The first of back-to-back crucial games for eighth-ranked Missouri, the Tigers must win out to clinch the SEC East and play in Atlanta. Ole Miss, riding a four-game winning streak, finishes out a six-game homestand trying to move up from the middle of the pack in a bowl eligible-heavy West.
Here’s what to watch for Saturday under the lights in Oxford:
Return of James Franklin: Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said Monday that his senior quarterback was “100 percent cleared” this week in preparation for the Rebels, returning to play after missing his last four starts with a sprained shoulder suffered at Georgia. The offense has been steady under Maty Mauk in Franklin’s absence but the multi-year starter has a comfort level in the spread few players on the Tigers’ roster possess. Franklin’s a more reliable zone read option, but in four starts, Pinkel can’t complain with Mauk’s production — 11 touchdowns and 1,087 yards of offense. A quarterback switch often knocks an offense out of rhythm this late in the season, but Franklin’s had more than enough snaps to keep Mizzou’s high-octane attack afloat and perhaps, give it an additional boost.
SEC’s most underrated team: Ole Miss is a three-point underdog to a one-loss Top 10 meaning the Vegas oddsmakers respect the Rebels and how they play at Vaught-Hemingway. Ole Miss is 5-1 in Oxford this season with a quality win over LSU and a walk-off field goal loss to Texas A&M. The Rebels are the only three-loss team in college football that’s suffered all their defeats against current or eventual Top 10s. An eight-point loss at Auburn on Oct. 5 wasn’t impressive at the time, but those Tigers haven’t lost since and are currently one game back of Alabama in the West. Hugh Freeze is quietly building a monster that could be unleashed as early as next season.
Who sticks Dorial Green-Beckham?: Every team has tried and some have failed. Defending Mizzou’s 6-foot-6 Megatron lite will be of utmost important for an Ole Miss defense that’s allowed the third-fewest touchdown passes (9) in the SEC this season. His four-catch, 58-yard per game average seems minuscule, but his presence on the field and command of multiple defenders has paved the way for big seasons from L’Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas in the Mizzou receiving corps. Cody Prewitt’s ballhawk skills will be on display over the middle when Franklin looks for his biggest target. Prewitt leads the Rebels with four interceptions. DGB is hobbling from a high ankle sprain suffered during his four-touchdown game at Kentucky, but is not expected to be limited this weekend.
First-half production key: These two offenses heat up early, outscoring opponents a combined 203-83 in the first quarters of games this season. Fresh legs certainly help speed-driven, uptempo game plans and each team has weapons on the outside and in the backfield. Mizzou’s made its money with second-quarter scoring drives that deflate opposing teams heading into the locker room. At Georgia, the Tigers engineered a 21-point frame capped off by Michael Sam’s scoop-and-score that shocked a soldout crowd in Athens. Against Kentucky, Mauk threw two touchdown passes while Henry Josey ran for another in the second during the Tigers’ dismantling of the Wildcats. The Tigers have the SEC’s worst defense against the pass (274.9 YPG) despite a conference-leading 17 interceptions and if Ole Miss scores a couple touchdowns early, the pressure will be on Mizzou playing catch-up on the road.
Players to watch:
Jeff Scott, ATH, Ole Miss: After missing the last three games with a bone spur, the Rebels’ lightning bug in the backfield returned last week with an 11-carry, 54-yard effort against Troy. Scott’s played in seven games this season and has only been stopped behind the line of scrimmage twice over 64 attempts. When there’s a crease, Scott moves the chains and is tough to grab in space. He’s a playmaker on special teams too and already has a 73-yard punt return for a score this season.
Kony Ealy, DL, Mizzou: Sam gets most of the attention in the front seven and rightfully so with 16 tackles-for-loss and 10 sacks, but it’s Ealy who has arguably been Mizzou’s most productive defender in passing situations. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound quarterback hound is tied for the team lead with five pass breakups, second in sacks (6.5) and first in hurries (13). The redshirt junior is agile and massive with tremendous upside. He’ll be a factor in disrupting Ole Miss’ zone read-heavy scheme.