College football season is finally here. Instead of a Central Arkansas or Memphis type of opponent, the Rebels are facing an SEC foe in week one for the first time in nearly a decade. To top that off, Ole Miss will face Vanderbilt on the very first day of the college football season with the entirety of the country watching on ESPN (8:15 PM Central, y'all). This is as anticipated a season opener as I can remember, and with good reason.
Vanderbilt has become a solid SEC program under James Franklin's leadership. Franklin's teams play hard-nosed defense and fundamentally sound offense. He's also a tremendous recruiter who has made Vanderbilt a very attractive program to high school players. On our side of the table though, a lot of the same things can be said regarding Hugh Freeze and his general improvement of the quality of football played and recruiting prowess. This is a game featuring two programs that are trending upward, but with the SEC being what it is this game is still a must-win for both programs if bowl eligibility is to be made easier to come by (and therefore ongoing momentum easier maintained).
So what should we expect? Here's SB Nation's take on the game, and here's the same from our Vanderbilt comrades at Anchor of Gold. Part one of Red Cup Radio is right here, where Juco and I talk about this weekend; part two is here, where Christian of Anchor of Gold and I talk Vandy football. You'll also want to check out the official preview over at OleMissSports.com.
Ole Miss' three keys to success tonight, as I see them, are:
- Red Zone Offense - Ole Miss settled for three field goals in the red zone last season. Having lost 27-26, it's fair to say that had any one of those field goals been a touchdown, the game is a Rebel victory. Remember, Bo Wallace passed for over 400 yards that night in Oxford - we moved the ball well down the field. The Vandy defense just stepped up and played excellent football in the red zone. Hopefully new, big targets such as Evan Engram, Laquon Treadwell, and Christian Morgan give the Rebels some red zone targets they didn't have last year.
- Special Teams - If Ole Miss' drives start with good field position, and if Vandy's don't, then that makes the game much, much easier to win. With Tyler Campbell and Andrew Ritter back at punter and kickoff specialist, respectively, it's reasonable to think that the Rebs will control field position better than they were able to in 2012. Additionally, punt and kick coverage has got to improve from last season. It just has to. We were killed against SEC foes by giving up huge returns.
- Defensive Line - Austyn Carta-Samuels will be starting his first ever SEC game at quarterback for the Commodores. Mix that with the ESPN opening day coverage, and it's safe to say that he'll have some butterflies in his stomach, especially early. If CJ Johnson, Robert Nkemdiche, Woodrow Hamilton, and the rest of the defensive line can keep him on the move or, even better, flat on his ass, then Vanderbilt's passing offense will struggle along with it. With Chris Boyd likely out due to the ongoing rape investigation, Vandy's passing offense is one-demensional. Jordan Matthews is a phenomenal wideout, but even great receivers will struggle when being double covered, and if there aren't other receiving options for Carta-Samuels, then that'll prove a real challenge early. Get to him. Hit him. Force him to make mistakes. Hell, make him pee his pants a little.