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Ole Miss vs. Memphis is about offense, not revenge

Sure, the Rebels' quest to avenge last year's loss in Memphis makes for a good story line, but it won't have anything to do with the outcome.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

This game isn't about revenge. Hugh Freeze wants you to know that.

In fact, when talking about Saturday's home game against Memphis—ya know, the team that burned the Rebels' Playoff hopes to the ground last year with a shocking upset at the Liberty Bowl—Freeze sounds a hell of a lot like Nick Saban talking about Ole Miss.

I don't think anytime you talk about revenge or any of those things they are very helpful so I am not big on that. I am about preparing as good as we can prepare to play a very good Memphis team and I know that the game means a lot to our fan base and their fan base so some emotion comes with that, hopefully for our kids too. We won't get into talking about "we've got to do this because of last year." I am not a big fan of that.

Whether you believe Freeze's coachspeak or not, this game isn't about revenge. It's about offense.

Sure, this isn't the same Tigers team that piled up 37 points and nearly 500 yards of offense on Ole Miss last season. After transforming Memphis from a dumpster fire to a program that was being discussed as a possible Big 12 addition, head coach Justin Fuente moved on to replace Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech. Paxton Lynch, the quarterback responsible for carving up the Rebels secondary last year, is now holding a clipboard for the Denver Broncos.

Still, new head man Mike Norvell (previously the offensive coordinator at Arizona State) has installed a system similar to Fuente's, which has allowed an offense with a ton of returning starters to hit the ground running. And while he may not be a first-round NFL Draft pick, highly-recruited Riley Ferguson has done a spectacular job filling in for Lynch, at least in the early going. The Tigers have destroyed the three teams put in front of them (yes, those teams were bad—more on that in a sec), but they pose a legitimate threat to a Rebel defense that's had its problems on the back end.

Ole Miss counters with an even more prolific offense, one that ranks in the top 13 nationally in yards per play and points per play despite having faced Florida State and Alabama.

Get ready for points.

How to watch

When: 6 p.m. CT
Where: Oxford
Online streaming: WatchESPN

3 questions that will decide the game

1. Is Memphis just a product of its cupcake schedule?

The Tigers aren't just 3-0; they've won those three games by a combined score of 155-27. The kicker, of course, is that they've played...

  • SEMO, which is not only an FCS school, but a 1-3 FCS school.
  • Kansas, which lost by 16 to Ohio and by 36 to Texas Tech.
  • Bowling Green, which according to S&P+ numbers is the 12th worst team in the FBS.

But that doesn't mean you should laugh off the Tigers' hot start. They've performed well enough against the teams put in front of them to rank 25th in S&P+, and the advanced metrics suggest they're legitimately dangerous.

2. Is Riley Ferguson the real deal?

Memphis isn't replacing Paxton Lynch with some your typical AAC fill in. Ferguson originally signed with Tennessee and was reportedly in front of Josh Dobbs on the depth chart when he abruptly walked away from the program at the close of spring practice in 2014. Even after a year away from football and a season at a JUCO, he still received an offer from Texas last year.

He turned down the Longhorns to succeed Lynch in Memphis, where he's off to a hell of start. Through three games, he's racked up 11 touchdowns (six of which came in the first half against Bowling Green last week) to just two picks while throwing for 843 yards, completing 67 percent of his passes at a 7.9 yards-per-attempt clip.

Of course, he's also played an FCS school and a pair of FBS teams that rank 87th and 118th in defensive S&P+.

3. Which secondary can prevent big plays?

After allowing 11 combined explosive passing plays against Florida State and Bama, Ole Miss' young secondary finally found it's footing against Georgia last weekend, when the Bulldogs' only 20-yard gain through the air came on a fake punt. The catch is that the improved performance came against a true freshman quarterback who's still being asked to make conservative, underneath throws.

That will change against Ferguson, who's been given free reign to throw downfield. While the efficiency of Memphis' passing attack has dropped off a bit without Lynch, it's actually been more explosive—the Tigers rank 38th in the country in passing isoPPP, an advanced metric that measures explosiveness.

Of course, Memphis also faces that problem—Ole Miss ranks 10th in the same metric. The Tigers' secondary has been spectacular so far (38th in passing isoPPP and fourth in passing success rate), but Kansas and Bowling Green ain't exactly trotting out Chad Kelly and they sure as hell can't claim the the same talent at receiver. The Tigers defense ranked 92nd in passing S&P+ with an almost identical group of DBs last season, so there's ample reason to think this year's success is the product of weak competition. That this year's D-line has struggled to get after the quarterback against bad teams makes things even tougher for Memphis' secondary.

Projections and predictions

Vegas: As of Friday morning, Bovada’s latest line has Ole Miss by 15.

F&P+: Bill C.’s numbers give Ole Miss a 70 percent chance of winning with an expected margin of 9.0.

FPI: ESPN’s advanced metrics give Ole Miss an 86.1 percent chance of winning.

RCR’s pick ‘em panel:We’re aaaaaaaall on the Rebels—all 10 of us picked Ole Miss to cover what was at the time a 14.5 spread.

My pick: Memphis' offense will find success, but I don't think it's capable of going drive-for-drive with the Rebels. Their only chance to keep pace is to steal extra possessions with turnovers, which was arguably the biggest factor in last year's upset. They're certainly capable of it—the Tigers are second in the country with a +8 turnover margin. But here's the thing: Chad Kelly generally only turns it over when he's under pressure and Memphis hasn't managed much of a pass rush this season. Less pressure also means more time for Ole Miss' wideouts to win one-on-ones with Memphis' defensive backs.

The Tigers will make some big plays to keep it interesting, but Kelly has his best game of the season and Ole Miss edges the spread with a 43-27 win.

Required reading (and listening)