Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ole Miss Braces for Boise State

ESPN, 7 P.M.

Expectations for the 18th ranked Ole Miss Rebels are just about as high as they have been in 40 years. In fact, this is only the 4th time since 1972 that the Rebels have entered the season with a preseason ranking. More than a few college football prognosticators have even called Ole Miss a dark horse candidate to win the vaunted SEC West. Put it this way, Rebel fans aren't driving to Atlanta. They're soaring. This is as good as it gets for Ole Miss in August. 

Enter the Boise State Broncos. The Mountain West school famous for its blue turf is no stranger to playing the spoiler. Ask Oklahoma, Oregon, Georgia and Virginia Tech. All were once trampled by the BCS-busting Broncos, and Boise State would like nothing more than to pop all the red and blue balloons and add Ole Miss to its list of season-wrecking victims. 

A loss to Boise State would do exactly that. 

The preseason ranking would instantly disappear. ESPN's College Gameday would start looking for another place to set up shop on that weekend the Rebels host Alabama. Those dreams of Ole Miss making a Cinderella run through the SEC West would fade, too. After all, if the Rebels can't beat Boise State, how will they do against Alabama, Auburn and LSU?

Make no mistake. Beating Boise State is absolutely critical for Ole Miss to have what most would consider a successful season, and those are some high stakes for the very first game of the year on the big stage of ESPN.

Fortunately for Ole Miss the Broncos have one of the most inexperienced offensive lines in the country. Just two starters return from a unit that allowed 26 sacks in 2013. If the Rebel defensive line is as good as advertised, and Robert Nkemdiche, C.J. Johnson and Marquis Haynes are able to build 2nd homes in the Bronco backfield, that should spell certain doom for Boise State. 

Under new head coach Bryan Harsin, the Broncos will be led by running back Jay Ajayi, a 1,400-yard running back in 2013 with tremendous size and speed, but Ajayi will only rush as far as his offensive line allows. That's where Nkemdiche & Co. come into play. We'll know soon enough if the Ole Miss defensive front is what we think it is.

On the other side we'll be watching Bo Wallace and how he distributes the ball between Laquon Treadwell, Evan Engram, Vince Sanders and Cody Core. Wallace is no stranger to big games on big stages. With his experience and those receivers the Rebels should do just fine moving the football.....if...and you know what's coming next....if that offensive line can give Wallace the protection he needs and get the necessary push to create holes for running backs I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Wallace has always been at his best when Ole Miss is able to run the football. If Mathers and Walton have good nights, then expect Wallace to have an even better night. Look for him to go to Treadwell early and often.

Boise State's best corner is 5-9, 152-pound Donte Deayon. He's a Jim Thorpe Award candidate, but it's hard to imagine a guy that small being able to cover Treadwell.

If the offensive and defensive lines win their match-ups Ole Miss should return to Oxford 1-0, and against Boise State that shouldn't be too much to ask. 

One thing is certain - the time for speculation is over. The 2014 season is finally here. Are you ready? 

The Season: Episode 1 (2014)

Get the popcorn!

Wallace Bears Down on Senior Season

If there's one player I can't wait to see in action Thursday night, it's the new and improved Dr. Bo. All signs point to this being a great season for Wallace. He has two years of experience, is surrounded by dynamic play makers and he's finally healthy. I'm expecting big things from Wallace this year. Really big things.

"I like the demeanor he has right now," Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. "I like the leadership he’s trying to show and the way he’s studying film. It’s his last chance and he has a chance to do something special, and when you talk about putting him in the arena of breaking records from a guy like Eli Manning that’s pretty lofty. He has those chances."

It's been an up and down ride for Wallace in his first two seasons at Ole Miss. Although he's set records, led the Rebels to consecutive winning seasons and two bowl games, there have also been the interceptions, the loss to Mississippi State and the shoulder injury that just wouldn't go away, but Freeze is right when he reminds people that there's no way Ole Miss goes to two bowls games without Bo Wallace.

Wallace played hurt for much of the 2012 season, had shoulder surgery immediately after the season and was forced to sit out the spring. He was never able to fully strengthen the shoulder for the 2013 season, and though Wallace still put up big numbers, his deteriorating arm strength hampered his play. But those days are finally in the rear view mirror. This off-season Wallace worked out, added a few pounds and even worked with throwing mechanics guru Tom House out in California. After all that Wallace entered August healthy for the first time since he was a junior college transfer competing with Barry Brunetti for the starting job, and all that work paid off.

"I have a lot more confidence this year because I feel like I have had a great camp," Wallace said. "Last year, I felt like I didn’t have a good camp at all. It took me two or three weeks to really get back in the groove of things. From day one, I felt good, and I still feel good. I’m excited about going out there and playing.”

