Who would have thought back in August that this game would have SEC championship implications, but it does.
Win two, and you’re in Missouri. Lose one, and you’re out. There’s no tie-breaker grouping that can help you since Georgia lost to Auburn. It’s all about you and South Carolina, and the Gamecocks are done, just sitting back hoping you’ll fall.
Ole Miss would love to be the team to give Missouri a push, and the Rebels are quite capable.
This is an Ole Miss offense that is much better than it was six weeks ago. The schedule, of course, has something to do with that. Defenses from Troy and Idaho fit nicely into a streak of games with 500-plus yards. Last week against Troy it was 700-plus, 751 to be exact, a school record.
The Ole Miss run game, disappointing in losses to Alabama and Auburn, has been much better since the six-game homestand began.
The Rebels haven’t played a run defense the caliber of Missouri during this stretch, however, and there was that hiccup against Arkansas when the Rebels averaged just 2.9 yards per carry.
They overcame that with a career day from Bo Wallace, who passed for 416 yards in a 34-24 win.
Wallace has completed 73 percent of his passes over the life of the Rebels’ four-game win streak. While Missouri is second in the league in rushing defense at 111.9 yards a game, teams have been able to pass on the Tigers. They’re giving up 274.9 yards a game, last in the league and 112th in America.
Anybody’s passing game is better if they can run, and that’s been the message from Hugh Freeze this week. He says the Rebels have to run the ball to win. I think they have to run the ball well in stretches of the game. They may not need to run for 200 yards, but they need to have solid run plays on certain drives, enough to make Missouri respect that possibility.
It helps that Jeff Scott is back. Jaylen Walton and I’Tavious Mathers have been the keys to improved running between the tackles, but Scott has a better outside burst than anyone else on the team, and because Walton and Mathers have been good in the middle, opportunities will open for Scott on the edge. That’s something that Alabama and Auburn took away, but the Rebels have adjusted.
A lot has been made of Missouri’s big, physical receivers, and it’s a talented group, no doubt. But opponents have been able to slow the Missouri passing game. The Tigers are fifth in the league in passing offense with 256.8 yards a game. Not bad, not bad at all, but not dominant.
To paraphrase Murphy Holloway, Ole Miss’ “little fellas” at cornerback will need to play physical and get in the heads of those Missouri receivers.
Mizzou’s bigger group will also provide a unique opportunity for freshman Derrick Jones to validate the coaching staff’s overwhelming enthusiasm in him.
The bottom line is there’s a lot of pressure on Missouri in this game. Texas A&M will be an obvious challenge next week, but from a Missouri perspective, at least that games at home.
This week the Tigers have to go on the road against a dangerous and capable opponent … an opponent that appears to be hitting its stride on offense and will offer a greater challenge than the squads from Tennessee and Kentucky that Missouri throttled the last two weeks.
For its part, Ole Miss has been pointing to this game since beating LSU a month ago. Hugh Freeze didn’t say it quite that way, but his best safety, Cody Prewitt, did during the week as he talked about the greater focus the Rebels have had in preparation for Missouri.
Because of that increased focus I think you’ll see fewer pre-snap penalties from Ole Miss. That had better be the case. A 5-yard loss might not be a big deal against Troy, but it will be against Missouri.
The guess here is that the penalties are fewer, the run game is enough, and the passing game clicks.
I think the Rebels will be emotionally invested in a manner similar to their 27-24 win over LSU. That will make their play crisp and efficient and not marred by sluggish stretches that occasionally showed up against Arkansas and Troy.
There’s obviously a lot on the line for Missouri, but there’s a lot on the line for the Rebels too.
Ole Miss has already won more games than it did last year in the regular season. The Rebels can already claim progress, but to split or sweep their final two regular season games would allow them to claim a great deal of progress, to be way out in front on the journey and not just a step ahead.
An eighth win would improve the Rebels’ bowl standing and give them a chance to improve it even more in the Egg Bowl.
Prediction: Ole Miss 31, Missouri 30