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Ole Miss vs. Florida State is the best matchup of college football's loaded opening week

Forget Wisconsin-LSU and Bama-USC. Monday's tilt in Orlando has all the intriguing story lines you want.

Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN's unceasingly-trumpeted claim that this is the greatest opening weekend in college football history may be more marketing pizzaz than objective observation (CBS Sports found four seasons since just 1985 with at least as many ranked-vs.-ranked games in Week 1), but there's no doubt that there are a ton of incredible matchups between now and Monday. And on a weekend that features LSU-Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, Bama-USC in Jerryworld and Oklahoma-Houston in NRG Stadium, the most intriguing game might just be Ole Miss-Florida State in Orlando.

Indeed, the Noles' and Rebels' 7 p.m. Monday kickoff is splashed across damn neary every scrap of ESPN marketing material heading into the weekend. The national story lines abound:

SEC vs. ACC is a trite but admittedly interesting matchup. No. 4 FSU will contend with Clemson for the ACC title. Ole Miss has designs on upsetting Bama and LSU in the West. Lots of angry people on Twitter will have angry arguments about conference superiority because of this.

Florida State will find out how far its young QB can take them. Redshirt freshman Deondre Francois is a former four-star with a tons of athleticism and arm strength, but he'll be playing in his first ever college football game. Quarterback is one of the few question marks on an otherwise loaded roster, so if the freshman plays well against an SEC defense on Monday, FSU will need to be eyed as a legit national title contender.

Chad Kelly makes his argument for Heisman Trophy contention. I'm not sure if it's because he plays at Ole Miss or because people are still caught up in the myth that he's a turnover machine, but Swag isn't getting a ton of Heisman hype outside the state of Mississippi (nevertheless, he's tied for the fifth best odds in the country). That will change in a hurry if he plays well in a win over the 'Noles.

Ole Miss finds out if it can replace the Big Three. The discussion about Ole Miss' draft night has been hijacked by NCAA scandal, but the most pressing question is how the Rebs will handle the losses of Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche. In a way, Monday night is the beginning of a season-long audition for Ole Miss' staying power as a national contender -- compete for the SEC title this season and Hugh Freeze proves his program is more than the sum of one recruiting class.

Let's dive deeper into the matchup.

How to watch

When: Monday, Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Orlando, Fla.

3 questions that will decide the game

1. Can Ole Miss slow down Dalvin Cook?

Cook was the most explosive back in college football last season, leading the country in highlight yards per opportunity. Ole Miss doesn’t want to see him in open space, so they’ll likely attempt to funnel him inside to one of the best interior D-lines in the country (a task made easier by the availability of strong-side DE Fadol Brown). An inexperienced crew of linebackers will need to be careful to mind the gaps to keep him from slipping through the trap and escaping into the defensive backfield, where Ole Miss is playing a pair of underclassmen at safety. Working in the Rebels' favor is that Tony Conner, one of the country's best open-field tacklers, is mostly healthy and could frequently be the difference between a long touchdown scamper and a paltry gain.

If Ole Miss can somehow bottle up Cook the way Boston College and Houston did last season (he averaged just 2.6 yards per carry during those two games), FSU’s offense will begin to lean on the inexperienced Francois. If Cook can establish himself as a steady producer in the run game, however, it becomes more likely that the rifle-armed Francois can get the young safeties to bite on play action and find open targets streaking downfield.

2. Who wins the battle between Rebel receivers and the Noles secondary?

Ole Miss’ best defense against Cook may be its offense—if Kelly can pile up points early and force the Noles to play catch up, FSU will have to rely more on its passing attack. On one hand, FSU might not face a more talented and physical receiving corps all season—the Rebs have eight former four-stars, all of which are at least 6’1. On the other hand, Ole Miss might not face a more talented and physical secondary all season—the Noles have nine former blue-chip DBs, eight of which are at least 6’0.

The man to watch for the ‘Noles is superstar safety Derwin James. He’ll be asked to help prevent big plays from Kelly, who led the SEC with 25 completions of at least 30 yards last season. If the Ole Miss wideouts can get behind James and his teammates, the Rebs could turn this into a shootout that favors their quick-strike offense.

3. Can Ole Miss’ offensive tackles give Kelly enough time to work the ball downfield?

It doesn’t matter if the receivers get behind FSU’s defense if Chad is on his back by the time they do. Tasked with preventing that is converted guard Rod Taylor, who will start at left tackle while the Rebs wait on the development of Greg Little, the nation’s top 2016 OT prospect and the heir apparent to Laremy Tunsil’s blindside throne. Taylor’s plenty athletic, but he doesn’t have ideal length to fend off premium edge rushers—which is exactly what he’ll face in DeMarcus Walker, who notched five multi-sack games in 2015.

Chad has the athletic currency to buy his own time in the pocket, but he’ll need Taylor and true sophomore right tackle Sean Rawlings to give him enough space to maneuver. The magic number is 2.5—Pro Football Focus calculates that when given at least 2.5 seconds to throw the ball last season, no returning quarterback rated higher than Kelly.

The numbers

2015 advanced stats rank
FSU def. Ole Miss off. FSU off. Ole Miss def.
S&P+ 10 10 22 22
Passing S&P+ 5 2 39 23
Rushing S&P+ 24 24 11 17
Redzone S&P+ 45 2 4 15
IsoPPP+ (explosiveness) 4 2 20 20
Success rate+ (effeciency) 24 3 24 28
Adjusted line yds. 84 34 31 30
Adjusted sack rate 55 25 39 68

Projections and predictions

Vegas: As of Friday morning, Bovada’s latest line has FSU by 5.

F&P+: Bill C.’s numbers give FSU a 52 percent chance of winning.

FPI: ESPN’s advanced metrics give FSU a 70.5 percent chance of winning.

SB Nation’s expert panel: Of 15, only Spencer Hall and Rodger Sherman picked the Rebs.

RCR’s (totally more) expert panel: Of 10, only Gray Hardison and smeargle took Ole Miss.

My pick: I think FSU’s talented secondary means the Noles are better equipped to defend Ole Miss’ offensive strength than vice versa. Yes, the Rebel D-line is stout, but the limited health of Fadol Brown, the question marks at linebacker and the inexperience/tackling issues in the secondary scare me against a dangerous play-maker like Cook. With that said, Ole Miss has the experience where it counts—Chad Kelly gives the Rebs a very real chance to start the season 1-0.

I'm taking Florida State, 31-27, but if this thing turns into a shootout, I trust Kelly to score more than Dalvin Cook.

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