Quarterback: Ole Miss
A legit Heisman candidate (who could move in as a frontrunner with a big game in a win over FSU), Chad Kelly owns the fifth-best 2015 Pro Football Focus grade among returning quarterbacks. He’s deadly with the deep ball and isn’t the interception machine people tag him as (five of his 13 picks 13 last season were dropped by a receiver or tipped and only one of them came during the final four games).
FSU, meanwhile, is starting a redshirt freshman making his first ever appearance in a college football game. Deondre Francois is certainly talented—he’s a former four-star who’s drawn uncharacteristic praise from head coach Jimbo Fisher—but there’s no telling how he’ll handle a live defense and the primetime lights. There aren’t many options behind Francois if he falters: senior incumbent Sean Maguire is still recovering from a foot injury and may not be available.
If Ole Miss wins this game, it’ll be because of its advantage behind center.
Running back: Florida State
Ole Miss has a solid stable of backs, even after co-starter Jordan Wilkins was ruled academically ineligible a couple of weeks ago. Akeem Judd’s 5.4 yards per carry made him the most efficient back on the team last season and redshirt frosh Eric Swinney has all the tools to make him a star.
But FSU’s Dalvin Cook is on a completely different level. His combination of acceleration, agility, balance and backfield vision makes him a threat to take it the distance on any play—indeed, he led the country in highlight yards per opportunity last season. The Rebs have the D-line to bottle him up, but could be in trouble if he slips into the second and third levels, where they’re breaking in new talent at linebacker and safety.
Receivers: Ole Miss
Outside of quarterback, this is the strength of the Rebels’ roster. The group is loaded with eight former four-stars, three of which (Damore’ea Stringfellow, Quincy Adeboyejo and Markell Pack) notched at least 30 receptions in 2015-16. Evan Engram should be one of the league’s top receiving tight ends and redshirt freshman Van Jefferson could be a breakout star in the slot. Throw in true freshman A.J. Brown, who’ll see action on Monday night, and Kelly has premium targets all over the field.
FSU returns ever single player that caught a pass last season, but it’s a group that, while solid, wasn’t particularly dangerous or dynamic in 2015. Travis Randolph led the bunch with 59 catches for 916 yards, while Kermit Whitfield chipped in a productive 11.3 yards per target. As pointed out by Tomahawk Nation, what the ‘Noles really need is one of their larger wideouts—perhaps 6’5 Auden Tate—to step up to provide Francois a big outlet target.
Offensive line: Florida State
The Rebs should be a lot better on the interior with center Robert Conyers and guards Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims, but replacing a pair of NFL Draft picks on the edge will be tricky. Sean Rawlings at least got seven starts at right tackle last season, but converted guard Rod Taylor will be making his first start on the blindside.
Florida State, meanwhile, returns every lineman from last year’s team. Center Alec Eberle sounds like he’ll be able to play through his migraine issues, though starting left guard Kareem Are is out with a concussion. That could be big deal against the Rebs’ monstrous interior D-line.
Defensive line: Ole Miss
That interior is arguably the deepest and most talented in the entire country. If the Rebs limit Cook on the ground, it’ll be because D.J. Jones, Issac Gross, Breeland Speaks and Benito Jones cause havoc in the backfield. The lingering injury to Fadol Brown is concerning (Hugh Freeze said he’ll play between 20-30 snaps against the ‘Noles), but could be offset by sliding Speaks outside at times. Pressure from Marquis Haynes, who racked up 10 sacks as a sophomore, could force the inexperienced Francois into mistakes.
The ‘Noles have their own fearsome edge rusher in DeMarcus Walker, who could cause major problems for Taylor on the blind side. Sophomore Josh Sweat, a former No. 1 overall recruit who should finally be healthy from a 2014 injury, is a weapon at the other end spot, while Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas are experienced options at tackle.
Linebacker: Florida State
The ‘Noles lost their two top linebackers from a season ago and the backups behind the starting duo of Ro'Derrick Hoskins and Matthew Thomas are mostly freshmen. Still, they may be better off than Ole Miss, which is still trying to get transfer Rommel Mageo up to speed. DeMarquis Gates was a star last season, but he’ll be starting out of position at middle backer while Terry Caldwell mans the outside. Mageo will see the field and his ability to maintain gap integrity during those stints could go a long way in keeping Cook from rattling off explosive runs.
Secondary: Florida State
FSU recruits pretty much every position well, but the talent it’s managed to accrue in the secondary is staggering. The ‘Noles have nine four- or five-star DBs stashed on its roster, including superstar safety Derwin James. What’s more, the group is incredibly long: eight of those blue-chippers stand at least 6’0, which should allow them, perhaps more than any other group Ole Miss will face all season, to match up against the Rebs’ stable of big receivers.
Ole Miss returns starting corners Ken Webster and Tony Bridges, and do-it-all huskie Tony Conner claims he’s “90 percent” recovered from his season-ending knee surgery. The biggest concern is on the back end, where Dave Wommack is starting true freshman Myles Hartsfield and true sophomore Zedrick Woods. That duo’s ability to keep plays in front of them—be it gashing runs by Cook or subsequent play-action strikes from Francois—could very well be the deciding factor in this game.
Special teams: draw
Ole Miss has the advantage in the kicking game, where FSU is replacing both its punter and its elite kicker, Roberto Aguayo, who went in the second round of the NFL Draft. Unlike the Rebs, though, the ‘Noles have a proven commodity in the return game—Kermit Whitfield averaged 13 more yards per kick return than Ole Miss’ top option.