Healthy shoulder aside, the end of Wallace's college career is now out over the horizon, and that knowledge has also been a powerful motivator. Wallace enters his senior season more focused than he's ever been.

"It’s crazy," Wallace said. "You see your last year coming and you see your goals that you want to accomplish. You kind of self-reflect and look at things in the past that may have held you back from those things. For me, it was self-reflection and looking at what I want to accomplish and what I want to be remembered for. There were some things that I needed to cut out and grow up with, and that’s what the difference has been.”

The record books will already remember Bo Wallace as a great Ole Miss quarterback, but this year Wallace has the chance to go down as one of the greatest. He even has a chance to surpass Eli Manning's in parts of the Ole Miss record books. Wallace acknowledges that those statistics are important to him, but there's one record in particular the golden haired Tennessean has his eye on. 

"One thing that no quarterback has ever done here is win an SEC Championship (Game)," Wallace said. "I want to be the first one to do that, and that’s the most important thing to me.”

That would be a big thing.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Ross Bjork Construction Tour

CHALLENGE: Watch without thinking "wow" at some point in the video. You can't do it. The Ole Miss Athletics facilities are amazing.

Freeze Names Freshmen Likely to Play

After a long hot August of camp Hugh Freeze finally has a good feel for which freshmen he expects to play this season, and that list is shorter than in recent years:

Rod Taylor. Taylor will see snaps as a guard behind Justin Bell.

Marquis Haynes. Haynes has drawn more praise than any other freshman for his speed at the defensive line position. Expectations are high that Haynes will help the Rebels in the quarterback sack statistics almost immediately.

C.J. Hampton. Hampton was one of the most prized members of the 2014 class. Ole Miss won a hotly contested recruiting battle with Alabama to get him to Oxford. Like Haynes, Hampton enrolled early, and those extra snaps in spring have him ready to spell Cody Prewitt at safety.

The Moore Twins. A.J. and C.J. brothers will play on every special team. A.J. will also be the backup huskie. Mike Hilton will primarily play corner, which allows A.J. to back Tony Conner up at huskie. Freeze said he thinks A.J. is ready to go, and has been open in his admiration for the Moore's athleticism since last signing day.

DeMarquis Gates. Gates has impressed with his size and speed at linebacker.

Kendarius Webster. The coaches like Webster's size and ability at corner.

Markell Pack. Freeze expects the talented 4-star receiver to play this year. Maybe not Thursday night, but soon, depending on how the game goes Thursday.

Freshmen not mentioned, including standouts from the signing class like defensive ends Victor Evans and Breeland Speaks and wide receiver Dayall Harris and others are looking at possible red shirts. A year or two ago these guys would have probably played, but the fact is that Ole Miss is a much deeper football team than it was in the first years of Freeze's tenure. More experience on the roster makes it harder for freshmen to earn immediate playing time. It's a good problem to have, but probably not the easiest conversation between head coach and a player with aspirations of playing immediately.

“Those are the conversations you have to have with them," Freeze said. "They all want to play. When you sit down and explain to them the benefits of redshirting, most understand it. This circus around recruiting now and the social media and everything that builds these kids up to be something so, so phenomenal - they are good players, but when they get to the real world of this level of football, there are also a lot of good players here. We hope that continues to where we don’t have to play as many. Academically it is something that can be very beneficial to those young men. And physically. When you’re playing with a number of seniors that are now fifth-year seniors that are now 22, 23 years old, that’s a different ball game and they’re much more mature. It’s not the easiest thing for them to initially embrace. There may be more that we have to play. Breeland Speaks is going to be a great player. You want to do right by the kid. If we end up staying healthy there and he ends up having four years remaining, it may be the best for him. He’s traveling because you never know what’s going to happen with those trench guys. It’s a conversation we have openly with them to let them know where we are. We’ve had C.J. Moore who we’ve debated on. We were planning on redshirting him, then Carlos goes down, who was our best special teams cover guy. We think he can fill that role. We had the conversation with him and his dad just to see how they felt and let them have a couple days to mull it over, knowing that they may not play a lot on defense unless there are some injuries. You’ll play them every special team. He wants to play with his brother. We’re going to play him.”

Ole Miss Prepares for the Unknown

In the modern era of major college football preparation is everything. Coaches watch hour after hour of game film of upcoming opponents, learning their plays, looking for tendencies, and hoping to find weaknesses to create the perfect match-ups in this life-size chess game on turf that we call football. 

But film has been hard to come by on Boise State. The Broncos haven't played a game under new head coach Bryan Harsin or their coordinators, and Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze admits the unknowns have him more anxious than usual.

“It’s been the hardest game for me to prepare for that I remember," Freeze said. "I’ve had to do this one other time, but when you opened up you didn’t have new coordinators and you had some common opponents and people you could call. In this case, it really hasn’t been that way. It has been rather difficult to pinpoint our first down calls."

