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Georgia vs. Ole Miss feels like a must-win for the Rebels

Falling to 1-3 would be bad news. Fortunately for Ole Miss, the matchup suggests that won’t happen.

Wofford v Mississippi Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images

We knew there was a good chance that Ole Miss, despite its talent, would begin this season 1-2. And while Lamar Jackson cast some doubt on the preeminence of Florida State, there’s no doubt that the Rebels have faced the toughest three-game start in the country.

Which is why Saturday’s home game against 3-0, No. 12 Georgia is a damn big deal. A win over a ranked team would go a long way in steadying nerves and reinforcing the notion that Ole Miss’ early struggles are the expected byproduct of a brutal schedule. Take down the Dawgs and Hugh Freeze’s bunch gets a home game against Memphis before heading into what appears to be an easier-than-expected SEC West schedule.

Lose to Georgia, however, and Ole Miss will start to hear the din of panic alarms. After Memphis, the Rebs trek out for consecutive road games against Arkansas and LSU, neither of which are anywhere close to guaranteed wins. If the Rebels were to lose to Georgia and split those two road games, they’d be a game below .500 with less than half the season remaining—not a good place to be for a team with aspirations of another Sugar Bowl vacation.

The good news for the Rebels is that damn near every model of forecast—be it pundit prediction or advanced stats projection—has them winning in Oxford this weekend. An offense that just hung 43 points and over 500 yards on Bama’s defense should in theory be able to outpace a Georgia offense that struggled against Nicholls and Missouri. If that’s the case, Ole Miss will feel a hell of a lot better about its season come Saturday afternoon.

How to watch

When: Saturday, Sept. 24 at 11 a.m. CT :(
Where: Oxford

3 questions that will decide the game

1. Can the Georgia run game attack the edges?

Everything was fine when Nick Chubb roared back from last year’s nasty knee injury to hang 222 yards on a ranked North Carolina team in Week 1. Then he mustered just 143 yards (3.7 yards per carry) against Nicholls and Mizzou. He was so ineffective last weekend in Columbia that new O-coordinator Jim Chaney had to abandon the Run The Dang Ball offense and air it out 55 times with true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason. Through three games, the Dawgs’ rushing success rate ranks 71st in the country.

As you probably guessed, that’s not Chubb’s fault. UGA’s O-line, which lacks the size that line coach Sam Pittman was accustomed to at Arkansas, has been pushed around. Georgia ball carriers have been tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage on 20 percent of carries (76th in the country) and against Mizzou, Chubb was hit in the backfield on 12 of his 19 attempts. That penetration has forced the Bulldogs to attack the perimeter with stretch runs with Chubb or jet sweeps with play-making wideout Isaiah McKenzie.

Things won’t get any easier up the middle against Ole Miss’ elite defensive tackles, but the expected absence of strong-side end Fadol Brown (Freeze called him doubtful on Monday) provides a soft spot. Backup John Youngblood was manhandled last week against Bama, so expect Georgia to pound the edges looking to find room for Chubb.

2. How does Ole Miss play the Georgia passing game?

Not that having Eason throw 55 times against Mizzou was a bad thing: in his first collegiate start, the No. 2 passer in the 2016 class (Shea Patterson says hi) piled up 308 yards, three touchdowns and one pick. The coaches are still being careful with Eason—39 of those passes were targeted within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage—but he certainly has the capability to let it rip.

That creates a dilemma for the Ole Miss defense. On one hand, the Rebel secondary has been at its worst when playing soft coverage, so sitting back will probably mean Eason picking them apart underneath. On the other hand, playing tight and aggressive exposes an inexperienced group of defensive backs to big plays over the top.

3. Will Hugh Freeze say to hell with a balanced offense?

A beefed up interior O-line was supposed to mean a stronger run game for the 2016 Rebels. Instead, Ole Miss ranks 123rd in the country in rushing success rate. Freeze did his damndest to stay balanced against the Tide by running the ball on 18 first-down plays, but if you subtract Akeem Judd’s 23-yard touchdown run in the first two minutes of the game, those runs averaged just 2.1 yards.

That has elicited cries for Freeze to abandon the run altogether—“To hell with it, just go five wide the whole damn time.” It’s not quite that simple, though. Freeze has to protect his inexperienced offensive tackles, who have been burned bad when D-ends get to pin their ears back. On the other hand, you’re not doing them any favors with two-yard runs that put them in passing downs anyways.

I’d expect Freeze to at least attempt to establish the run against the Bulldogs, who’s defensive front isn’t quite as formidable as Bama’s (No. 29 defensive rush success rate vs. No. 2). Still, there’s a point in a game where you have to concede that something’s not working and can’t be fixed by trite repetition.

Projections and predictions

Vegas: As of Friday morning, Bovada’s line has Ole Miss by 7.5.

F&P+: Bill C.’s numbers give Ole Miss a 70.1 percent chance of winning.

FPI: ESPN’s advanced metrics give Ole Miss a 74.6 percent chance of winning.

SB Nation’s expert panel: All but three of the 17 are picking Ole Miss.

RCR’s (totally more) expert panel: Not only do all 10 of us expect a Rebs win, we’re all picking the home team to cover the 7.5-point spread.

My pick: Georgia poses some problems with its ability to attack the edge and make big plays over the top, but its still hard to imagine them keeping up with the Rebel offense. UGA’s defensive front can’t dial up pressure the way FSU and Bama can, which should give Chad Kelly enough time in the pocket to put together a big game. Let’s call it 38-24, Rebels.

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