September 24, 2009

Ole Miss - Carolina match-up preview

The match-up: This game will be the 15th meeting between Ole Miss and South Carolina dating back to 1947, and the sixth since the Gamecocks joined the SEC in 1992. The Rebels lead the series 8-6 and had won five straight meetings until South Carolina defeated the Rebels 31-24 last season in Oxford. Ole Miss has won four of the five SEC meetings: 30-28 at Oxford in 1998, 36-10 in 1999 at Columbia, 43-40 in Oxford in 2003 and 31-28 in Columbia in 2004, which was the last encounter at Carolina. The Rebels have won four straight in Williams-Brice Stadium and have a 4-3 all-time mark in Columbia.

At Stake: The obvious is that a win is needed to keep a No. 4 ranking in the polls. But this game is the biggest transition game of the season - either the Rebels come out with a win, no matter how close - or they prove many critics right, who say Ole Miss is overrated. A loss here is huge in any plans for a December trip to Atlanta. A win takes Ole Miss from potential pretender to contender for the SEC West Division and beyond.

Keys to the Game: 1) Defense, defense, defense. There's been questionable areas as far as offensive production and efficiency, but overall the defense has looked good, with a few exceptions. Ole Miss gave up over 400 yards to South Carolina last year and that can't be allowed on Thursday and have the expectation to win. 2) Turnovers. Jevan Snead's fumble that was returned for a touchdown swung the momentum and ultimately the game to Carolina last year, and the Rebels can't turn the ball over the way it did against Memphis and Southeastern Louisiana and expect to win. 3) Take advantage of Carolina's special teams play. Some changes have been made to Carolina's special teams after Georgia ran wild on kick returns two weeks ago, but this is an area where Ole Miss needs to get the advantage by shutting down the Gamecocks while getting production out of the return specialists.

Ole Miss rushing versus the South Carolina ground defense: One constant with Houston Nutt, both at Arkansas and at Ole Miss, is that he always finds a way to run the football. With several new faces on the offensive line, successfully running the football will be key for Ole Miss. Ole Miss enters the game ranked at No. 21 in rushing offensive, averaging 216 yards a game. Whether that stat is inflated due to playing a non-BCS team (Memphis) and a Division I-AA team remains to be seen. Ole Miss will face a South Carolina team that is No. 26 in rushing defense, giving up only about 87 yards a game. However, the South Carolina defense is banged up and any loss of key players during the game could change this game from one that is expected to be close to one where Ole Miss dominates. While there's a long list of injured Carolina players, most are expected to be on the field and with nine days off before the next game, expect Carolina to keep most starters on the field throughout the night. That, coupled with Ole Miss' new linemen going against a quality SEC opponent for the first time points to this match-up being too close to call. If the Rebels have an advantage here, it'll be in the fourth quarter as depth and injuries impact the Gamecocks.

Advantage: Even

Ole Miss passing versus the South Carolina secondary: South Carolina lost several players on defense last year, and if Ole Miss doesn't have the advantage here, it won't be because of Jevan Snead, who both Nutt and offensive coordinator Kent Austin complimented for throwing the ball better in his last game. Still, Snead didn't put up the gaudy numbers expected in his first two games against lower quality opponents. New offensive linemen, the lack of a deep threat, dropped balls, and some miscues on Snead's own behalf have prevented him from having a huge day passing. Ole Miss is No. 72 in passing offense, throwing for about 208 yards a game. If the Rebels can get the run game going, it'll make Snead and his receivers much more effective. Snead is still in search of a go-to receiver, and true freshman Patrick Patterson could emerge as that receiver after having a four-catch game against SELA. The lack of a deep threat still plagues Ole Miss. South Carolina is No. 23 in pass defense, giving up just 162 yards a game. If the Rebels have an advantage on offense, it should be because of Snead - if his offensive line gives him protection and his receivers come through.

Advantage: Ole Miss

South Carolina rushing versus the Ole Miss ground defense: Gamecock head coach Steve Spurrier entered the season wanting to get his running game going and so far it's worked. South Carolina is averaging almost 170 yards a game, good for No. 44 ranking. However, those numbers have come against a terrible Georgia defense and a non-BCS opponent. The defensive front was to be Ole Miss' strength, but it started the season giving up 150 yards to a mediocre Memphis team. Both Memphis and SELA spread the Rebels out and took advantage of running lanes. That probably hasn't gone unnoticed by Spurrier and it wouldn't be surprising to see him run the football from some three or four wide receiver sets. Despite the Memphis showing, Ole Miss is No. 48 in rushing defensive, giving up 116 yards a game. All-American defensive end Greg Hardy will return, but be in limited role after falling victim to a chop block against Memphis that resulted in an ankle sprain. He was generally ineffective the remainder of that game and didn't dress last week. He'll probably only be on the field in passing situations and it'll be up to the Rebel front seven to limit Carolina's rushing game, which includes true freshman Jarvis Giles - a four star recruit that Ole Miss recruited heavily - who is a homerun threat every time he touches the ball.

Advantage: Even

Advantage: EvenSouth Carolina passing versus the Ole Miss secondary: While the Rebels don't have the impressive stats that show they can stuff an opponent's running game, one thing they have done is put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. If Ole Miss gets the pressure on Stephen Garcia that they had on Memphis and Southeastern Louisiana quarterbacks, it could be a long night for Garcia. However, Garcia probably has the best running skills and escapability of any quarterback Ole Miss has faced so far and there have been several occasions of Ole Miss defenders waving instead of tackling when a quarterback leaves the pocket under pressure that suggest Garcia could have some running success. South Carolina enters the game throwing for 230 yards a game that puts them at No. 51 in passing offense. The Rebels are ranked No. 35 in pass defense, giving up about 175 yards a game through the air. That solid rating is a product of pressure by the defensive line as well as improved secondary play. Ole Miss was riddled for over 300 yards through the air by Carolina last year and that was accomplished by quick passes to offset the Rebels' rush along with inadequate pass defense and poor tackling. Ole Miss will have to avoid those mistakes while going against an improving Garcia who is better than the quarterback that threw for over 300 yards against them last year.

Advantage: Even

Special Teams: While special teams has been a point of contention for South Carolina all year with some long returns given up, Ole Miss had its own set of problems last week with two fumbles on punt returns and a 25 yard per kick average on punts. Punter Justin Sparks had a solid day against Memphis but had multiple shanks against SELA and one or two of those tonight against South Carolina likely will result in the redshirt being taken off of Tyler Campbell - who may be the better punter anyway. Marshay Green attributed his fumbles to a lack of concentration and a left footed punter, both situations that are easily correctable. South Carolina appears solid in all aspects of special teams except return defense - and Ole Miss will look to dominate field position by continuing to exploit that potential weakness.

Advantage: Ole Miss

Weather forecast: Isolated thunderstorms during the evening hours. Skies will become partly cloudy overnight. Low near 70F. Winds light and variable. Chance of rain 30%.

Broadcast information: TV: ESPN (Chris Fowler, play-by-play; Craig James, analyst; Jesse Palmer, analyst; Erin Andrews, sideline reporter). The game will also be available on ESPN GamePlan. RADIO: Ole Miss Radio Network (David Kellum, play-by-play; Harry Harrison, analyst; Stan Sandroni, sideline reporter). Satellite Radio: XM 199, Sirius 219. The game will also be streamed online at

Prediction: Ole Miss 31 - South Carolina 30

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