For one half in Orlando, Ole Miss looked like a team that could contend for the SEC West title. A quick-strike offense and an aggressive defense dominated the No. 4 team in the country, building a 28-6 lead late in the second quarter in the season opener against Florida State.
Then the wheels came off.
The 'Noles, fueled by a withering pass rush and an incredible second-half performance from redshirt freshman Deondre Francois, scored 33 unanswered points against a suddenly hapless Rebels team to complete the largest comeback in Florida State's storied history. A fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Chad Kelly provided temporary optimism, but FSU walked away with a 45-34 victory.
A dream first half
For about 29 minutes, just about everything went right for the Rebels. Kelly was crisp and efficient, distributing the ball to an absurdly deep receiving corps that was running circles around FSU's talented secondary. Kelly ended three of his first five drives with touchdown passes—one each to Damore'ea Stringfellow, freshman D.K. Metcalf and Evan Engram—with an interception on his second possession serving as the only negative. The new-look offensive line was stout against the Florida State pass rush, giving Kelly clean pocket after clean pocket. Meanwhile, the Rebel D-line controlled the line of scrimmage, gave superstar running back Dalvin Cook little room to work and did enough to keep Francois (playing in his first ever college football game) off balance.
After Akeem Judd shook a defender out of his jock strap and scampered into the end zone with three minutes remaining in the second quarter, the Rebs led 28-6. A late FSU touchdown drive that ended with a 16-yard strike from Francois to Travis Rudolph was a disappointing but not all-too-concerning finish to an otherwise brilliant half. In retrospect, that pass was the beginning of the end.
A nightmare second half
That late TD in the second quarter seemed to settle Francois down. From that point forward, Florida State scored points on every single drive, save for the one that ran the clock out at the end. An inexperienced Rebel secondary that had been surprisingly competent in the first half suddenly imploded, allowing FSU receivers to run free while playing the soft coverage that marred last year's Memphis and Arkansas debacles. The defense just couldn't get off the field in the second half, which compounded the problem by wearing out the otherwise sturdy defensive front. Having settled into a groove, Francois sat back and picked the Rebels apart, finishing the game with 419 yards and two scores, with another 59 yards on the ground.
On the other side, a pair of early second-quarter Kelly turnovers rattled the offense. One pass clanged off the hands of Engram and dropped conveniently into the arms of a Florida State DB; on the next series, Kelly fumbled while being sacked. FSU turned both turnovers into touchdowns, and suddenly the 'Noles had their first lead of the game, 29-28.
Chad finished the game 21-of-39 for 313 yards, four touchdowns and three picks.
The offensive line, which came in as perhaps the biggest question mark for the Rebels, imploded. Star defensive end DeMarcus Walker racked up 4.5 sacks by himself, consistently abusing converted guard Rod Taylor in his first start on the blind side.
So where does Ole Miss go from here?
It's important to remember that FSU is a really, really talented football team. If Francois can play the way he did on Monday night, the 'Noles are a legit national title contender. They did themselves no favors in the first half—racking up a ton of penalties and fumbling away a sure touchdown at one point—but were able to find their rhythm in the second.
Still, it's a devastating loss for an Ole Miss team that could taste a win over a top-5 team. Making things worse, a pair of key contributors might have suffered significant knee injuries. Starting corner Kendarius Webster crumpled to the ground early in the first quarter and was in tears when he was carted off the field. No. 2 running back Eric Swinney—who is expected to play a major role with Jordan Wilkins academically ineligible—was also carted off with a knee injury in the first half. Neither returned to the game.
As it turns out, the concerns in the secondary and on the offensive line were well-founded. The good news is that the Rebs are playing talented young players in most of those spots, so significant improvement is possible as the season wears on. The bad news is that Ole Miss' front-loaded schedule doesn't allow much time for learning on the fly—the Rebs get a home game against Wofford on Saturday, but then host Bama and Georgia on consecutive weekends.