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Ole Miss vs. Florida 2015 preview: The Gators defense can make this a game

In a vacuum, there's no reason to think Will Grier and the Gators offense can hang with Swag Kelly's high-flying crew. But a stacked Florida D could help even the playing field.

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The back half of Ole Miss' schedule is loaded with critical conference games, but with the way the slate sets up, you could make a reasonable argument that Saturday's trip to Gainesville might be the key to the season. If the Rebs can climb past the Gators' stingy defense, they descend into a nonconference valley of New Mexico State and Memphis before starting into a steep five-game climb to the summit. Heading into A&M, Ole Miss would probably be 7-0 and could have Laremy Tunsil and Tony Conner back on the field.

But the Florida game looks a lot more treacherous after last weekend's offensive struggles against Vandy. If Swag Kelly and Co. play as shitty as they did last Saturday, a Gators D that's loaded on the defensive line and in the secondary is gonna be trouble. The Rebs will run away and hide if this thing somehow turns into an offensive game, but Florida has all the tools to make this a low-scoring slog.

Let's go ahead and preview this puppy.

Four neat statistics

  1. The Florida defense is allowing touchdowns on just 36 percent of its opponents' trips into the red zone, good for second in the SEC. That could spell trouble for an Ole Miss team that scored TDs on just four of its 17 plays run inside the five-yard line against Bama and Vandy.
  2. Freshman quarterback Will Grier has the third best third-down passer rating in the SEC (140.29) and converted five critical fourth-down conversions during last Saturday's comeback against Tennessee. The Rebel D had trouble getting off the field against Bama and Vandy, allowing mediocre quarterbacks Jake Coker and Johnny McCrary to move the chains on 12 combined third-down passing plays.
  3. The Florida D ranks 89th in the country in IsoPPP, a stat Football Outsiders uses to measure explosiveness. The Ole Miss offense is No. 9 in that same stat. Here's a simpler way to look at it: the Gator defense is 10th in the SEC in plays of 20-plus yards allowed; the Rebel O is first in the conference in plays of 20-plus yards.
  4. According to the German Society of Ophthalmology, men cry between 6 and 17 times per year, and when they do cry, it's for two to four minutes at a time. Which means Tim Tebow has spent between 84 and 476 minutes of the last seven years in tears.

Three bros to watch

  1. Keep your eyes on Vernon Hargreaves III. In a matchup that'll have damn near every pro scout in America tuning in, the best cornerback in the country is facing Laquon Treadwell, arguably the most talented wideout in college football. The last time these two met, Hargreaves shut down Treadwell in the 2013 Under Armour All-American Game. But the Gators' star has been dealing with a back issue that sent him to the chiropractor last week and cost him some time against Tennessee (Andy Hutchins of Alligator Army told us he thinks Hargreaves is about 80-85 percent).
  2. It'll be interesting to see how Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack uses Mike Hilton with Tony Conner still out. Hilton started at his regular safety spot last week, but after Vandy started force-feeding the ball to tight ends, Hilton moved down into the nickel/husky spot and played a lot of press man defense. With as good a job as C.J. Hampton did filling in on the back end, I'd expect to see Hilton spending more time closer to the LOS.
  3. Florida has to worry about Robert Nkemdiche, but Ole Miss has to worry about Jonathan Bullard. This guy's a 6'3, 277-pound wrecking ball that can rush the passer from both the edge and the interior. In just four games he's piled up four sacks and eight tackles for loss. With Rebel guard Justin Bell out with an injury, expect Bullard to spend a lot of time in the middle. Though we may need to be more worried about this guy:

Two questions that need answers

  1. Can Swag get back to landing the big plays? Chad Kelly actually completed six passes of over 20 yards against Vandy, which seems surprising given the monotony of the offense that game. But only a couple of those were true shots over the top (and one was a throw to Treadwell in the flat when Vandy just decided they literally weren't gonna cover the best wideout in the country), the result of toned down playcalling from Freeze and a slightly gun-shy Kelly after roving safeties picked him off twice. But in a game that features two of the best defenses in the country, the Rebel offense's biggest advantage over its counter-part is the explosiveness of its passing game: Chad is tied for the most 20-yard completions in the country. If the line can give him time to take some shots, he's going to.
  2. Can Will Grier survive the Landsharks? Here's what Florida blogger Andy Hutchins told us about Grier, a redshirt freshman making just the fourth start of his career: "His internal alarm clock appears to have tripwire sensitivity and jackhammer volume, and he bails on both going through progressions with his feet set and trying to make things happen in the pocket very quickly." The interior of Florida's O-line is flimsy and they'll be dealing with Hurricane Nkemdiche all game, which means Grier is going to have a lot of pressure in his face. If he panics and makes off-balance throws, a Rebel secondary that leads the SEC in picks is going to lay out a picnic blanket and feast.

One level-headed prediction

With the Ole Miss O-line looking the way it is, I think Florida can disrupt the Rebel offense enough to hold it in check for most of the game. But I'm not sure where the Gators' points are going to come from. Explosive plays end up being the difference, with Swag connecting on a some big passes in the second half to pull away.

Let's call it Ole Miss 24, Florida 13.