Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET Monday, ESPN
Spread: Ole Miss -10, O/U 75.5 (Bovada)
This is the first ever meeting between Louisville and Ole Miss. The Cardinals have split their last six season openers, going 3-3 (the three losses coming to ranked opponents such as Auburn in 2015, Alabama in 2018, and Notre Dame in 2019).
Ole Miss at a Glance (2021)
Ole Miss begins the season ranked 25th in the Coaches Poll, and 27th in the AP poll. Ole Miss finished 5-5 last year with a victory over #11 Indiana in the Gator Bowl. It’s also worth noting that Ole Miss scored 48 points against national champion Alabama, the most of any team that played the Crimson Tide last season.
Ole Miss Offense Breakdown
Though the Rebels have to replace star receiver Elijah Moore and tight end Kenny Yeboah, their offense will still be the main feature. Led by quarterback Matt Corral, Ole Miss led the SEC in total offense last season (555.5 yards per game), and was the only team in the conference to average over 300 yards passing and 200 yards rushing.
Corral should be in the mix for All-SEC honors this season, and possibly All-American consideration if he can improve on last season’s total. He’s a very solid athlete that can make plays with his feet, and there is a lot to love about his arm talent. He has a good understanding of when to put touch on his throws, and when to throw bullets downfield.
Like Louisville’s Malik Cunningham, though, Corral struggled a bit with turnovers. He threw 14 interceptions last season, all which came in losses for the Rebels. It is worth noting that 11 of those came in two games (six against Arkansas, five against LSU), so excluding those two, his TD:INT ratio in the other eight games comes out to 8:1 (24 TD, 3 INT). He also completed 71% of his passes last season, which is crucial for a Lane Kiffin offense that is really aggressive. If Corral can maintain high efficiency across a 12-game schedule, he’ll likely hear his name called early in the 2022 NFL Draft, perhaps as a first round pick.
All the talk and hype surrounding Corral is warranted, but it’s made their running game underrated. Corral himself can scramble and get out of sacks, but Ole Miss has a deep stable of running backs to complement him. Jerrion Ealy is an explosive back with over 1,000 all-purpose yards in each of his first two seasons, and will likely also handle kick return duties. Ealy has a kick return touchdown in each of his first two seasons, and he can easily break off a big run if the space is there. Scoop Conner (421 yards, eight TDs) and Henry Parrish, Jr. (263 yards, two TDs) add some depth to the lineup, with Conner showing great acceleration and power running in the Gator Bowl.
Dontario Drummond (25 rec., 417 yards, seven TDs) and Jonathan Mingo (27 rec., 379 yards, two TDs) both return to the lineup, as does Braylon Sanders (14 rec., 370 yards, four TDs). They’ll have some experience to work with, along with adding ex-Western Kentucky receiver Jahcour Pearson (76 rec., 804 yards, seven TDs in 2019) to the fold.
I am intrigued to see how John Rhys Plumlee will be used on Monday. The former-quarterback turned wide receiver started at QB for the Rebels in the 2019 season and rushed for over 1,000 yards with 12 touchdowns, but was taking snaps at running back and wide receiver throughout the 2020 season. With a full season to transition full-time to a receiver role, he could become the playmaker that Ole Miss is looking for.
Players to Watch: QB Matt Corral (231/326, 71% completion, 3,337 yards, 33 total touchdowns, 14 INT); RB Jerrion Ealy (2,400 career all-purpose yards, 19 career touchdowns; two-sport athlete in baseball); QB/WR John Rhys Plumlee (two-sport athlete in baseball; over 1,000 rushing yards in 2019).
Ole Miss Defense Breakdown
The Ole Miss defense in 2021 has to make improvements from last season. While the Rebels offense was potent enough to keep them in games, the defense struggled a lot. Ole Miss was 126th out of 127 FBS schools in rushing defense (273.5 YPG), 125th in passing defense (312.1 YPG), and was worst in the SEC in points allowed per game (38.3 PPG).
Additionally, Ole Miss struggled with creating havoc as a defense. They finished tenth out of 14 SEC schools in sacks (16), 12th in tackles for loss (47), and 11th in interceptions (six). All of that might be moot considering Louisville was among the worst in FBS in terms of allowing tackles for loss (8.46 per game in 2020), and of course, Louisville’s notorious problems with ball security last season.
But, this defense has momentum on their side. They held Indiana to 20 points in the Gator Bowl, had two sacks and were +2 in turnover margin. Even if IU was missing star quarterback Michael Penix, Jr., containing arguably the best passing offense in the Big Ten is a huge thing for this team heading into 2021.