The problem of scouting Boise State is compounded by the fact that they're from across the continent. The Rebels don't share common opponents, and the coaching circles don't intersect. There are no coaching buddies to call. So the Ole Miss coaches find themselves in the uncomfortable position of making educated guesses as to what the Rebels might see by looking at film of what the Boise State coaches ran at other schools with other players against other teams. Not the best scouting technique, but it's all the Rebels have to go on with neither team having played a game yet this year. The most reliable scouting won't happen until after kickoff. 

"It will take some adjustment as the game goes on to find out kind of how they want to play us," Freeze said. "It’s not the easiest thing. From our defensive side, it might be a bit easier, but it’s still not as comfortable as you would like for it to be. Coach Harsin has been an offensive guy so you would think that it will have his flavor to it, also. His coordinator is coming from Stanford. You would think you would have a mixture of that. We’ve tried to prepare for all of that. It is a bit more difficult than if a staff was returning for sure.”

So how does an offense plan for the unknown? It sounds like Freeze will use the always reliable KISS method. 

“You don’t want to call plays that don’t have a good chance of succeeding," Freeze said. "We’ll have some grade plays, which to us those are go-to plays regardless of what they’re in. Those will try to win first down and get them into some tempo. It does weigh on your mind. How fast you really want to go until you figure out what they’re doing? We’ll get a feel for them. We definitely want to get into tempo. We’ll have those calls that we feel good about and that are good, sound things against whatever they’re doing. Hopefully we’ll get some of those called early and have some success in rhythm.”

Monday, August 25, 2014

Scouting Boise State

On Thursday Ole Miss will face a Boise State team hungry to prove 2013 was a blip. 

From 2006 to 2012 the Broncos were nothing short of a BCS-busting juggernaut under head coach Chris Petersen, annually winning 10 games or more, including trips to the Fiesta Bowl in 2006 and 2009, and playing spoiler to BCS Conference foes like Oregon, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma and Georgia. But in 2013 the Broncos finished an uncharacteristic 8-5 (6-2 Mountain West), after which Petersen accepted the head coaching job at Washington. 

Boise State went to NCAA coaching incubator Arkansas State to pick Bryan Harsin, who followed the one and done footsteps of Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn in accepting the job in Boise. 

This is the first year since 2008 that Boise State isn't preseason ranked in either the AP Poll or the Amway Coaches Poll. Harsin was a member of the Boise State coaching staff from 2001-2010 and a part of the teams that took residency in the Top 10. He has seen the recipe for success in Idaho firsthand and is eager to lead the Broncos back to its role as a thorn in the side of the Power Five. 

A nationally televised win over upstart and 18th ranked Ole Miss would be a great first step. 

The Broncos aren't strangers to nationally televised season openers or the Georgia Dome. Thursday marks Boise State's 6th straight season opening marquee game. The Broncos beat Oregon in 2009, Virginia Tech in 2010 and Georgia in Chick-fil-a Kickoff Game in 2011. Since then the Broncos have lost consecutive openers to Michigan State and Washington. Those losses were the beginnings of Boise State's recent setback. A win against the Rebels would send the signal that the Broncos are back.

Offensive Leaders
Senior quarterback Grant Hedrick started five of 13 games in 2013, throwing for 1,825 yards and 16 touchdowns, including a 382-yard performance against Oregon State in the 2013 Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl.

Running back Jay Ajayi (6-0, 216 pounds) rushed for 1,425 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2013. Ajayi averages 5.96 yards per carry in his two years at Boise State. 

Wide receiver Matt Miller (6-3, 225 pounds) is one of the nation's stop receivers statistically. He has 2,588 yards and 26 touchdowns in his previous three seasons, including at least one catch in 39 consecutive games, the longest such streak in the country. Miller had a season-high 206 yards receiving in the 2013 Hawai'i Bowl. 

Defensive Leaders
Cornerback Donte Deayon (5-9, 152 pounds) led the Broncos with 6 interceptions and 9 pass breakups in 2013. 

Senior Jeremy Ioane (5-10, 192 pounds) is a Jim Thorpe Award candidate, and started against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in 2011 as a true freshman.

Comparing the 2013 Numbers
Boise State averaged 476 yards per game in 2013. Ole Miss averaged 473 yards per game. 

The Broncos rushed for 198 yards per game. Ole Miss averaged 190 yards per game. 

Boise State passed for 277 yards per game. The Rebels averaged 283 yards per game. 

Boise State's defense allowed 413 yards per game. Ole Miss allowed 370.

Possible Weakness?
Boise State returns just two starters on its offensive line, which should create an opportunity for the Ole Miss defensive line to create pressure on the quarterback and control the line of scrimmage.