absence subtracts the Rebels’ leading tackler and weakens them at linebacker which already isn’t a strong position.
Losing an experienced tackler in the Leonard Fournette game is not a good thing.
Further, Denzel Nkemdiche’s absence could have another damaging affect if the state of his health is so seriously poor that it distracts his brother Robert Nkemdiche along the defensive front.
Sophomore DeMarquis Gates may hold up well at outside linebacker, but he’ll have to play a lot of snaps. We’ll see. I like his speed and athleticism.
The Nkemdiche thing is a different wrinkle, an unfortunate one, for an Ole Miss defense that has held up better against the run than the pass.
I give the Rebels a fair chance to slow Fournette, to get to the ball and gang tackle and to keep him from dominating the game.
As Fournette has run up against some better run defenses it’s been a month since he’s reeled off a run of more than 18 yards.
You can never run for 18 yards and can get a lot done by ripping off 8- and 10-yard gains consistently, but I don’t think the Rebels will let that happen.
If it’s going to turn LSU’s way I think it will come down to quarterback Brandon Harris against the Ole Miss secondary.
Harris has a big arm and will take a lot of shots downfield. Ole Miss defensive backs who have been burned badly in the Rebels three losses – and some in the win against Auburn – will have to hold up.
LSU hasn’t fared well when it’s hard to rely on Harris to win a game. He had career-highs of 21 completions on 35 attempts against Arkansas’ suspect secondary last week, but the Razorbacks limited him to 271 yards and one touchdown.
Another question for Ole Miss will be the strength of Tony Conner’s knee. Can Conner play enough snaps at Huskie to let Mike Hilton help at more at corner?
Ole Miss is doing to have crowd the box to slow Fournette and still manage to not get beaten by an average quarterback.
Maybe that can happen. It if it can’t is why the Rebels’ offense has to score four touchdowns. They’re quite capable of doing that against an LSU defense that is good but not as good as some of its predecessors, but it may not be an option. It may be non-negotiable.
Winning this game could very well come down to continued success in the run game, another big game from Laquon Treadwell and another turnover-free performance for Chad Kelly.
Prediction: Ole Miss 31, LSU 30