Safety A.J. Finley led the team with three interceptions last year, and returns alongside Georgia transfer Otis Reese. Reese only played in three games last season, but was a difference maker with 7.67 tackles per game, one interception, and one pass breakup. If he can match that production across a 12-game slate in 2021, that would help the Rebels defense in a massive way.
Additions such as Chance Campbell and Jake Springer might be able to alleviate some of their woes from last season. Campbell was the leading tackler for Maryland last season (10.5 per game), on top of leading the team in tackles for loss (5.5). Defensive lineman Tywone Malone also comes in as a top recruit from the 2021 class, and figures to contribute right away.
Players to Watch: S A.J. Finley (three INTS in 2020); DB Otis Reese (23 tackles, INT in three games in 2020); LB Chance Campbell (led Maryland in tackles and TFL in 2020; all-Big Ten Honorable Mention in 2020); DL Tywone Malone (#63 overall prospect in 2021 class, per 247Sports).
Keys to the Game
- Hotty Toddy Tempo
Not only does Ole Miss have the talent to test Louisville’s defense, they also have the tempo. Louisville might not face a team all season with the pace that the Rebels will bring on Labor Day, and their last major test (Miami) saw the Cardinals leave without a victory.
I was very impressed with the pace of Ole Miss throughout the season, especially with handling Indiana’s blitz packages in the Gator Bowl. Corral showed great ability to escape that pressure and either get yardage with his feet, or find receivers open downfield. This is a good litmus test for Louisville’s front seven, which should be improved from the previous two seasons. Being able to contain Corral and prevent him from creating plays with his feet will be crucial for Louisville. They also can’t let Ealy get open lanes consistently, or Louisville could find itself reliving its game against Miami last season.
Another thing to watch for is fourth downs. Ole Miss was one of the most aggressive teams on fourth down last season, with 33 attempts (third in the FBS last season). That aggression, combined with the pace that Ole Miss puts on, will be challenging for any team that faces them this season.
- Which D/ST will provide the spark?
Both Louisville and Ole Miss will have dynamic returners on display in Atlanta, with Hassan Hall (possibly Jordan Watkins?) and Ealy among the nation’s most explosive players on special teams. I’m expecting a lot of points to be on the table for both teams, but field position (and a possible special teams touchdown) could be the most important part of this potentially high-scoring game.
It’s also going to come down to which defense can create havoc, and ultimately, get stops. It’s as cliche as you’ll hear from a football breakdown, but it is important to highlight when both teams were, at best, middle-of-the-pack in getting TFLs and creating turnovers. Louisville itself was 12th in the ACC in sacks last season (21), tackles for loss (62), and 14th in turnovers forced (12). If Louisville can improve on its turnover margin by forcing them on defense, they can win; Ole Miss was -11 in the margin in losses last season.
- Can Louisville’s running game set everything else up?
If Louisville’s offense is going to keep up with Ole Miss in a high-scoring affair, it’s going to have to start with their running game. They’ve got all the pieces in place to be able to keep up with Ole Miss; they have a veteran offensive line (sans Trevor Reid), a running back with the potential for another 1,000-yard season (Jalen Mitchell), and a quarterback that can throw and make plays with his feet.
If anything, I believe the offensive line will have to set the tone for Louisville on Monday. If they can create lanes for Mitchell and Hall, it will likely set everything else up for Louisville in the passing game. Ole Miss gave up 200+ rushing yards in four contests last season, including 408 against Kentucky and 318 against South Carolina. The Rebels were also 104th in the FBS in standard down line yards, 126th in passing down line yards, and 108th in stuff rate (per FootballOutsiders).
- What will Louisville’s receiving corps look like in 2021?
Louisville’s receiving corps is going to look a lot more different in 2021 than it has in previous seasons. Without Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick, the expectation is that this group will be more of a committee this season than in prior ones.
Which leads to two questions; who will be rotating at receiver, and who will be leading the team there? Jordan Watkins would be my choice as the leading receiver. He’s a true speedster that can be used in a variety of ways, and can stretch it downfield. Braden Smith can also contend as the leading receiver, and of course, Marshon Ford is really talented and could always be more utilized in the passing game. There could be as many as 9-10 guys that play on Monday, and throughout the season. How they’ll be used, though, will be one of the things I’ll be watching all season (but I digress).
It’s also worth noting that Ole Miss gave up 400+ passing yards in four games last season, as well as 319 against Vanderbilt. Louisville could be looking to push the ball downfield with its speedsters (Watkins, Ahmari Huggins-Bruce, Shai Werts, etc.), and could find success against the Ole Miss secondary if the protection is there.