1. Can Oklahoma State pressure Chad Kelly?
A Cowboys pass defense that gave up the 70th most completions of 20 yards or more faces a quarterback in Swag Kelly who led the SEC in that metric. If Oklahoma State gives him time to work downfield, he'll carve its secondary to pieces.
Which is why it's so important that star defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah and the rest of the Cowboys defensive line get consistent pressure on Kelly. Ogbah vs. left tackle Laremy Tunsil is the first-round draft duel everyone's clamoring to see, but the Big 12's Co-Defensive Player of the Year will spend time at both end spots, meaning Fahn Cooper will have to deal with him on the right side as well. The good news for Ole Miss is that Ogbah will be easier to key on without second-team Big 12 rush partner, Jimmy Bean, who tore his ACL back in November.
But getting past Tunsil and the O-line is just half the battle -- then the Pokes have to get Swag to the turf. Ever since the Ole Miss coaches gave Kelly increased permission to scramble, he's been sacked just twice in three games because of sorcery like this:
That increased scrambling frequency has also provided a pressure release that's cut down on turnovers. Forcing passes into coverage led to 12 picks in Swag's first nine games, but once he started tucking and running, he didn't throw a single one in his last three games.
If OK State can bottle Chad up and tempt him back into his old habits, they can certainly take advantage: the Pokes rank among the country's top 20 in interceptions.
2. Can Ole Miss' shorthanded defense keep pace with the Pokes' tempo?
Robert Nkemdiche's suspension means the Rebs are missing four defensive lineman: starting DE Fadol Brown recently had foot surgery and DTs Issac Gross and Herbert Moore went down with season-ending injuries months ago. That leaves the rotation of big fellas pretty bare against a fast-paced offense that ranks 26th in the country with over 77 plays per game.
"If we keep it at 60 or 70 snaps for the defense, if we stay in that range, I think we'll do just fine just because that's about the norm for every game," reserve defensive lineman John Youngblood told ESPN this week. "But if their offense gets going and it's 80, 90 snaps, we're going to get tired and especially since we're kind of going thin, then it may not be pretty."
We've seen this defense have issues with depth and conditioning before: they were completely out of gas in the second half against Bama, who ended up running 100 offensive plays in that game ... and that was with Nkemdiche and Brown in the rotation.
D-coordinator Dave Wommack said true freshman Ross Donnelly could get 10 to 15 snaps to help ease the strain at defensive tackle and linebacker C.J. Johnson should see plenty of time at D-end, where he started 12 games last season.
3. Can the Rebs establish the running game?
The best way to keep the defense from being run ragged by OK State's tempo offense is to control the pace of the game with the ground attack. I'm not suggesting Hugh Freeze is gonna trade out his no-huddle, pass-happy scheme for a copy of Bret Bielema's playbook, but expect a healthy dose of runs against an Oklahoma State front that ranks 67th in the country in rushing success rate.
Yes, we're to the point that suggesting Ole Miss rely on its run game is a thing I can openly type on the internet. The Rebs run-blocking was putrid through the first two months of the season, but that all changed when Laremy Tunsil returned from his NCAA-mandated vacation.
(This data only includes Power 5 opponents and Memphis, because no one cares how many rushing yards Ole Miss piled up against New Mexico State.)
|B.T. (Before Tunsil)||A.T. (After Tunsil)|
|Yards per carry||2.69||5.23|
|Attempts per game||32.6||38|
With the physical duo of Jordan Wilkins and Akeem Judd becoming increasingly productive and the new-found emphasis on Kelly in the read-option, Freeze has a legit running game to lean on if he feels the pace is getting too frenetic. The added bonus here is that if Ole Miss can force the Cowboys to play the run, those explosive passing plays become that much easier.
4. Will Oklahoma State torch the Ole Miss secondary?
Rail all you want on the Tunsil-less O-line's early-season struggles, but the biggest factor in the the Rebs' three losses has been poor play in the secondary. Against Florida, Memphis and Arkansas, Ole Miss allowed a whopping 1,097 yards and 13 touchdowns through the air. One of the common threads in those three games was the absence of Tony Conner (he technically played against the Hogs but was significantly limited by his knee injury), who won't play on New Year's Day.
It doesn't help that Oklahoma State's pass-happy offense ranks 10th in yards per attempt and 15th in passing S&P+. But most of that damage was done by starting quarterback Mason Rudolph, who may be limited by a lingering foot injury. Mike Gundy said Wednesday that Rudolph will play, but wouldn't speculate how big of a role he'll have. The Cowboys head coach said last week that J.W. Walsh, a senior who's seen plenty of action in what amounts to a dual-quarterback system, could play at least a half regardless of Rudolph's status.
The Rebels are probably hoping to see more of Walsh (who's primarily a running threat) and less of Rudolph, who finished third in the Big 12 in passer rating and a great rapport with home-run hitting receiver James Washington.